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An Unreliable History of Tattoos; Stephen Fry is ‘Born To Be Wilde’

Meet Paul Thomas, political cartoonist

Politics is a serious business and Paul Thomas, an artist from Benson near Wallingford, has been drawing humour from it quite literally for thirty years
Esther Lafferty is Festival Director of Oxfordshire Artweeks

"People can take tattoos and what they represent so seriously: I wanted to take a different approach and have some fun"

By Esther Lafferty


“I have always drawn, for as long as I can remember,” recalls Paul Thomas, “and by the age of five or six, I was copying cartoons from the newspapers. Bizarrely, one of the first drawings I remember doing clearly was of Ted Heath with a pointy nose when he was leader of the Conservative party before becoming prime minister in 1970.

“And, odd though it may seem, even as a small child I wanted to be political cartoonist when I grew up. I was exposed to politics from an early age – I came from a family who talked about political issues and I enjoyed Private Eye. I never really liked children’s comics because they were too jokey. My dad’s choice of paper, The Daily Telegraph, meant I was exposed to Nicholas Garland whose cartoons I adored, cut out and copied.” (Nicholas Garland OBE has a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to cartoon art, and was the official 2012 London Olympic cartoonist.)

“The tattoo is an art form, a practice, and for many, a ritual,” explains Paul. “Its history is long and colourful, dating to the Neolithic period, when our ancestors marked their bodies with symbolic lines derived from a carbon paste through to today


“I was a serious child,’ Paul says with a delivery so straight that for a moment I’m left deciding whether it’s true or very dry humour, and then he chuckles, “I actually think I was quite a serious child: I was a fanatical birdwatcher and there wasn’t much room for frivolity!

“My father was an encouraging influence, though he wasn’t remotely artistic – that came from my mum’s side of the family. My grandfather was a landscape painter and could never walk past an art shop without going inside. My dad ran an ironmongery shop in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire all his working life and I worked there on and off for about ten years until I was about 20. The shop was the arena for clever and funny banter between my dad, the other staff and the customers. It could be unforgiving but it really sharpened up my wits, and Dad had a cubby hole next to the counter from which he was like a benign ringmaster keeping it from getting out of hand. I got started at drawing caricatures by sketching the customers: I had a rogue's gallery just out of sight of the punters!”

From here, Paul’s journey took him via Punch, Private Eye, The Spectator and all the main newspapers, in the days when newspapers used to have three or four cartoonists on the staff, to The Daily Express where he was the political cartoonist from 1998-2015.

And now Paul characterises himself a professional cynic, taking real satisfaction in thinking up fresh ideas that fit the mood of the moment. “My role was to be rude about the people who are trying to tell us all what to do and to make people laugh on a daily basis. I would provide editors with the ideas for several possible cartoons, and they would choose one for publication. “It was quite a pressure coming up with several ideas every day, day in day out,” admits Thomas, “though then being left alone to create the finished cartoon was a great feeling, rather like free-wheeling a bicycle downhill!”

Cartoon drawing, has been an art form for hundreds of years with its origins in caricatures – from the Italian caricare, to deepen or exaggerate – which give weight to the most striking features of its subject for comic effect. The great Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci all drew caricatures, as technical exercises to define the essence of a person in a few deft strokes of the pen. Political cartoonists too have been in evidence for 300 years and the artists who illustrated the first editions of books by Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll, for example, were both political cartoonists as well as artists.

Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) was an English illustrator, graphic humourist and political cartoonist whose work was prominent during the second half of the 19th century. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his artistic achievements in 1893, and is today considered an influential character within the era’s social, literary, and art histories as both the principal political cartoonist for Britain’s Punch magazine for a period of 50 years, and as the artist whose illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are instantly recognisable worldwide.

Cartoons provide a fascinating insight into times gone by and the people who inhabited them – and so, says Paul, do tattoos! Having recently left the newspaper world, he has been was therefore inspired to create a highly-illustrated and fun book, the recently-published Unreliable History of Tattoos!

“The tattoo is an art form, a practice, and for many, a ritual,” explains Paul. “Its history is long and colourful, dating to the Neolithic period, when our ancestors marked their bodies with symbolic lines derived from a carbon paste through to today, those same markings can be made on entering neon parlours in our towns and cities, and I’ve always been intrigued by them. People can take tattoos and what they represent so seriously: I wanted to take a different approach and have some fun, and so although the book is loosely based on historical fact, from cavemen, through ancient civilisations to British Kings and Queens, and current celebrities, there’s a truth overlaid with humour and invention.”

And browsing the clever and irreverent pages, bordering on rude, you’ll find the depiction of dozens of tattoos that might have been: “I made them up,” laughs Paul! His political interest can be seen in representations of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. However, there’s social history and royal references too, Stephen Fry is ‘Born To Be Wilde’, and the Queen makes an appearance as she celebrates her ninetieth birthday this month: you’ll see she’s one of 007s biggest fans!

So, this Father’s Day, smile at the Sphinx’s fingers, learn a little known secret about the Roman games, and discover the tattoo that Charles Darwin kept, literally, under his hat while Henry VIII’s attitude to the Pope is laid bare.

Get the book, or get brave and consider getting your Dad a tattoo! After all, one thing’s for certain – either will last longer than socks!

To see more of Paul’s work, including a new series of Oxford cartoons, or to order a copy of the book (£14.99) visit paulthomascartoons.co.uk


- Esther Lafferty


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