Exhibition Review: Fallen Angel: The Political Cartoons of the Daily Worker Cartoonist Gabriel – by John Pateman

Exhibition Review

Fallen Angel: The Political Cartoons of the Daily Worker Cartoonist Gabriel – by John Pateman

I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition of cartoons by Jimmy Friel which is on display at the Political Cartoon Gallery in Store Street, London, until 28 April 2007. The gallery is directly opposite the London HQ of CILIP. But there any similarities end. Jimmy Friell was the talented cartoonist who defined an era of the Daily Worker under the name Gabriel. The following review – ‘An Angel with a poison pen’ – by Michal Bonzca was first published in the Morning Star on 3 April 2007.

‘Looking from a worm’s perspective, a tank looms large and threatening like an authoritarian edifice. Its menacing gun barrel is aimed at a distant target.

In the foreground, Harold Macmillan, 1951 minister of housing and later defence, addresses a homeless family spinning the yarn that their concerns are being adequately addressed by this design.

Indeed, on closer inspection of the cartoon, the gun turret resembles a shoddy terraced house.

If you replaced the tank with a Trident submarine, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was 2007.

In fact, it was Britain after World War II and the sharp, uncompromising drawing was penned by James Friell.
Last month marked the 95th anniversary of the birth of James “Jimmy” Friell, who was, once upon a time, memorably heralded as “Fleet Street’s greatest discovery since David Low.”

But who was he? Jimmy Friell was born in Glasgow on March 13 1912, the fifth of seven children, in the working-class tenements of Maryhill.

His youngest brother Charlie, former USDAW convener, now a chirpy octogenarian, recalls how poverty forced “Jim” to abandon hope of university and seek employment at the age of 14.

In his spare time, he would amuse himself and others by drawing gag cartoons. His father was the straight man in a comedy duo eking out a meagre living touring Scottish music halls. Gags would have been part of the air that he breathed at home.

And some home it was. Under the guidance of communist eldest brother Jack, they weren’t going to be denied education or culture by their circumstance and tucked into Marcel Proust, James Joyce and others with energetic purpose.

Initially just an entertainer, Friell quickly developed a keen interest in politics. At the time, only he and his eldest sister Cissie worked, providing for all the others.

“I still can’t understand anyone who grew up anywhere in the 1930s not being political,” he would remark years later.

At 15, he drew a crucified worker surrounded by leering capitalists. He showed it to the Glasgow Forward, who encouraged him to continue. Two years later, a cartoon of his was printed for the first time.

He became a regular contributor to the Glasgow Evening Times and, in 1931, won a scholarship to the Glasgow School of Art, where he completed the three-year commercial art diploma course in just one year.

Dispatched to London by his employers Kodak in February 1936, Friell sent some political cartoons to the predecessor of the Morning Star, the Daily Worker. It was a moment that was remembered well by its legendary editor William Rust.

“In him was immediately recognised an artist with a sure political understanding. Both his artistic and political line were just what we were waiting for,” Rust once said.

He adopted the name Gabriel as his nom de plume because, back then, “in one way or another, it looked like the last trumpet was being sounded for existing society, so I took the pen name of Gabriel, the Archangel – he’s in charge of blowing for the annunciation of Judgement Day – and settled down to helping the process along.

“My value lay in supplying the humour that the paper rather desperately needed,” Friell was known to comment.

His impact was instant and such that, in his first year, he had three offers from other Fleet Street papers to jump ship. But Friell’s principles kept him at the Daily Worker.

“I never produced a cartoon in consultation with anybody. I never found any trouble. Apart from ‘[technicalities’ – was it Trotsky or was it Stalin, was it this or that – my views coincided with them. It was straightforward,” he would state emphatically.

The moral bankruptcy and political incompetence of the ruling elites ushered in the economic depression of the 1930s, which supplied a tragic abundance of subjects. His ink was never dry.

While the ruling classes courted fascists to keep themselves in power, Gabriel lampooned the murderous trio of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco with venomous gusto matched only by his merciless contempt for the hapless dilettante and dupe Chamberlain.

Memorably, he drew him at his desk announcing his pathetically pompous and naive analysis of the nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, which is shown looming large behind his back.

