Andrew Lambirth

When all the rules go

Andrew Lambirth talks to Nicholas Garland, the political cartoonist, about his work

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Although best known as political cartoonist of the Daily Telegraph, and for his eye-catching covers for The Spectator, Nicholas Garland trained as a fine artist, and never stopped drawing even during his active though short-lived career in the theatre. Recently, he has focused his energies on print-making and is about to open his first exhibition of woodcuts at the Fine Art Society. Exploiting different densities of black ink and the varying texture of the woodblock into which he carves his design, he makes bold simplified images of considerable impact and sophistication. These couldn't be farther from the concerns of the political satirist, for they record Garland's enthusiasms – music, performance, travel – and disclose a pantheon of heroes which includes Cézanne, Orson Welles and General Ulysses S. Grant.

'I'd always wanted to be an artist – apart from a short time when I wanted to be an actor. I was stage-struck for a while, but I didn't have any talent at all in that direction, or even any particular vocation. It was the glamour of it that appealed. My mother was a sculptor, her father was a painter and one of my aunts was a painter, so I grew up in a very arty household. It was natural for me to draw.' Garland's boyhood was spent in New Zealand, his family having emigrated there just after the war, and he left school in Wellington with an overriding obsession to get back to England. He applied to the Slade and was accepted as a foreign student. He studied painting, under William Coldstream, with a particularly gifted bunch of students which included Paula Rego, Craigie Aitchison and Euan Uglow.

'That's what I found wrong with the Slade – it was so organised as to be perfect for a talented student who knew what they wanted to do. I didn't. I left feeling an utter, total failure. It gave me a very sound basic training in drawing, which was very useful to me, but for a long time I didn't know what to do with it. For about eight years I didn't do any painting at all. I worked in the theatre as an assistant stage manager – it was the only thing I could do.' Garland ended up at the Royal Court in the late Fifties, in the famous period of Beckett, Ionesco, Osborne and Arnold Wesker, along with a legendary generation of actors including Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney, and directors such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson. Garland got to know Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook extremely well, and drifted into the Sixties satire trade. He worked at the Establishment Club, and met the people at Private Eye.

'I started doing cartoons for Private Eye, and began working for The Spectator. Quite soon I was making almost as much money drawing as I was in the theatre.' He began to turn down theatre work, even declining to co-direct a play with Peter Ustinov. His first piece for The Spectator was published in 1964, and he began to appear regularly in the Daily Telegraph in 1966. Remarkably, he is still working for both publications.

'I've always been interested in politics and caricature. At school I used to copy David Low cartoons and trace Ronald Searle's illustrations to the theatre column in Punch. I used to look at the cartoons in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. It was partly the curious world that attracted me – a world in which all sorts of strange things happen. All the rules go, there's no perspective necessary, no gravity, no sequence, genders get muddled – everything is up for grabs. It was this Alice-in-Wonderland world that I wanted to get into.' And the key to his success? 'The central thing in comic drawing is getting a likeness. I've never been the least bit drawn to abstract art. When I fail as a cartoonist is when people don't quite recognise who it is I've drawn or exactly what they're doing.'

As political cartoonist for the Telegraph he became in effect a journalist, though he feels it probably took him a decade to settle into the job. And at that point he was able to return to his own art. 'When I was at the Slade, I could never finish anything, I didn't know when a painting stopped. But when I started doing cartoons, I had to finish them because the deadline had arrived. Sometime in the early 1970s I suddenly began painting again. Now I not only knew when to stop but I was painting because I wanted to.'

So when did the printmaking start? 'When I was at the Slade I had studied etching under Anthony Gross. I was very interested in printing, but I didn't then understand how a printed line was different from a drawn line. When I started painting again, I also tried etching again, but it wasn't right – I tended to overwork them. Quite soon I began doing linocut printing, which severely limits the detail you can get. It was ideally suited to simplifying my work, and making it more economical.' From linocut it was but a step to woodcut.

Among his acknowledged influences are popular prints such as the 'string literature' from north-eastern Brazil, the prints of which are dried and then sold on strings, primitive tribal art – he owns a number of African sculptures and Haitian oil-drum reliefs – and the German Expressionists such as Schmidt-Rotluff, Kirchner and Beckmann. He likes the bold loose work of Goya, Manet and Matisse, and reverences the genius of Hogarth and Daumier, who managed to be great caricaturists as well as great artists. His hero among cartoonists is Vicky, and he owns to a particular admiration for Steve Bell among contemporaries.

There are more than 50 items in the Fine Art Society exhibition, of which only ten are cartoons or Spectator covers. Interestingly, both cartoons and woodcuts are printed images – the one reproduced on newsprint, the other in an edition of 25 on fine Japanese paper. (We will have to wait a while for a show of Garland's paintings.) Among the most impressive of the woodcuts is an image of Puck in Ninagawa's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream – 'one of the greatest things I've ever seen on the stage'. Another is called 'The Tennessee Waltz' and 'is particularly associated with a period of adolescent romances at school'. Although many of the woodcuts are portraits, there are some landscapes – such as a village of grass huts in Ethiopia called Beida which he visited last December. Nicholas Garland's pitchy black and deliciously grainy woodcut images are frankly affectionate and celebratory. And none the worse for that.

Nicholas Garland's exhibition at the Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, W1 runs from 12 May to 12 June.M