I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
For more than half a century, Donald McGill was the king of the naughty postcard market in Britain. His creations, which seemed lewd and rude to the sophisticates of the time, are mildly off-colour in today’s context.
McGill’s mischievous paintings relied heavily on sexual innuendo to get a giggle from his customers. His stocks-in-trade were bulbous ladies on the beach, the illegitimate child, honeymoon couples, vicars with a wandering eye, and middle-aged male drunks with bright red noses.
The Art of Donald McGill
Donald McGill was born in London in 1875 and spent almost his entire life in the British capital.
He stumbled into the occupation that made him famous in 1904 when he was developing a career in naval architecture.
A relative had seen an illustrated get-well card and suggested Donald draw one to send to his nephew who was in hospital. His sketch showed a man up to his neck in an icy pond and had the caption “Hope you get out soon.”
As Nick Collins writes in The Telegraph, the cartoon “was submitted to a publisher who commissioned his work, and he went on to design a number of cards riddled with double-entendres ranging from the clever to the vulgar.”
He classified the rudeness of his output as mild, medium, and strong. Of course, the most strongly offensive pictures were the ones that sold best.
A woman pushing a pram with a baby in it is approached by a vicar.
“And what is the baby’s Christian name?” asks the man of the cloth.
“Christian name!” replies the mother. “I have not had time to think of that. I have been six months trying to find a surname for him.”
This was banned from the Isle of Man as an assault on the delicate sensibilities of the local residents.
Prolific Postcard Artist
Creating postcards based on earthy humour became McGill’s life.
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For six decades, Donald McGill dominated the seaside postcard business. He is estimated to have created 12,000 colour-washed drawings that sold somewhere in the region of 200 million copies.
Christie Davies writes that “In 1939, a million copies of McGill’s cards were sold by one Blackpool shop alone.”
But, the artist did not profit greatly from his output; he sold his originals to publishers for a few pounds each and received no royalties from the sales bonanza that followed. When he died in 1962 at the age of 87 he left just £735 (about £13,000 in today’s money).
Praise from George Orwell
A 1941 essay describes McGill as the “best of contemporary postcard artists, but also the most representative, the most perfect in the tradition.”
George Orwell wrote about the work of Donald McGill and his imitators: “They are a genre of their own, specializing in very ‘low’ humour, the mother-in-law, baby’s-nappy, policemen’s-boot type of joke, and distinguishable from all the other kinds by having no artistic pretensions. Some half-dozen publishing houses issue them, though the people who draw them seem not to be numerous at any one time.”
Orwell wasn’t even sure that Donald McGill existed and thought he might be a trade name covering the work of several artists. He quotes several jokes, which range “from the harmless to the all but unprintable:”
“She didn’t ask me to the christening, so I’m not going to the wedding.”
“I’ve been struggling for years to get a fur coat. How did you get yours?”
“I left off struggling.”
JUDGE: “You are prevaricating, sir. Did you or did you not sleep with this woman?”
CO-RESPONDENT: “Not a wink, my lord!”
McGill Charged With Obscenity
An outbreak of prudery saw McGill facing charges under the Obscene Publication Act of 1857.
Often, naughty postcards had been banned from sale by puritanical forces, but their popularity remained strong. Then, after decades of selling his salty-humoured cards without any real problems, the law crashed down on Donald McGill like an anvil from the sky.
Police swooped on postcard vendors in the east coast resort of Cleethorpes. Raids to stop the trafficking in material deemed corrupting to the morals of the country hit newsagents in other seaside communities. And, McGill was summoned to appear at the Lincoln Quarter Sessions in 1954.
It’s said his defence was going to be that he didn’t realize there was any double meaning in his cards, but he must have put that forward with a twinkle in his eye and his tongue in his cheek.
However, when his lawyer saw the composition of the jury he advised McGill to plead guilty and take his medicine. The punishment was a fine of £50 and court costs of a further £25. The scandalous material was also removed from sale.
One of the cards locked away from public view shows a studious young man and a beautiful young woman sitting under a tree. The man has a book in his lap and asks, “Do you like Kipling?” To which the young lady replies “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kipled.”
This postcard sold six million copies. McGill “borrowed” the joke from earlier versions and it has since been repeated in many forms; it made an appearance in a 1962 episode of the Beverly Hillbillies.
The War on Smut Ends
By the 1960s, the strait-laced crew that ran Britain’s censorship boards was in full retreat and Donald McGill’s comic cards were back in the seaside shops and newsstands and selling well.
But, the end was near for the British seaside holiday. Vacation packages were offering sun-starved Brits cheap hotels on Mediterranean beaches where even cheaper booze flowed like water. McGill’s art did not travel well to the sun-splashed coasts of Spain or Greece.
McGill himself, now well into his 80s, was also in decline and he was producing only two new cards a week by the time he died.
He finally became respectable in 1994, when the Royal Mail put out a set of commemorative stamps featuring his images. The prestigious Tate Gallery in London has also displayed his art.
He never made much money from his work, but now his originals sell for thousands of pounds each.
- Bamforth & Co. Ltd., of Holmfirth, Yorkshire was a major publisher of risqué postcards. In its heyday, 1963, it sold 16 million cards; by the mid-1990s sales were around three million a year. This prompted writer and poet Philip Larkin to suggest that because of the sexual revolution people were no longer fantasizing about jollies through naughty postcards but were getting on with the real thing.
- Local committees were drawn up across the U.K. to vet postcards before they could go on sale. Those bordering on pornography were routinely banned, but those that were blatantly sexist were always approved. The Blackpool censors closed for business in 1968 when it was discovered that a newsagent in Wales advertised postcards for sale that had been banned in Blackpool.
- Screenwriter and journalist Dennis Potter called Donald McGill “The King of Comic Postcards . . . the Picasso of the Pier.”
- “Bawdy Seaside Postcards on Display.” Nick Collins, The Telegraph, August 5, 2010.
- “Censored Postcards of Donald McGill.” Christie Davies, The Social Affairs Unit, July 9, 2004.
- “The Art of Donald McGill.” George Orwell, Horizon, September 1941.
- “Saucy Seaside Postcards Banned more than 50 Years Ago for Obscenity Go on Sale for the First Time.” The Daily Mail, June 16, 2011.
- The Donald McGill Museum.
- Untitled. John Windsor, The Independent, January 22, 1994.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 31, 2018:
Those "rare gems" are getting scarcer.
Ralph Schwartz from Idaho Falls, Idaho on May 31, 2018:
Me. Taylor, it’s always a pleasure to read your work. You always find rare gems to write about. Thanks for sharing!