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Ryan, John Gerald Christopher (1921–2009), children's author and illustrator, was born at 9 Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh, on 4 March 1921, the youngest of four sons of the Irish-born British diplomat Sir Andrew Ryan (1876–1949) and his wife, Ruth Marguerite, née van Millingen (1883–1975). His father served as chief dragoman in Constantinople (1921–2), consul-general at Rabat, Morocco (1924–30), and British minister in Saudi Arabia (1930–36) and Albania (1936–9); he was knighted in 1925. Ryan's Scottish-born mother was a granddaughter of one of Byron's physicians. His uncle was Patrick Finbar Ryan, archbishop of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, for twenty-six years, and his aunt Mary Ryan was the first female university professor in Ireland or Great Britain (she was appointed professor of Romance languages at Cork in 1910). His eldest brother, Edward (Ted) Ryan (1914–1989), was a barrister, another brother, Columba Patrick Ryan (1916–2009), was a Dominican priest and theologian, and Columba Patrick's twin, Michael Ryan (1916–1974), was an architect.

Ryan spent his early years in Turkey and Morocco before returning in 1930 to Britain where he was educated at Gilling Castle preparatory school and Ampleforth College (1930–40). At Ampleforth his art master was Father Sylvester Fryer (Percy Peter Fryer), who before the First World War had been a political cartoonist on the Manchester Guardian and the London Daily News, and a fellow pupil was George Haliburton Hume (the future archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume). Ryan's first cartoons were published in the school magazine. After leaving Ampleforth in April 1940, he moved to his parents' house in East Bergholt, Suffolk, and taught at St Louis Preparatory School in Banbury, Oxfordshire (run by a former Ampleforth teacher, Douglas Brown). He was called up later the same year, serving with the Lincolnshire regiment in Burma and India (1942–5) and achieving the rank of captain; he drew cartoons for SEAC, the journal of south-east Asia command.

After being demobilized in 1946 Ryan moved to Maida Vale, London, and studied art at the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946–8), where a fellow student was Priscilla Ann Blomfield (b. 1927), daughter of the architect Austin Blomfield and granddaughter of the celebrated architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. They married at St Mary Moorfields Roman Catholic Church, on 3 January 1950 and had three children, Marianne, Christopher, and Isabel. After teaching briefly at Crusaders' Preparatory School near Hindhead, Surrey, Ryan worked as assistant art master at Harrow School (1948–55), and during this period he began contributing strips to children's comics such as Eagle, Girl (including ‘Lettice Leefe, the Greenest Girl in School’, which ran for sixteen years), and Swift (including ‘Sir Boldasbrass’). He became a full-time freelance writer, illustrator, animator, and cartoonist in 1955.

Ryan's best-known creation was Captain Horatio Pugwash, skipper of the Black Pig and ‘the bravest, most handsome pirate of the Seven Seas’, who first appeared in the launch issue of Eagle on 14 April 1950. Set in the eighteenth century, the strip's full title was ‘Captain Pugwash, the Story of a Bad Buccaneer and of the Many Sticky Ends Which Nearly Befell Him’. The portly, cowardly, and conceited Pugwash with his moustache and goatee beard and skull-and-crossbones hat would frequently utter cries such as ‘Dolloping doubloons!’, ‘Kipper me capstans!’, and ‘Coddling catfish!’ The red and black striped shirt that he wore under his blue frock coat was inspired by Ampleforth College's rugby team colours. His arch-enemy and main rival in the quest for treasure was Cut-Throat Jake, captain of the Flying Dustman. The strip was dropped from Eagle after only a few months, being replaced by Ryan's private-detective cartoon ‘Harris Tweed—Extra Special Agent’, which ran from 1950 until 1962. However, ‘Captain Pugwash’ later transferred to the Radio Times where it ran for eight years (1960–68).

