Henry Mayo (H. M.) Bateman (1887-1970) was perhaps the first caricaturist to portray people on the basis of what they were feeling rather than what they were doing. He had an acute eye for human frailty, pomposity, snobbery, suburban convention, embarrassment and suppressed frustration, which led to his supremely funny series captioned ‘The Man Who…’, including The Man Who Bid Half-a-Guinea at Tattersalls. These ‘Bateman situations’ would show the humiliated perpetrator squirming and shrinking, with onlookers aghast, their mouths exaggeratedly agape.
Encouraged by his mother, Bateman was first published at about 14 on a postcard, After the Match, signed ‘Binks’, his family nickname. His early cartoons and sketches appeared in comic papers such as Scraps, Chips and Comic Life, then The Royal, The Tatler and The Sketch. Depressed by his failure to join up in the First World War, he fled to Dartmoor-although from an urban background, he loved the countryside-but he was deemed to have done his bit for the war effort in making people laugh through his strip cartoons, the first of which was The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass in the British Museum (1916).
Some years before, following a nervous collapse around his 21st birthday, Bateman had a revelation about his work, describing it as when he ‘suddenly went mad on paper’. He was sketching two wrestlers when it occurred to him ‘to try to put the spirit of wrestling into a drawing without bothering a scrap about the correctness of how it was done’.
He described his new approach as ‘revelling in this new and powerful mode of expressing an idea that was dependent… upon the sheer spirit of the drawing itself. It didn’t seem to matter what the subject was, I had only to draw it in this way of getting inside, as it were, and feeling like it. I had really found my true métier’.
Bateman’s daughter, Diana Willis, was part of a group who founded the Cartoon Art Trust in 1988; in 2006, their aim of founding a museum of British cartoon art was realised.
‘The Man Who Went Mad On Paper’ is at the Cartoon Museum, 35, Little Russell Street, London WC1 (020-7580 8155; www.cartoonmuseum.org), until July 22. The catalogue is available to Country Life readers at £13.95, plus £4.95 p&p.
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