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Belcher, George Frederick Arthurfree

(1875–1947)
  • John Jensen

George Belcher (1875–1947), by Press Portrait Bureau, c. 1930s

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Belcher, George Frederick Arthur (1875–1947), cartoonist and painter, was born at the workhouse in Princes Street, St George-in-the-East, London, on 19 September 1875, the only son and second of four children of Joseph Silverthorne Belcher (bap. 1833, d. 1900), medical practitioner, and his wife, Ada Jane Howell, née Hughes (1845–1935). He was educated at King Edward VI School in Berkhamsted and studied at Gloucester School of Art.

Belcher drew for Tatler from 1906 until after the First World War. He also contributed to Punch Almanac from 1906 and drew regularly for Punch itself from 1911. Throughout his career he drew posters, postcards, and caricature-portraits, and he illustrated books. The American magazine Cosmopolitan was also a welcoming market, as was the American edition of Vanity Fair. The Leicester Galleries gave him his first one-man exhibition in 1909. The gallery was a friend to many cartoonists, exhibiting the work of, among others, Max Beerbohm, H. M. Bateman, Edmond Xavier Kapp, and the great Australian political satirist Will Dyson. Belcher exhibited his more serious work at the Royal Academy in 1909, and on 10 June the same year he married Ethel Ada (Joan) Harvey (1884–1942), daughter of Alfred Harvey, of Clifton, Bristol. They had one son, also named George.

Kenneth Bird (Fougasse), himself a major cartoonist and a former editor of Punch, described Belcher as doing ‘with black chalk what Phil May had done with a pen’ (Fougasse, 69). May, the most influential cartoonist of his generation, had abandoned detail and cross-hatching for simplicity and vitality. Over the decades Belcher invariably drew his cartoons in charcoal. They were reproduced in halftone (greyscale) instead of the more familiar pen and black ink. Like May before him, Belcher found his subjects among the lower rungs of society, but there was a profound difference between the two men. May had endured poverty and hunger and his cartoons reflected that experience. Belcher had never been penniless or short of food. He was a good-natured if occasionally patronizing observer of an alien world. Poor people were his props. Surprised and cautious sitters were invited to his studio and paid to model for him, and with an enviable talent he illustrated the malapropisms or jokes handed to him by his editors. This was the modus operandi he followed for thirty years or more. He has been accused of sometimes missing the point of the joke he was to illustrate. More likely he considered the joke the least important of the things that concerned him. Making a good drawing would have been his top priority and if that meant sketching a background which ruined the joke, so be it. There were always wordsmiths around Punch who, if necessary, could come up with a new caption.

When he moved from London to Surrey, Belcher left behind the drudges, charladies, housewives, and buskers who had been among his staple subjects. Now his was a world of farmers, farm hands, and elderly retired ladies dealing with their servant problems. Here he was at home and actively enjoying a farming life. His style of drawing, however, remained essentially unchanged, as did his basic type of joke. Drawing in charcoal was his first and only innovation.

Before moving to his centuries-old dream cottage, Wynchfield, in Fisher Lane, Chiddingfold, Belcher divided much of his free time between three clubs: his favourite was the National Sporting Club, for whom he produced a portfolio of portrait etchings of boxers, all club members. Belcher loved boxing but always as a spectator. The Savage Club was a more Bohemian haunt where he and fellow members on any one of their ‘evenings’ might play the piano, sing music hall songs, or declaim poetry or verse. This outgoing atmosphere no doubt appealed to a large part of Belcher’s personality. According to the writer Stacy Aumonier, he was ‘a complete child’, a man who enjoyed ‘make-believe, dressing up, dancing, acting, Punch and Judy’ (Aumonier, 76). Finally, the Chelsea Arts Club was where he would join the coterie of Punch artists, a more conservative group who on the whole kept themselves to themselves.

A huge, dark converted barn was Belcher’s country studio. In it, apart from easels and all the necessities of painting and drawing, were filed some 1000 or so of his cartoons and sketches. He knew where he could put his hands on each and every picture and could remember the anecdotes and stories connected with each one. A tall, powerfully built man, he must have alarmed some of his elderly models because while drawing ‘he growls like a dog’ (Aumonier, 76), which could explain why there were difficulties sometimes in getting some models to return for a second sitting. He also painted traditional landscapes, still lifes, and occasional portraits. Belcher and his great friend A. J. Munnings, famous for his paintings of horses, were both traditionalists. They disliked the many new art ‘-isms’ which erupted throughout the interwar years, and ignored them all. Proposed by Munnings, Belcher became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1931 and a Royal Academician in 1945. He had retired from cartooning in 1941 after which, like Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, he tended his ‘best of all possible worlds’. He died on 3 October 1947 at his home in Chiddingfold of pulmonary oedema and other causes, and was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Chiddingfold.

Sources

  • S. Aumonier, Odd fish (1923)
  • C. Veth, Comic art in England (1929)
  • P. V. Bradshaw, They make us smile (1942)
  • The Times (6 Oct 1947)
  • L. Russell and N. Bentley, eds., The English comic album (1948)
  • W. A. Sillince, Comic drawing (1950)
  • Fougasse [K. Bird], The good-tempered pencil (1956)
  • T. Cross, Artists and bohemians: 100 years with Chelsea Arts Club (1992)
  • D. Wootton, The illustrators: the British art of illustrations, 1800–1999 (1999)
  • M. Bryant and S. Heneage, Dictionary of British cartoonists and caricaturists, 1730–1980 (1994)
  • S. Houfe, Dictionary of British illustrators and caricaturists (1978)
  • M. Bryant, Dictionary of twentieth-century British cartoonists and caricaturists (2000)

Likenesses

  • Press Portrait Bureau, bromide press print, c.1930s, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. Stoneman, bromide print, 1946, NPG
  • H. Lawrence Oakley, silhouette, c.1920s-1940s, NPG
  • K. Hutton, photographs, repro. in Picture Post (1938)
  • G. Belcher, self-portrait, oils, RA, 1944
  • F. Rust, photographs, 1927, Rex Features
  • photographs, c.1931, Rex Features

Wealth at Death

£16,419 9s. 10d: probate, 19 April 1948, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)
death certificate
birth certificate
marriage certificate
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]