John Hassall, Illustrator

If I were to begin:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool

then many, of a certain type, would boom into character, flat-capped-vowelled and theatrically upright – ‘that’s noted for fresh air and fun’! My father would be such a man, a fan to this day of a humorous monologue and of, like me, such stuff that just pre-dates him. And B.’s dear grandad Fred, also, could recite the piece in full.

At some point in the seventies, Dad brought home the published version, in slender booklet form, of ‘Albert ‘Arold and Others’; a collected works of the writer Marriott Edgar, specifically the monologues performed (as it states on the cover) by he and Stanley Holloway. 40p, and from the firm of Francis, Day and Hunter of Charing Cross Road, WC2.

The very same copy, now on long-term loan to me. Which will be vexing news to Father.

If it wasn’t time-warpish enough that in 1979 I was listening to Elvis and The Beatles, then colour me anachronistic, because I took this publication to my box room and my heart – not for its plod-clever verses, but for the astonishing richness and economy of the ‘46 character illustrations by John Hassall’.

John Hassall is one of those artists that most people won’t know they know; his famous and, UK-wise, familiar The Jolly Fisherman, (‘Skegness, It’s So Bracing!), is quite his biggest thing. And odd it is that that particular tubby skipper (whom you can picture sans aide) is skipping over the sands, because John Hassall’s appeal for me, and which I can only lately give voice to, is the very sense of weightedness, rootedness, in his line and expression. Backs, spines, and backs of legs and feet that really connect with an invented floor, and faces and expressions too that are forever of and for this world: in short, a cartooner of gravity – an expert in depicting our land-locked, world-wearied, or gladly grounded state of being.

A grand example of Hassall’s, and Marksman Sam’s, fine and grounded footwork.

Like the stormin’ Norman Rockwell, saucy drooler Gil Elvgren and Ladybird’s own (and Derbyshire’s too) Harry Wingfield – about all of whom more anon – John Hassall is and has always been an artist who makes an ordinary world and its ordinariness a magical, sumptuous thing that’s been wonderfully and warmly observed – not elevated anyhow, but gently and funnily stolen away and made so a moment may exist forever; not photographic, not invented, but somewhere in between – technical talent that’s wrapped up in wit.

Norman Rockwell’s preparatory study for ‘The Art Critic’, 1955. Note how the subject’s feet are so well deliciously planted – just like Hassall’s chaps. (Reproduced courtesy Taschen and The Norman Rockwell Family Entities)

Art that is exact about identifying exactness; a super-true reality without the fuss and bother of anything else that’s real.

Perhaps across a small series of postings of wonderment and wonderings at these quiet illustrators of my youth and beyond, I’ll begin to tease out what exactly it is about them – that makes them so noted for fun.

Meantime, this has been a little meandering, page-browsing homage, a heavily-moustachioed nod, to a talent that’s quietly worked away for my own generations, at being a true inspiration.

Look at his face – as Barry Davies once famously squeaked – Just look at his face!
Albert, having ‘shot out like a cork’

Hassall’s work discovered by chance on the cover and frontispiece of the charming and deeply concerning ‘Every Boy’s Book of Hobbies’, gifted to me by design wunderkind, John Kay – whose brother Jim Kay is a fabulously gifted illustrator… how the drawn world revolves, thus.


All John Hassall reproductions, Francis, Day & Hunter; T.C & E.C. Jack Ltd, LONDON

‘Every Boy’s Book of Hobbies’, by Cecil. H. Bullivant

© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012

About Stevie Mitchell

I come from a long line of cartoons and beer. I was once peed on by a tiger. Hoping the resultant super-powers are yet to come, cos if these are they, then, grrrr....
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