Showcase for half a century of work by cartoonist Giles

PUBLISHED: 15:01 11 December 2008 | UPDATED: 15:41 07 September 2010

BY ALISON OLDHAM My childhood memories of Christmas tend to be bleak – my father hurling a suitcase of presents at us in a temper tantrum – or bizarre – my mother s nylon wig frizzling up as she bent into the oven to baste the turkey. But there was always an hour or more

My childhood memories of Christmas tend to be bleak - my father hurling a suitcase of presents at us in a temper tantrum - or bizarre - my mother's nylon wig frizzling up as she bent into the oven to baste the turkey.

But there was always an hour or more of solitary bliss with the Giles annual - the collection of cartoons he produced yearly from 1946 to 1995. So I was delighted to discover there was to be an exhibition of Giles's original artwork, mostly for his Sunday and Daily Express cartoons, at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury - and equally delighted by a visit to it.

Giles's first name was Ronald but from his early teenage years he was known as Carl. In the animation studio where he then worked he was nicknamed Karlo because his unkempt short hair supposedly made him resemble the monster played by Boris Karloff in the 1932 film Frankenstein.

Giles was born above his father's tobacconist's shop in Islington in 1916. Outside it there was an eight-line tram junction whose noise he later vividly recalled, adding "Oh, and the smell, when you got a shower of rain on the dusty streets, and the smells came up like an orchestra, the trams and the oil on the rails and the electricity transformers. Lovely, lovely!"

His years at Barnsbury Park School, which he remembered as "a large red box in a square of asphalt" and depicted as a sort of prison for unruly inner-city children, gave him the character of the autocratic, skeletal teacher Mr Chalk or Chalky, who appeared in over 160 cartoons.

In reality he was William James Chalk MA, who taught the 12-year-old Giles. Both the character and its model were masters of sarcasm but whereas the former would relax by reading Hanging For Beginners, the latter was remembered fondly by Giles as having "a kind of warmth about him".

As the illuminating exhibition catalogue explains, the problem was that Mr Chalk had authority over Giles and exercised it blatantly. The cartoonist disliked authority in any form - army officers, traffic wardens, politicians - and spent his working life ridiculing those who claimed to have the power to order him about. As Giles admitted almost 60 years after entering Mr Chalk's class, "I vowed to get my own back, and I did."

Chalky even appeared as an emaciated and unappealing Father Christmas, but usually these were ordinary working people dressed up - mostly very reluctantly. His department-store Santas invariably hated children.

Though Giles deliberately perpetuated the romantic myth of Christmas as a time of deep snow and huge roast dinners, he often depicted it differently. He drew an embittered sandwich-board man sheltering under a bridge and declaring "If there's a thing I 'ate it's snow". And Giles himself once admitted that "one of my least favourite meals is Christmas lunch."

Giles: One of the Family is at The Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, WC1, until February 15. Tuesday to Saturday 10.30am to 5.30pm, Sunday noon to 5pm. £4, £3 concessions, free to students, under 18s and Friends. Catalogue £25.


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