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Timothy Birdsall - the greatest cartoonist you’ve never heard of

A brilliant cartoonist’s all-too-brief flowering

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

Few people under the age of 65 will have heard of the cartoonist Timothy Birdsall, who died 50 years ago on 10 June 1963, having produced his finest work in the last months of his life here in The Spectator and  in Private Eye. But had his career not been cut cruelly short by leukaemia at the age of only 27, he would today be revered as one of the outstanding cartoonists of our time.

Tim was part of that talented late-1950s Cambridge generation, along with a galaxy of others later to become famous, from Peter Cook to Ian McKellen. On coming down in 1960 he was employed to do pocket cartoons for the Sunday Times, in the tradition that has led from Osbert Lancaster to Matt. But it was in his final months that his career blossomed, first when in August 1962 he joined The Spectator, where his cartooning suddenly took on a wholly new depth and power; then when, that winter, he became a nationally known figure with his quirkily original weekly slot on the BBC’s groundbreaking satire show That Was the Week that Was.

January 1963 marked the start of a year that was to be like no other. In an almost non-stop welter of scandals and sensations, from Profumo to the rise of the Beatles, the ‘Old England’ symbolised by Harold Macmillan gave way to the new England of the ‘swinging Sixties’. With uncanny prescience, Tim ushered in that surreal year with a cartoon showing a bewildered little figure being terrified out of his wits by a gigantically grotesque Lord of Misrule, bedecked with slogans conveying the tidal wave of trivia with which he saw the nation being engulfed.

Week after week in these pages Tim satirised the sensations of that crazy time, as in his image of the C of E being laid waste by all that was represented by the trendy Bishop of Woolwich, whose book Honest To God had become a runaway bestseller. In March, when London was hysterical with speculation over what was about to explode into the headlines as the Profumo scandal, he showed the Palace of Westminster overshadowed by an immense Dragon of Rumour, perched on its back three sanctimonious Labour MPs trying to stoke it up for all it was worth.

As the first editor of Private Eye, having known Tim since Cambridge, I worked with him that same month on an equally memorable cartoon to accompany a parody I had written of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. This showed the Roman ‘Emperor Macmilian’ lounging by a swimming pool, surrounded by semi-naked models under a sign reading ‘Per Wardua ad Astor’. Tim and I also now met every Saturday in the TW3 studios, to share our disbelief, as we saw that night’s script, that the BBC could broadcast such dismal stuff.

In late May we spent a happy afternoon in Chelsea over a bottle of Soave Bolla, putting together what was to be his very last cartoon, a huge Gillray-style spread for Private Eye caricaturing all the leading public figures of the day, cavorting about as the epitome of decadence in a Trafalgar Square dwarfed by tower blocks. He entitled it ‘Britain gets wyth itte, 1963’. Less than three weeks later Tim was dead, sorely missed by all those who knew him as a gentle, shrewd, immensely gifted and delightful friend.

I cannot resist adding that when, a few years later, I lent the original of that last cartoon for an exhibition of Tim’s work organised by Michael Frayn and Bamber Gascoigne, it was never returned. If anyone knows where it got to, I wouldn’t mind having it back!

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