Gabriel had experienced at first hand the waste and misery that the ruling class visited upon millions in Britain and, true to his class, he wasn’t about to give it any quarter.

He took particular issue with its political dishonesty, evidenced daily by the manipulative management of news. Spin to you and me.

His first judgement day came unexpectedly, as they do, with the announcement of the 1939 nazi-soviet pact.

He confessed to being shocked, but admitted: “If you examined it, you could see why it was necessary to Russia.”

Friell was called up in September 1940, but returned to the Daily Worker in 1946. Heady days followed and, in 1954, under the inspirational guidance of Allen Hutt, the paper won The Newspaper of the Year Award jointly with The Times.

Amid all of this, Gabriel again took up his quixotic pictorial quest with the gusto of old and with the fine political savvy and anticipation that was first noted by Rust.

In a reworking of a classic idea, Gabriel has a US soldier straddling the globe tying it up with a never-ending chain of war debt.

Here, the oft-used concept is reinvigorated by a dynamic diagonal composition and sparse but delightful detail, including the chain made up of dollar signs. Britain, it is worth noting, only paid back the last instalment of this debt last year.

The world had, indeed, changed dramatically with US imperialism in ascendancy in the aftermath of World War II.

Gabriel captures this unmistakenly on US Independence Day with a forlorn figure of a bruised, rapidly aging, Churchill-faced bulldog trotting behind two patronising US government figures.

This is not only a delightfully sharp epitaph for the empire but also a witty and perceptive intuition of the shape of things to come.

Britain’s political class, like Faust, was selling its soul to the devil in exchange for the ignominious role of the new empire’s servile mascot.

The next generation of cartoonists, having had that future thrust upon them, are sarcastically and contemptuously depicting the Prime Minister of today simply as a poodle. Or, worst still, the mere lap dog of a witless ape.

Then, all of a sudden, came Gabriel’s second judgement day. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary in November 1956.
Gabriel blew the horn loud and clear, comparing the Russian tanks in Budapest to the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt.

When the Daily Worker rejected the cartoon, Gabriel, in a decision that he came to regret in later years, walked out along with several other journalists.

He was bluntly honest about this. “I couldn’t conceive carrying on cartooning about the evils of capitalism and imperialism and ignoring the acknowledged evils of Russian communism.” And so, sadly, Gabriel was no more.

Socialism’s judgement day was, at the time, somehow postponed, only to return with bitter vengeance 30 odd years later. History, tragically, has since proven Gabriel right.

After six months unemployment, Friell accepted Lord Beaverbrook’s offer, first extended in the late 1930s, to cartoon under his own name for the Evening Standard, with assurances of “complete political freedom.”

Still, executives at Express Newspapers, uncomfortable with his political views, eventually decided to replace him with Vicky, who loyally objected and forced them to retain Friell. By 1962, he was reduced to drawing pocket cartoons.

When politicians whom he had mercilessly satirised over the years repeatedly bought his work, he became despondent and dismissive of the task that he had set himself some 30-odd years earlier, in frustration comparing it to “banging your head against a foam rubber wall.”

But he continued to keep a keen eye on all things political, cryptically commenting that “not to be able to say anything about the political situation in the last 10 years is purgatory.”

Friell’s masterly grasp of anatomy allows his distorted characters to roam the frames and gesture with dynamic equilibrium and comic ease.

Assured and energetic pen and brush strokes reveal intricate emotions and detail the unfolding dramas, whereas an exquisite use of swathes of texture or solid black provides melodramatic supporting contrast.

Gabriel’s compositional sense, often using acute, almost cinematic angles, draws the eye into a richly rewarding viewing.

No political cartoonist can, however, survive without the elementary skill of imaginative characterisation and Gabriel’s was second to none.

Most significantly, he was one of the very few – among them were Will Dyson at the Daily Herald and his successor the communist Will Hope – who nobly put their talent at the disposal of the working class and its struggle for social justice.

And thus Gabriel’s legacy, apart from having secured him a place in the pantheon of great British cartoonists, will be forever an intrinsic part of the British left’s cultural heritage.

James “Jimmy” Friell, who is tenderly described by his brother Charlie as “a private man of immensely beguiling humour,” died in his home in west London on February 4 1997.’

John Pateman