Bill Papas was born on 15 July 1927 in Ermelo in the Transvaal, South Africa, the son of Kostas Papas, a Greek baker and restaurant owner. Educated at Pretoria Boys High School, Papas ran away from home at the age of fifteen and, lying about his age, joined the South African Air Force as a rear-gunner, flying coastal missions during the Second World War. He then studied at Johannesburg Art School, and set up a fabric design studio. When this failed he moved to England in 1947, and continued his art studies at Beckenham Art School, Kent, and at St Martin's School of Art in London.
In 1949 Papas returned to South Africa, at a time when the government was introducing its avowedly racist legislation. He worked as an artist and reporter on the Cape Times, one of the principal opposition publications, and it was here that his first published cartoon appeared in 1951. From 1952 to 1958 he worked for the opposition Drum Magazine and for the Johannesburg Star. In 1958 his coverage of Nelson Mandela's treason trials for the Star was syndicated both to the London Observer and other European newspapers. However, after suffering repeated censorship, Papas abandoned journalism and spent time farming and trucking timber with his brother, before returning to London in 1959. Six years later he was banned from South Africa for his anti-apartheid cartoons.
In London Papas worked alongside David Low as political cartoonist on the Guardian. Their work alternated until Low's retirement in April 1963, when Papas succeeded him. Harold Jackson, who worked on the Guardian, recalled that Papas "developed the habit of button-holing me on the newsdesk at around 4pm each day to mull over topics for his nightly cartoon": "As we talked, he would sketch out potential offerings at lightning speed. They rarely, if ever, bore the slightest relation to anything we had discussed, but he clearly needed this contact; sometimes, he would even ring me at home on my day off. Once the session ended, he would take his preliminary drawings to the duty editor for a final decision. Then, in a windowless hovel off the newsroom, he turned the chosen topic into finished artwork with quite astonishing speed and elan - though we had to be equally fast to spot the spelling mistakes before he shot out of the office."
From 1959 onwards Papas also contributed to Punch (including covers), and in 1964 he began drawing a weekly political cartoon and a strip called "Bella and Lujah" for the Sunday Times, with which the Guardian shared a building. In addition to his daily cartoon for the Guardian, Papas contributed "Theodore", a strip cartoon about a mouse - one of whose escapades led to a brief ban on his work in India in 1966. The Guardian also commissioned Papas to illustrate feature articles. He provided illustrations for articles about cities of the world, which were also issued as prints, and he also covered Party Conferences - one of his cartoons being condemned by Harold Wilson's political secretary as "the worst blow the Guardian struck against the Labour Party". In 1965 Papas covered the conflict in Cyprus, and in 1967 he worked as Guardian war artist during the six-day Arab-Israeli war.
Papas's Guardian cartoons were forceful but never personally vindictive. "I don't caricature too much", he told one interviewer in 1965: "I don't see the point of dwelling on deformities to bring over the point...It's their policies, not the politicians, that count." His spelling remained idiosyncratic. Christine Eade, who joined the Guardian newsroom in 1968, had the desk closest to his tiny office at Gray's Inn Road. "A few days after I joined the paper," she recalled, "the swarthy, exotic Papas popped his head out to ask: 'How do you spell "tomorrow"?'": "I thought he had made a philosophical joke, but played safe by spelling it for him. A few days later, when he asked how to spell 'de Gaulle', I realised that his communication was visual, rather than word-based."
Eventually the strain of producing a daily cartoon became too great. Peter Preston, then Guardian features editor, recalled how Papas would "patrol the office...tapping you for ideas": "Bill would come in mid-afternoon and hover. Any ideas? Got a subject? And then, as the evening wore on, he'd grow more and more anxious, importuning feverishly." Finally, in 1970, Papas decided to take a sabbatical, recalling later that "I'd been drinking a bottle of Scotch a day and not even getting drunk."
Papas went back to Greece, after which he found it difficult to return to cartooning. As he later admitted, "after the year was up the editor asked me back and that week was the hardest of my life": "I found the same stories and the same things were happening; all I had to do was change some names." Papas decided to leave the Guardian for good, and the process of selecting work for a possible cartoon anthology confirmed him in this decision. As he noted, "I saw that in fifteen years very little had changed": "The subjects were different but the message was essentially the same." He was succeeded at the Guardian by Les Gibbard.
In 1971 Papas sold up, and returned with his second wife Tessa to his father's home village in Greece. They spent the next twelve years crusing the Aegean, exhibiting and selling his pictures, before moving to the Middle East where Papas produced a book on Jerusalem. After a short stay in Geneva in 1983, Papas and his wife accepted an invitation to Chicago, which turned into a two-year tour of the continental United States. Papas finally settled in Portland, Oregon, in 1984, where he drew illustrations, and produced a series of pictures of American cities in pen-and-ink and watercolour. He only returned to London on visits, feeling that the city had lost its energy. "I was back in 1987", he told an interviewer, "and still noticed that lethargy": "I was there at the best time, during the 1960s when there was a freedom of spirit, quite unbelievable in comparison with today."
In 1992 Papas began a self-syndication service, and intermittently supplied political cartoons to the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Kansas City Star and other US and Canadian papers. He worked with a dip pen and indian ink, and for his watercolours used Arches cold-pressed watercolour paper. Papas acknowledged in 2000 that he was "influenced by Daumier and Toulouse Lautrec": "The drawing and the actual line are important for me. I obtain immense satisfaction in realising a situation or movement with a simple pen stroke. I hope to be remembered as a chronicler, that viewers will look at a painting or sketch or cartoon of mine and will say, 'Yes, that is right. That is how it was/is!'" Papas died at Hotnarko Lake, British Columbia, on 19 June 2000, following a flying accident.
- Michael Bateman Funny Way to Earn a Living: A Book of Cartoons and Cartoonists (Leslie Frewin, London, 1966), pp17-18.
- Christopher Reed "Portland's New Pioneer", Guardian, 25 November 1989.
- Peter Preston "What Me? Angry?", Guardian, 27 September 1997, Weekend Page.
- Harold Jackson "Obituary: William Papas", Guardian, 26 June 2000, p.20.
- Christine Eade "Letters: Obituary", Guardian, 27 June 2000, p.20.
- Mark Bryant "Obituary: William Papas", Independent, 12 July 2000, p.6.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.167-8.
- Peter Preston "In Pictures: Bill Papas, the Steve Bell of the 60s", The Guardian, 15 January 2004, Features p.12.
18 uncatalogued originals [PU1442 - 1459]