Leslie David “Les” Gibbard was born on 26 October 1945 in Kaiapoi, New Zealand, the son of Ray and Dorothy Gibbard, both teachers. At Auckland Grammar School he drew caricatures and cartoons for the school magazine, and was tutored in charcoal and pastels by the refugee Hungarian artist Frank Szirmay.
In 1962 Les Gibbard started work as a trainee journalist on the Auckland Star, where his first published drawing was a caricature of Reginald Maudling, which appeared in January 1962. However, he was fired for his bad shorthand, and moved to the New Zealand Herald, whose political cartoonist, Gordon Minhinnick, had been offered Low’s old job on the London Evening Standard, but had turned it down. Gibbard spent two days a week as Minhinnick’s “apprentice”, while producing drawings for the paper’s sister publication, the Weekly News.
Sacked by the Herald, Gibbard moved to the Sunday News, but he found New Zealand journalism too constraining, and in 1967 moved to the Melbourne Herald. “I was doing anti-Vietnam and anti-red-baiting cartoons for the Sunday News at a time when that stand was not so popular”, he later explained: “my career as a staff cartoonist would have been extremely short in most conservative New Zealand newspaper offices.”
Gibbard’s time in Australia was also very short, for in June 1967 he followed his girlfriend to London. There he freelanced as a cartoonist, selling cartoons to papers such as the Daily Sketch and Sunday Mirror, and occasionally signing himself ‘Spike’. But in 1968 he managed to get the job of arts caricaturist and pocket cartoonist for the Sunday Telegraph, on the back of a caricature he sold them of Rex Harrison. In the same year he got married, and in 1969 succeeded Bill Papas as Political Cartoonist on the Guardian, delighting Minhinnick by taking Low’s old job.
As Gibbard recalled: “I read...that the Abu [Abraham] family were packing up...and returning to India. Ahah, I thought. Must approach the Guardian to see if they wish to replace Abu in his pocket cartoon spot. Alas the job had already gone to Richard Yeend. But the deputy editor after looking at my work asked me if I would like to have a go at filling in for Bill Papas who was just about to take leave in Greece. In my blundering and very amateurish fashion I did, learning on the job so to speak. When Bill returned he was disenchanted with the daily grind and British politics in general, lingered for an uneasy period while we both drew, and finally quit. Only then did the Guardian think they should take me on as a fixture, albeit on a freelance basis.”
Papas told Gibbard that he too would be tired of the job before long, but he loved it, and when Papas finally left in 1970 he gave up his work for the Sunday Telegraph. “The Guardian I joined was a dream shop-window for any cartoonist, using the cartoon on either the front or back pages”, Gibbard recalled: “The cartoon was drawn at the very last minute, long after most other Fleet Street cartoonists with their allocated inside spaces had gone home, and the drawings complemented, summed up and competed with the latest news coverage. I was able to draw to any shape I fancied, the page being designed around the drawing. In time special shapes were requested.”
“The Guardian doesn’t always use my cartoons”, Gibbard noted at the time: “Sometimes it’s a matter of taste, or lack of space, on occasions they’re just too awful.” Sometimes they were overtaken by events. On the day of the June 1970 General Election he recalled drawing two cartoons, one showing Harold Wilson popping out of the ballot box, and the other, just in case the Liberals held the balance of power, showing “Jeremy Thorpe as a cox holding the rudder of the Wilson-Heath rowboat.” When it was realised that Edward Heath had unexpectedly won, Gibbard was forced to adapt the first cartoon, quickly superimposing Edward Heath’s head on the jack-in-the-box.
Whilst working for the Guardian, Gibbard also developed his skills as an animator. From 1973 he spent two years in the Soho studios of Richard Williams, alongside the veteran animator Ken Harris, attending classes that Williams organised by the former Disney animator Art Babbitt. From 1976 to 1977 Gibbard then produced his own animated political cartoon series “Newshound” for Granada TV’s Reports Politics. He had three days each week to complete sixty seconds of line animation, which then had to be shipped from London to Manchester for transmission. Gibbard then decided to move back to New Zealand, to work as a film animator and freelance cartoonist, and in 1979 bought a set of animation equipment to take with him. However, he had to be bailed out by the Guardian, and return to London, when the equipment failed to reach New Zealand.
One reason Gibbard was prepared to return to the Guardian was the victory of Margaret Thatcher in her first General Election of May 1979. Gibbard was at first prevented from caricaturing her too viciously, on the grounds that it was “too tough and ungentlemanly to attack a lady at the start of her honeymoon.” But by outbreal of the Falklands War in April 1982 the Guardian had no qualms about his attacking the Prime Minister. As Gibbard recalled, “looking for some way to express my anger at the pointless waste of human life on both sides I turned to the famous cartoon by Philip Zec, which nearly had the Daily Mirror closed down during the Second World War.” Gibbard recaptioned it “The price of sovereignty has increased - official”, and the Guardian carried it on 6 May 1982.
