Emilio Coia was born in Glasgow on 13 April 1911, the son of Giovanni Coia, an Italian immigrant who owned ice-cream shops and cafes in the city. Educated at St Mungo's Academy, Glasgow, Coia began studying at the Glasgow School of Art in 1927, at the age of sixteen, under Maurice Greiffenhagen who quickly recognised his talents as a caricaturist. While still a student Coia drew for GUM - the Glasgow University Magazine, and was the first artist to cover the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, for the Scots Observer. After five years at art school, and in the face of parental opposition to his marrying a protestant, Coia eloped to London with a fellow student.
With just twelve pounds to his name, Coia touted his drawings around Fleet Street, selling his first caricatures to the Sunday Chronicle. He also contributed to Everybody's, Bookman, the Daily Express, Tatler, Sketch, Passing Show, Sunday Referee, Week-end Review, News Chronicle and others. Coia was hailed as "the first Cubist caricaturist", but in 1932 his association with the Sunday Chronicle came to a sudden end when the paper's most influential columnist, Beverley Nichols, objected strongly to Coia's drawing of his friend the novelist Ethel Mannin. He demanded that it be removed from the artist's first one-man show at the Reid & Lefebre Gallery, London, and when Coia refused he was sacked by the Chronicle's editor James Drawbell.
Coia got a job as assistant advertising manager and later personnel manager at a heavy engineering firm in Rochester in Kent, which during the war years produced anti-aircraft shells and winches for the Admiralty. "The war divided me," he later recalled: "I felt a Britisher, but my blood is Italian. I actually tried to join the British Army at Chatham Labour Exchange but I was told I was doing too important a job at the factory." After the war he returned to advertising, working for the Dolcis Shoe Company and later for Saxone in Kilmarnock, before turning full-time freelance once more.
Coia worked at first mostly for the Glasgow Evening Times, but when Roy Thomson bought the Scotsman in 1953, he was taken on by the editor Sir Alastair Dunnett as the paper's first caricaturist. According to Coia, Dunnett assured him "I will never tell you who to draw": "I will never disapprove of who you choose to draw and I will never interfere with your work." From 1956 he produced daily drawings during the annual Edinburgh Festival, and was later also art critic for the Evening Times. From 1966 he was art adviser to the newly formed Scottish Television - for which he also produced live TV sketches.
Coia was a flamboyant character. He enthusiastically kissed those he met on both cheeks, irrespective of gender, and always signed his letters "con amore", although he could not speak Italian. His friend Jack McLean, columnist on the Scotsman, called him "Caesar in a Gucci blazer", and claimed that Coia made his money "the way gypsies do, a bit of this, a bit of that, a lot of charm." Stimulating and argumentative, he could be caustic, with a waspish wit, but he was also very generous and had many friends.
Coia also drew and contributed art criticism for Scottish Field and lectured on art and caricature for the Scottish Arts Council and others. Elected President of the Glasgow Arts Club three times, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1986 he was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Arts from the University of Strathclyde and in 1995 received an Honorary Fringe First from the Edinburgh International Festival. An admirer of Max Beerbohm, he drew in ink and pencil. Emilio Coia died of cancer in Glasgow on 17 June 1997.
There is film of Coia at work at http://news.stv.tv/west-central/102221-one-from-the-vault-caricaturist-emilio-coia-draws-some-famous-faces/
- The Scotsman, 18 June 1997, p.20 "Obituary: Emilio Coia."
- Lesley Duncan "Character and Caricature", The Herald, 18 June 1997, p.13.
- Aine Harrington "Leading light at art club fireplace", The Herald, 18 June 1997, p.13.
- Jack Mclean "A Glasgow Tally with Lots of Style", Scotsman, 20 June 1997, p.19.
- Alan Taylor "Emilio Coia: Great Way of Making Faces", Guardian, 27 June 1997, p.17.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), p.49.
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