In 1957 the Bodley Head published Captain Pugwash: a Pirate Story, the first of more than fifty books written and illustrated by Ryan, and the same year he and his wife set up a studio in London to animate the series using their own original system of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs operated by levers and filmed in real time on 16 mm film. Fifty-eight 5-minute episodes appeared in black and white on BBC television between 1957 and 1966 with all the voices by Peter Hawkins (who also supplied the voices for Bill and Ben in The Flowerpot Men, Bleep and Booster, and the Daleks and Cybermen from Dr Who). The memorable theme tune, ‘The Trumpet Hornpipe’, was played by the accordionist Tom Edmondson. A colour series of thirty 5-minute episodes followed in 1974–5, a new television version using computer animation was created by John Cary Studios in 1998, and by the time of Ryan's death there had been three successful stage productions in the UK. Speaking of his most famous character, Ryan stated:
Pugwash has two qualities which I believe are present in all of us to some degree: Cowardice and Greed. It is the conflict between these opposing emotions which make the stories work. It may be that the Captain is popular because we all have something in common with him. What would YOU do if you saw a delicious toffee on the nose of a crocodile? (unpublished ‘Self-history’, 1987)
Another popular animated series produced for the BBC by Ryan's studio using the same technique was Mary, Mungo, and Midge (1969), about a little girl, her dog, and a mouse. It was narrated by the newsreader Richard Baker and featured the voice of Ryan's eleven-year-old daughter, Isabel, as Mary. Later came The Adventures of Sir Prancelot (1971–2), set during the crusades, and again voiced by Peter Hawkins. The Ark Stories (Yorkshire Television, 1981), featuring Ryan himself drawing characters based on his own series of twelve books about the Bible story of Noah's ark, was produced by Anne Wood (later to create Teletubbies), with Percy Edwards supplying animal noises. In 1964 Ryan began to illustrate (briefly) a column in the Catholic Herald by the humorist Paul Jennings, and he subsequently worked for forty-three years (1964–2007) as weekly topical cartoonist on the paper, producing more than 2000 drawings, many of them featuring the (fictitious) amiable but corrupt Vatican character, Cardinal Grotti.

Influenced by the cartoonist H. M. Bateman, among others, Ryan worked in pen and Indian ink with watercolour, wash, or gouache. When he moved to Rye, Sussex, in 1987 he continued to produce books, drew ‘live’ at local events, was actively involved with charity fund-raising, and also designed and painted pantomime sets regularly for the Rye Players. His work was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition, the Royal Festival Hall, Rye Art Gallery, and elsewhere, and many travelling exhibitions of his drawings were shown in schools, libraries, and museums all over the UK. Examples of his cartoons, animations, and illustrations are held in the collections of the British Cartoon Archive (University of Kent), the British Film Institute Archive, the Cartoon Museum, Rye Art Gallery, Falmouth Art Gallery, and elsewhere.

Ryan was 6 feet 2 inches tall, softly spoken, and clean-shaven, with ruddy cheeks, blue eyes, and, in his earlier years, dark brown hair. A devoted family man, his gentle, childlike humour made him delightful company. He was a keen student of Roman history, enjoyed long walks with his dog, and, a practising Catholic, once joked that his cartoons for the Catholic Herald ‘kept him in gin’. He died of cancer at the Rye Memorial Care Centre (the former Cottage Hospital, designed by his grandfather-in-law, Sir Reginald Blomfield) on 22 July 2009. He was cremated at Hastings crematorium on 29 July and his ashes were buried in the churchyard of St Michael's, Playden, the next day. He was survived by his wife, Priscilla, and their three children. A memorial service was held on 5 September at St Mary's, Rye.

Mark Bryant

Sources  

M. Bryant and S. Heneage, Dictionary of British cartoonists and caricaturists, 1730–1980 (1994) · M. Bryant, Dictionary of twentieth-century British cartoonists and caricaturists (2000) · The Times (25 July 2009) · Daily Telegraph (25 July 2009) · The Guardian (25 July 2009); (27 July 2009); (29 July 2009) · The Scotsman (25 July 2009) · The Independent (30 July 2009) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) [Isabel Ryan, daughter] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

BFINA, drawings, artwork, and film scripts · Cartoon Museum, London, drawings and artwork · Falmouth Art Gallery, drawings and artwork · Rye Art Gallery, drawings, artwork, and film script · University of Kent, Canterbury, British Cartoon Archive, drawings and artwork

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview recording


Likenesses  

obituary photographs · photograph, Rye Art Gallery, 107 High Street, Rye, Sussex · photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£405,613: probate, 3 Nov 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales