Few political cartoonists have received the questionable honour of being accused of treason by the Sun. Hounded for his criticism of the conflict in the Falklands, Les Gibbard’s response to the tabloid showed both the sting and the self-restraint that was typical of his best work: ‘My attitude was that he who lived by the sword had to expect to run into a few pricks.’
Originally born in New Zealand in 1945, Gibbard began his career as a trainee reporter for a local newspaper at the age of 16, sketching town council meetings in his spare time and studying the work of the esteemed wartime cartoonists David Low and Philip Zec.
After moving to the UK in 1967, he worked briefly as a freelance caricaturist before joining the Guardian team in 1969, taking over the role of the fatigued Bill Papas as political cartoonist, the youngest such appointment the newspaper had ever made.
At the time, the Guardian stood as something of a champion for cartoon work, in Gibbard’s words a ‘dream shop window’ offering artists prime editorial real estate on the front and back pages and working with them to produce sketches of unusual shapes and sizes.
A testament to Gibbard’s immense skill, he worked extremely quickly, often producing multiple sketches for editors to choose from and frequently at the last minute so as to offer the most up to date commentary to current events.
As well as his cartoon work, which featured in the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard amongst others and earned him the eminent status of Margaret Thatcher’s bête noire, Gibbard attended classes on animation in the 1970s, leading to his own animated political series ‘Newshound’.In the mid to late ‘80s he developed further television work for Channel 4’s ‘A Week in Politics’ and the BBC’s ‘On the Record’, later lending his hand to children’s TV projects including an animated ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and the Oscar-nominated ‘Famous Fred’.
After the recent and extraordinary changes to the political climate in the UK, looking back at Gibbard’s cartoons offers a new perspective on current circumstances, as well as throwing up striking parallels between events past and present.
Though Gibbard is known principally for his skewering of ‘Milk Snatcher’ Thatcher, in light of the recent revelations surrounding the Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, his sketches of Tony Blair searching for WMDs alongside George Bush have acquired a whole new significance some 10 or more years after their debut in the national papers.
As is often the case with caricaturists, underlying Gibbard’s drawings was a masterful draughtsmanship, honed from early childhood when his mother encouraged him to draw all scenes that surrounded him. Bold and unabashed in his depictions of political figures, the character conjured in so few strokes and lines are evidence of his total command of the medium.
While Gibbard’s lampooning did not always endear him to Westminster, several politicians – often those at the other end of his barbs – have commented over the years on their enjoyment of his work. To Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, Gibbard was by far the best political cartoonist of our day, his sketches barbed without malice, according to Ken Clarke, and to Robin Cook [his] cartoons provide the reader with more insight into politics than they would get from whole shelves of ‘Hansard’. I look at his cartoons and wish I had thought of them as a joke for my next speech. From a politician there can be no higher praise. He has often disturbed my morning Tube train by making me laugh out loud.
(above) ‘Crystal Balls!’; (below) a self-portrait of the cartoonist at work
Gibbard died in 2010 after undergoing surgery, leaving behind him a wealth of political commentary and mockery. Sketches and drawings pictured here represent the sheer breadth of topics Gibbard covered in his time, from Miners’ Strikes to the Hutton inquiry, and his prolonged ability to serve up incisive comment with wit and originality.