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Obituary: Noel Ford

11 October 2019

A tribute to Church Times cartoonist Noel Ford by fellow cartoonist Pete Dredge and the Church Times Editor, Paul Handley

Noel Ford

A 2018 illustration for a comment piece about cathedral mission. See gallery for a selection of Noel’s work

A 2018 illustration for a comment piece about cathedral mission. See gallery for a selection of Noel’s work

Pete Dredge writes:

IT WAS with great shock and sadness that I learnt that the long-time Church Times cartoonist Noel Ford had died suddenly and unexpectedly on 27 September, after a return of the kidney cancer that was first diagnosed two years previously.

The news came only weeks after the passing of another distinguished Church Times cartoonist, Dave Gaskill (Gazette, 19 July). They were both friends and colleagues of mine, and will be sorely missed by family, friends, and the wider cartoonist community.

Noel was a modest chap, never one to blow his own trumpet. But he was someone who would go about his business with the supreme confidence of knowing that he was, and had been for many years, at the top of his game. At his peak, Noel was producing double-page spreads and cartoon front covers for Punch magazine with audacious regularity in the 1970s and ’80s.

Noel was born in Nuneaton on 22 December 1942. He displayed early signs of his future calling, drawing cartoons in chalk on the pavement outside the front door of the Ford family house. After he left school, it was at the Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts that Noel was given the much-repeated advice that we have all probably received: “Forget about any ambitions of becoming a cartoonist. You’ll never make a living that way.” The rest, as they say, is Noel Ford cartooning history.

Noel started working for the Church Times in 1989, having been selected by the editor, John Whale.

It’s pointless to list Noel’s professional credits: there are far too many to mention; but one of his many gifts was his ability to rally, organise, and deliver cartoonist-related projects. A professional cat-herder, if ever there was one.

I’ve seen at close hand Noel’s patient diplomacy, wisdom, and common sense work effectively on many occasions when others’ egos, intransigence, and misconceptions were causing horns to lock. All it would take were a few choice words from Noel to smooth over troubled waters. Take Noel out of the equation, and many initiatives would never have seen the light of day.

The Cartoonists’ Guild, the College of Cartoon Art, and, most successfully, the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation have all benefited hugely from Noel’s vision, perseverance, and professionalism. Added to this must be his invaluable committee work on the Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival and the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain, where he had only recently become chair. Noel had certainly put in much more than he took out with these extracurricular calls of duty.

Noel was irritatingly multitalented. He was not only a superb draughtsman, but a gifted musician, and a writer of children’s books. A great bon viveur, Noel relished good food, fine wines, and a good book, as well as country living, good company, dogs, and, above all, the love of his family and many friends.

I took a call from Noel only a couple of weeks before he died. He was ringing from his hospital bed, and asked if I could complete a cartoon for Christianity magazine. He couldn’t hold a pen and didn’t want to let the editor down.

I was at an ophthalmic veterinary practice at the time, with our dog, who had just undergone cataract surgery. Noel was more concerned with the welfare of Nelson, our chow-chow, than he was with his own well-being.

Rest in peace, old friend, and my sympathies go to his loving wife, Margaret, his daughter, Sara, and the rest of the family.


Paul Handley writes:

ONE of the delights of following John Whale as editor in 1995 was inheriting his talented stable of staff and contributors. John was a serious man, and when he assumed the editorship in 1989, he concluded that his weekly diary needed leavening with a cartoon. A painstaking trawl through the cartooning world led him to Noel Ford, a regular Punch contributor; and for five-and-a-half years Noel produced a weekly stand-alone cartoon of a generally ecclesiastical nature.

By the time I arrived, fresh straw for his bricks was in short supply. The solution was to bring him forward in the paper, and to let a news story provide the inspiration each week. It was hugely successful, not least because it reminded us that we needed to find a light-hearted news story, soon known as “a Noel” in the newsroom.

Noel worked faithfully for the Church Times for a few weeks short of 30 years. What readers might not appreciate was that this involved his producing not 1500 cartoons, but 6000. The deal was that he would produce four roughs each Tuesday, of which we would choose one.

Sometimes, the choice was easy. Noel could usually predict which we would go for. Mostly, though, it was a close call, and it is hard to think of the hundreds of perfectly good jokes that never made it into print, such was the quality of Noel’s output.

Then there were the comment-page cartoons, where Noel was joined by Dave Gaskill, Pete Dredge, and Bill Caldwell — all of whom were his recommendations. They took it in turn, and each had a particular charism. Noel’s was an ability to drag something out of even the most abstract topic, and his op-ed cartoons could be at times serious and pointed as well as comic.

He was someone who never let you down, even working around holidays, and so was distressed when the return of cancer affected the use of his arms and he had to call in sick. It was meant to be a short break, but in a few days he was taken into hospital, and died a little while later.

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