Scotland

My great uncle, the Wilfred Owen of cartooning

For five generations he has been something of a family legend - artist, poet, journalist and, ultimately, victim of a terrible war.

For as long as I can remember I've been intrigued by Archie Gilkison and his work, and now it seems the talent of this World War One cartoonist from Glasgow, my great-great uncle, will be appreciated by a wider audience.

Following his death in 1916, Archie's cartoons were all but forgotten outside the family.

But this changed when, inspired by the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war, I took a book of my ancestor's work to an expert at the University of Glasgow.

Image caption Archie Gilkison's World War One cartoons mixed humour and patriotism with despair and outrage

It turns out Archie's cartoons, which appeared regularly in papers such as the Glasgow Herald and Evening Times from 1914 to 1916, are of international importance and offer a very different interpretation of war in comparison other such work of the time.

He's even been called the "Wilfred Owen of cartooning"- a wonderful accolade for this shy, modest but very talented man, my great-grandmother's little brother.

Born in Dumbarton in 1885 to a humble but artistic family - his father was a poet and two of his brothers were writers - Archie was educated in the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

After being apprenticed to a firm of document writers in Glasgow, he wrote and cartooned - under the nickname Baldy - for newspapers including the then Glasgow Herald, the Evening Times, the Courier, Scots Pictorial, London Opinion and the Bristol Echo. He spent some time in the US - writing widely in the Scottish press about his experiences - and was himself a prolific poet.

But, it was as a cartoonist that his talent really shone through, particularly following the outbreak of war in 1914.

Image caption These two humorous cartoons were created for Christmas 1915. War cartoons were used as a propaganda tool to keep morale high among the civilian population

Cartoons featured prominently in the popular press, which grew massively in circulation and influence during the war. Newspapers were the internet and television of their age, and would have the only source of news about the war for many.

Newspapers sold millions of copies a day and cartoons were a key part of the propaganda machine that sought to keep morale high on the home front.

The quality of Archie's drawing is apparent even to the untrained eye. The detail is extraordinary - faces, helmets, moustaches, uniforms, ships, battlefields, all drawn beautifully and with flair in pen and ink.

But it's the sophisticated mix of humour, patriotism, despair and outrage that equally strikes a chord, from Santa Claus struggling to make his deliveries to the trenches at Christmas 1915, to frustration at the US for being slow to enter the war, to a very accurate premonition of how Germany would be viewed by the rest of the world if and when it lost the war.

Another stark drawing, which looks 50 years ahead of its time in style, depicts a dead German soldier lying in a trench.

Image caption Archie Gilkison's work was unusual in that it depicted the horror of the trenches, such as above right

Being a journalist myself, I know what it's like to work to tight deadlines and often Archie would have had just a few hours to develop the concept for the cartoon, draw it with absolute precision and file it to his editors.

To be able to do this with such flair, elegance and sophistication is massively impressive.

And, it seems my respect for Archie's work is not just family bias.

Prof Laurence Grove, an expert in the history of cartoons and director of the Stirling Maxwell Centre for the study of text and image at the University of Glasgow, become an instant admirer of my great-great uncle when I showed him a book that had not been seen outside the family for almost 100 years.

"Archie Gilkison's work is an astounding discovery," he said. "Through him we live the war first hand."

Image caption Archie Gilkison was critical of America's hesitancy in joining the war

"He is the only cartoonist I know who evokes an anti-war sentiment during the war itself. He could be for cartooning what Wilfred Owen was for poetry.

"This is a find of international importance. His style is extremely fine and erudite - it has references to textual engravings of the 16th and 17th century, Shakespeare and history, and he throws in a bit of fun - he gives us Nessie as well.

"Archie does for cartooning what Wilfred Owen did for poetry - he puts it into a different perspective, one which people just didn't get at the time."

And why were cartoons important to the war effort?

"Pictures in general played a huge role in the propaganda machine, with governments sponsoring official images that would help the cause," Prof Grove explained.

"On a popular level it was the high circulation illustrated journals - a relatively new phenomenon - that moulded the mind of the public.

"Here in Britain, cartoons were a key part of the divertissement, providing light entertainment and avoiding the horrors of the war."

Image caption Archie Gilkison's work, right, foresaw the German defeat and its consequences

So Archie, although patriotic, is unusual in that he depicts the darkness of war more honestly than other cartoonists of the time. Underlying his work is criticism, rather than glorification, of battle.

Prof Grove plans to use Archie's work in a major exhibition on cartoons through the ages to be hosted by the university next year.

And the cartoons will also now have a permanent home in the archive at the University of Glasgow, Archie's home city.

Archie would have been so proud, I'm sure, as would my wonderful grandmother, who used to tell me all about her talented uncle when I was a child, though she herself never met him.

So, what happened to Archie? Ironically, the war that heralded his artistic peak was also his undoing.

Despite suffering ill-health throughout his life, Archie was conscripted to the Royal Scots in October 1916 and sent to training in Berwick.

A chill he caught developed into pneumonia and he died aged 31 on 2 November of that year. He never made it to the front line.

Image caption In Archie Gilkison's poem above, he seems to predict his own fate

His family was devastated, and according to Archie's friend and biographer John Willoughby Bird, the Scottish journalism profession mourned his loss bitterly.

In a poem to accompany a watercolour he did of a Scottish soldier piping his comrades over the top, Archie wrote: "I heard the piper blaw/Wi my ain een I saw/What ye can never knaw/For I was Fey wha followed."

In Scots, "fey" means fated to die, and in these sad lines Archie seems to predict his own fate as well as that of so many of his generation.

As I get older I become even more fond of Archie and his work - niece to uncle, journalist to journalist. We even worked for some of the same newspapers, a century apart.

I'm so proud that his beautiful, biting, clever cartoons will live on for generations to come.

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