As Gibbard noted afterwards, “I was unaware of the furore caused by it until I returned home later the following day to barrage of phone calls asking me how I proposed responding to being called a traitor.” It turned out that Thatcher had attacked those in the British media who were slow to back the campaign, and the Sun had followed her lead by accusing Les Gibbard - among others - of treason. “What is it but treason”, the paper demanded, “for The Guardian to print a cartoon, showing a British seaman clinging to a raft...isn’t that exactly calculated to weaken Britain’s resolve at a time when lives have been lost, whatever the justice of her cause?” The matter was raised in the House of Commons, and the Sun’s leader-writer was ousted from the National Union of Journalists for unfraternal behaviour.
Gibbard was unsettled by the furore over this cartoon. When Independent Newspapers Limited offered him a job on the Wellington Evening Post, to replace the cartoonist Nevile Lodge who reduced his workload in 1982, he returned again to New Zealand. A few of Gibbard’s cartoons appeared in the paper before Lodge finally retired, but it did not work out and Gibbard returned to London. From 1982 to 1986 he drew weekly political cartoons for Channel 4 television’s A Week in Politics, and for BBC TV’s Newsnight. Then, from 1988 to 1995, Gibbard effectively became the BBC’s political cartoonist, drawing up to ten cartoons a week for a comment spot on the Sunday television programme On the Record.
Gibbard also increased his animation work, working as key animator on a number of television projects, including Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1992), Beatrix Potter’s The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (1992-95), The Wind in the Willows (1995), the Oscar-nominated Famous Fred (1996), based on a story by fellow cartoonist Posy Simmonds, and two films based on stories by Raymond Briggs: The Bear (1998) and Ivor the Invisible (2001). Gibbard also contributed caricatures to the Daily Mirror, and cartoons to the Daily Sketch, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Mirror, Evening Standard, Time Out, Melody Maker and others.
By 1990 Steve Bell was working alongside Gibbard as the Guardian’s political cartoonist, and in 1994 Gibbard was finally dropped by the paper in favour of Martin Rowson. According to Guardian columnist Edward Pearce, Gibbard “was out because of a regressive fashion - ‘Back to Gillray’, instant fury lavatorially expressed.” The new style was starkly in contrast to the old. Gibbard’s style was gentler and more polite than that of either Bell or the visceral Rowson, and in his cartoons, as Pearce noted, there was “not a pile of excrement in sight.”
Described by one colleague on the Guardian as “a big man with a head of wild ginger hair and beard apparently combed only by the wind”, Gibbard preferred to work at home rather than in the office. He drew his cartoons in pen and ink using a Gillott 404 nib on cartridge paper, an HB pencil and a No. 4 sable brush, signing them simply “Gibbard”. He used cross-hatching on his printed work, but for television Gibbard preferred Daler line-and-wash board with a neutral tint wash. He cited his influences as David Low, Gordon Minhinnick, Tom Webster, Ronald Searle and Walt Disney.
Les Gibbard died on 10 October 2010, of a pulmonary embolism after a knee replacement operation.
- Phillip Knightley "D-day for Sun", Sunday Times, 9 May 1982.
- Les Gibbard "Twenty Years On: The World of Les Gibbard", The Guardian, 19 October 1991.
- Les Gibbard "Gordon Minhinnick: Art of Rude Noises", The Guardian, 18 March 1992, p.39.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.88-90.
- Michael Hirsh on Gibbard's "Newshound" animation, posted 21 June 2006 at www.articlesandtexticles.co.uk/2006/06/21/120000-cartoons-in-cartoon-database/
- New Zealand Press Association, “Expat Nzer One Of ‘World’s Most Sharp-Edged Cartoonists’,” 14 October 2010.
- Michael McNay “Obituary: Les Gibbard”, The Guardian, 21 October 2010, p.38.
- Mark Bryant “Les Gibbard; Artist held to be one of the finest political cartoonists of his generation”, The Independent, 23 October 2010, p.50.
- [Colin Seymour-Ure] "Les Gibbard; Incisive cartoonist and animator”, The Times, 26 October 2010, Features p.64.
- Edward Pearce “Les Gibbard”, The Independent, 30 October 2010, p.50.
2526 uncatalogued originals (LG0001 - 2526) 15 boxes photographs 1 unaccessioned original (Frontiers Exhibition) Prism: BBC cuttings
70s, 90s (most undated) 1 unaccessioned original - 10/12/91
On the Record BBC; The Guardian