Annie Tempest has been drawing Tottering-by-Gently cartoon in Country Life for 25 years. She spoke to Clive Aslet – the editor who first employed her for the magazine – on why the strip based on her family home has gone global.
Norfolk has many barns, but it’s easy to see which one Annie Tempest has chosen as her home: there’s a large white face peering from a hedge – it’s above an archway and two white hands are positioned, far apart, to either side of it, as if a ghost with long arms and no body was about to burst through. A huge sculpted head stands by the path to the front door.
This is a special year for Tottering-by-Gently, Annie’s cartoon strip, but don’t think that cartoons are all she does: she’s endlessly creative – the two acres of garden are in a constant state of reinvention and, six years ago, she discovered sculpture and has been going at it with a will.
And there’s Tottering. The editor of the day may have been hesitant to surrender part of his back page to cartoon (I know he was because, dear reader, that editor was me). Country Life had never had one before; Tottering, which parodied the life of its readers with a soft but accurate touch, seemed a bit close to the bone.
Just look at it now. It isn’t only a much-loved element of this magazine, but a phenomenon. Dickie, Daffy, Slobber and Mrs Shagpile, plus children, grandchildren and sundry horses, have become as familiar as the characters drawn by John Leech for Surtees or George Cruikshank for Dickens.
They’re on greetings cards, aprons, linen, jigsaws, teapots, Champagne, chocolate boxes – there are more than 20 licences – and, this summer, the ultimate accolade: David Austin will launch a Tottering-by-Gently rose at Chelsea Flower Show.
Nothing could be more English than the Tottering lifestyle, the background to which is a crumbling country house – she gardens, he shoots, they’re surrounded by animals – yet it’s gone global. Admirers aren’t only to be found in the Anglophone world, but in Mexico City and Beijing.
When Annie first came into my office 25 years ago, she was accompanied by her friend and neighbour Kit Hesketh-Harvey, one of the wittiest lyricists in the country, and it seemed that an ideal partnership had been born.
Kit’s place as scriptwriter was later taken by Angus James, but it wasn’t long before Annie found she was happier working alone. ‘Tottering doesn’t depend on jokes,’ she muses.
‘It’s observational. Anything too clever doesn’t work.’
Originally, fieldsports were a staple subject, as anyone would expect of the context. Over the years, however, the ground has shifted. ‘I’d be surprised if shooting features now in more than one in 10 strips,’ Annie points out.
‘They’re about the relationships between the sexes, between the generations – young people on their screens, an older generation struggling with technology, but able to surprise the youngsters with their practical wisdom.
‘These things are universal. That’s why Tottering has gone around the world.’
There are two other reasons, I think. One is Annie herself. Born in Zambia, she still has the colonial’s self-reliance, as well as an indefatigable drive. Obstacles that would defeat a less energetic person are scattered like ninepins.
She was in her early twenties when she first decided to draw cartoons – until then, she had hardly drawn anything. Annie worked as a medical secretary, but cartooning spoke to her and she noticed a correspondence course in Private Eye. After the six lessons, she turned to the ‘how to draw’ books in her local library.
One of her first works was a poster illustrating the symptoms of diabetes. By 1984, there was enough for a book of her work under the title How Green are Your Wellies. From this progressed ‘The Yuppies’ strip for the Daily Mail, which lasted for seven and a half years, until 1993.
‘Yuppies were a thing of the 1980s,’ admits Annie, ‘but with a baby son, a daughter on the way and a husband who was a composer, I needed the income, so I thought of my childhood at Broughton Hall.’ There’s a lot of her parents in Dicky and Daffy.
The other explanation of Tottering’s rise is Ray O’Shea. Until the early 1990s, he was an antiquarian map and print dealer, president of the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) and chairman of the Grosvenor House and BADA fairs.
His life changed when he won a subscription to Country Life; 18 months later, he opened his first Tottering-by-Gently exhibition, followed by others in gentleman’s clubs, London gunsmiths, the 7th Armory in New York and a deluxe stationers in Virginia.
The first Tottering book appeared in 1996; there are now 18 titles in the library. Norfolk now being Tottering central, Ray divides his time between Chelsea and a cottage that’s attached to the barn conversion housing Annie’s studios and home.
There are two studios: one for Tottering and one for sculpture. The latter has been pursued with the same determination as her cartoons.
Annie has been attending anatomy classes, studying moulage, seeing (literally) beneath the skin. Her subjects are often shown in movement, in poses that work equally well when hung on wires or placed, at a variety of angles, on a desk. When the figures come to be cast in bronze, it’s Annie who makes the moulds.
At Broughton Hall, now run by her brother Roger as a wellbeing and business centre and wedding venue, as well as a family home, Annie has been learning a new set of skills and applying them to what she calls the family brand.
Casts have been taken of the Tempest crest – a griffin – from butler’s buttons and Paul Storr tureens, resized and made into tiebacks, backgammon ‘men’ and lavatory pulls. ‘I’m a workaholic,’ she says happily. ‘So’s Ray.’
Does the revival of Broughton, which is now not merely watertight but luxurious, spell the end for Tottering-by-Gently? After all, luxury isn’t as funny as dilapidation.
Breathe easily, fans of Daffy and Annie: Tottering Hall is like the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, set in an indeterminate time, which, in the author’s case, was strongly flavoured by his 1890s childhood, when aunts were aunts. May the sun forever shine on the world of Annie’s imagination and may the roof forever leak!
- Visitors to Tottering Studios are welcome by appointment (01342 826983; http://tottering.com. To find out more about Broughton Hall, telephone 01756 799608 or visit www.broughtonhall.co.uk.
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