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Interview: Robert Duncan, cartoonist

09 June 2023

‘I never do caricatures. I find that the more accurate I am, the more insulted people become’

I’ve always loved to draw, ever since I could pick up a pen. Since I’ve never been any good at sport, and could have been labelled as a weakling or worse, I realised I was in trouble. So, the way out was humour, and that meant cartoons. I draw every day.

Yes, I do other art. I’ve done a lot of oil paintings — quite serious stuff at times. There’s a bit on my website called “Seriously, though”, and another section is called “My big ones”.

And I’ve done quite a lot of scenery for the local theatre in the past 40 years. I’m really quite proud of this. I never use anything smaller than a four-inch brush, and it’s all to do with light and shade. Sometimes, you don’t know what it’s going to look like if it’s, say, 12 feet by 15 feet across; and, if it’s not right, you’ve got to have a mechanism to get out of it somehow. If you’re doing interiors of kitchens, and it’s not big enough, you put in another cupboard or a plate rack or a dodgy-looking pie dripping over the counter, that sort of thing. If I’m doing a wood with a castle in the background, I’ll create a little splodge of white, so that it looks shining and twinkling. I’m pretty old now; so I’m not clambering up ladders any more, but I still work on scenery for them.

Developing a recognisable, consistent style for cartoons and illustrations comes with experience. I was quite a seasoned cartoonist when I did the Once Upon a World drawings to illustrate the Bible in 1976.

A few years after Once Upon a World first came out, it was recorded in its entirety by John Le Mesurier for the Rank Organisation, as a double cassette. He did it beautifully, and the Rank Organisation provided the sound effects from their films, like the sound of the Red Sea parting, from The Greatest Story Ever Told. I bought the rights, had it remastered, and turned it into a double CD.

I spend a lot of time at conferences, where I sit under camera and make up gags about the topics. I draw at my normal pace, and then the film is speeded up to fit the soundtrack, but I don’t usually spend time pencilling, unless it’s something very complicated. I can draw, knowing before I start what it’s going to look like and how it will fall on the page.

I’ve done them for Tesco, computer companies, Coutts Bank, several for the BBC for training, quite a lot of medical things. Last week, Continental Tyres; tomorrow, Cornish Bakery, who have loads of coffee-house branches throughout the country.

On my website or YouTube, you’ll find The Jumblies: an animation which won lots of awards. You’ll find loads of my speed-draw films, and an animated version of the Adam and Eve story with my drawings and John Le Mesurier’s voice, all in colour and quite exciting. Yes, my speed drawing has given me several memorable Pictionary successes.

I’m making a speech about my work for the U3A; and one of the five named cartoonists I admire and I’m going to talk about is Fougasse. Others include Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

I like Fougasse for his simplicity. He was English, you know, but he called himself by the name of a bomb which blew his leg off in the First World War.

I’m not very keen on complicated cartoons with shading worked up till it looks like a photo, when you can get the message over in a few lines. Early Punch cartoons were incredibly complicated major bits of artwork, whereas Matt, in The Daily Telegraph, just hits it right on the button every time.

I like E. H. Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh, and Ronald Searle: I adore Down with Skool. I met him once. He was a bit of a hero: used to draw pictures in his blood in his PoW camp. In his last years, he shared a bottle of champagne with his wife every lunchtime. And then Andy Capp. . . I don’t know what happened to Reg Smythe, but Andy Capp was syndicated; so you could pick up his cartoons in papers worldwide.

I never do caricatures. I find that the more accurate I am, the more insulted people become. I do cartoons for company work days, and my clients seem to love seeing themselves as I see them at work. I’m always on the ball, but never cruel.

Like everything, the more you do it, the easier it gets; so I don’t run out of inspiration. My mind works that way.

The inspiration for illustrating the Bible came from the incredibly illustrative stories themselves: arks, chariots of fire, walls falling down. . .

I imagine the pictures pretty completely before I start them. Chariot of fire, it’s up in the air: something’s got to be below; so you might as well have Elisha watching him off. Pharaoh and all the frogs — drove me mad, drawing all those frogs, him leaning on the edge of the palace, looking in dismay at what’s going on. My mother was slightly concerned, but on first printing she couldn’t get hold of enough copies to send to her friends.

My mother was very religious. I went to church every Sunday and every day at public school, and I was in the church choir in Pinner. I like churchpeople, and believe it is a route to good.

I had an idyllic childhood, ruined only by going to boarding schools from the age of eight, and a public school that I only realised the benefit of later.

Selfishness, cruelty — the usual stuff makes me angry.

I’m happiest when I’m with my wife and our boys — hopefully, doing nothing.

I most often pray for my family.

I was recently at Auschwitz. My hope is that mankind has learned from that disgrace. But I have a feeling that it hasn’t.

I’m hoping that Once Upon a World will sell again nicely. If nothing else, it pipes up faith and goodness: nothing wrong with that. If you can get that into children, then there’s maybe the tiniest, tiniest morsel of hope.

If I could be locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose to have John Lennon. Is that too trite? He was my all-time hero.

Robert Duncan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Once Upon a World is republished by SPCK at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.19); 978-0-745-97993-9.

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