My favourite painting: Helen Oxenbury picks a piece by ‘the funniest cartoonist in the world’

'Giles championed the ordinary, which proved an inexhaustible source of inspiration'

‘George’ I said, ‘Christmas Eve. What better time to ask our new neighbours round for a drink and meet Mummy’, 1974, by Ronald ‘Carl’ Giles (1916-95), 93⁄4in by 6½in, Daily Express. Credit: British Cartoon Archive

Helen Oxenbury says:

Giles championed the ordinary, which proved an inexhaustible source of inspiration. His drawings of streets and unlovely countryside, usually in the pouring rain, are so familiar, as are his characters – grumpy but resigned farmers and fishermen; I know them all.

My childhood was spent in Suffolk, where he lived and worked. He managed to get to the essence of what makes people instantly recognisable, whether they be American airmen stationed in Suffolk, dreaded teachers (Chalkie), politicians, or, of course, the wonderfully chaotic Giles family.

I particularly admire his ease with perspective and vehicles and his understanding of the Suffolk landscape. Most of all, he had a talent for observing human nature in a funny and humane way.

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Helen Oxenbury is an illustrator and writer of children’s books, best known for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

John McEwen comments on Giles cartoon from the 29th Annual, 1974, by Ronald ‘Carl’ Giles:

‘I think Giles is the funniest cartoonist in the world,’ wrote Tommy Cooper in his foreword to the 29th Giles Annual (1974–5), in which this Christmas celebration appeared. Giles cartoons were topical but dateless, as his best-selling annuals proved. He was ‘a spreader of happiness,’ wrote John Jordan, his first Express editor. For half a century, Giles provided a weekly cartoon for the Sunday Express and two for the Daily Express.

Giles was born in Islington, the son of a tobacconist and a farmer’s daughter. His preferred first name Carl derived from his nickname Karlo, after horror-film star Boris Karloff. He left school at 14 and was a stable lad and pavement artist before landing an animator’s job with a Soho cartoon-film company, where he contributed to The Fox Hunt, Britain’s first full-length sound cartoon film in colour.

Following a serious motorbike accident in 1937, he became a newspaper cartoonist with Reynold’s News and joined the Sunday Express in 1943. As a ‘war correspondent cartoonist’ for the Daily Express, he witnessed the horror of Bergen-Belsen and found the camp commandant was a fan. In return for his weaponry and swastika badge Giles promised an original drawing, delivery thankfully prevented by the man’s execution. Nazis were the main butt of his wartime cartoons, but he drew nothing at Bergen-Belsen.

By 1955, Giles was Britain’s highest-paid cartoonist, earning today’s equivalent of £140,000 a year. He received the OBE in 1959 and bought a farm in East Anglia. His last cartoon appeared in the Sunday Express in 1991. Only snobbery denies Giles and his humorous peers artistic classification.