Melville "Mel" Calman was born in Stamford Hill in London on 19 May 1931. His father, Clement Calman, was a Russian timber merchant who had emigrated to London around 1912, and his mother Anna was from Lithuania. A happy childhood was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939. "When war broke out", Calman later recalled, "we survived the Blitz by going every night to a shelter at the top of our road, carrying blankets, thermos flasks, and sandwiches." In 1940 his parents decided to evacuate him to Cambridge, where he got a scholarship at the Perse School.
Calman hoped to remain in Cambridge, and read English at the university, but failed to get a place. Returning to London on the death of his father, Calman considered a career in journalism, but eventually enrolled at the Borough Polytechnic Art School in 1949. He subsequently went to St Martin's School of Art, where he studied book illustration from 1951 to 1953, and tried to live up to his image of an art student: "I wanted to be a romantic figure bursting with sex and passion, yet I still lived at home with my family in Stamford Hill." Calman's first commissioned work - a book jacket - appeared in 1955, but by that time he had started his two years' National Service.
During National Service Calman served as a sergeant in the Army Education Corps, and had a number of cartoons published in the army magazine Soldier. Demobilised in 1956, he became a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, although an approach that year to Punch magazine proved unsuccessful. "I rather doubt if 'cartooning' (as it is generally called) is really your line", the art editor, Russell Brockbank, wrote back: "Neither drawings nor ideas measure up to the standard required here, I'm afraid." However, Calman's first newspaper work came in 1957, when he joined the Daily Express to illustrate the "William Hickey" column, and continued until 1963. "I went in every evening around five o'clock", he later recalled: "I learned the virtues of economy. I learned how to think and draw very quickly." In 1962 Calman also published the first of more than twenty collections of cartoons, entitled "Through the Telephone Directory with Mel Calman."
In 1962 Calman also began the "Bedsit" strip for the Sunday Telegraph, featuring what became his characteristic little man. It seemed, Calman later wrote, "as if I now had this friend who could say some of the things I thought and felt." His cartoons increasingly featured a little man facing a dilemma, or a couple failing to communicate, and although Calman claimed that his characters were "not autobiographical" - "at least not totally" - there were many similarities. Calman admitted in an interview that he was "surly before breakfast, depressed after lunch and suicidal at night", and listed his recreations for Who's Who as "brooding and worrying." This humour concealed real depression, for Calman spent ten years in analysis, and admitted that he was "stable...except when I'm being unstable."
In 1963 and 1964 Calman worked for the BBC's Tonight programme - using thick black markers on grey paper to produce an image that suited the medium. From 1964 he also contributed to the Observer, and later to the business section of the Sunday Times. Calman's work appeared in numerous magazines, including Cosmopolitan and House & Garden, but in 1965 he still complained that at parties "people remark - 'So you're a cartoonist...what else do you do?'"
Always encouraging to new artists, it was through his advice that Posy Simmonds got her first cartoon published, on the women's page of The Times. As she recalled, "in 1968, when I was leaving art school, he left a note on my diploma show, offering help in finding work": "It was through his advice that I had my first drawings published." Four years later he helped her again, when the Guardian approached him in its search for a new Features cartoonist, and Calman recommended her. In 1970 Calman had also founded The Workshop - which became The Cartoon Gallery - in Bloomsbury in London, as a showcase for the work of many of his colleagues. Peter Brookes and Posy Simmonds had their first exhibitions there.
In 1976 Calman was contacted by an American agent who was interested in his work, and managed to get a weekly series of cartoons placed with the Field Newspaper Syndicate, that also syndicated Andy Capp. Calman provided six cartoons a week under the title "Men and Women", but admitted that eventually "I had cannibalised every scrap of an idea from my filing cabinet, and my extensive researches into marital strife were wearing me out." The series ended in 1982, but was republished in book form for the British market.
In 1977 Calman worked briefly as stand-in for JAK (Raymond Jackson) on the London Evening Standard, and in 1979 he began drawing a regular pocket cartoon for the front page of The Times. Calman worked in The Times office, and, according to one observer, "stalked morosely under his cap into News International towards the end of the day in time to watch the six o'clock news, consulted as briefly as possible the back bench of editors about his daily idea, and went down to the art department". Here he drew his cartoons in pencil, leaving someone else to draw the ink border around them. He used 4B or 5B for the main illustration and 4B for lettering, often drawing at twice reproduction size on Croxley Script paper.
In 1983 Andrew Neil became editor of the Sunday Times, and decided that Calman's cartoons were not funny. Calman left the paper in 1984. In 1989 he became co-founder - with Simon Heneage - of the Cartoon Art Trust, and he was its Chairman from 1993 to 1994. In 1994 he stopped working for The Times, having provided a pocket cartoon four times a week for fifteen years. Calman also worked in advertising for Shell, Guinness and others, and contributed illustrations to many books and periodicals. He also made an animated cartoon, The Arrow, for the BFI, and wrote four plays for BBC Radio.
Calman cited his influences as the American cartoonists James Thurber, Saul Steinberg, and Jules Feiffer. He also admired George Herriman, calling his "Krazy Kat" "the most original and brilliant comic strip ever." His appearance, and his awkwardness with strangers, gained him the the nickname of Dismal Mel. But, as his friend Michael Palin wrote, "his morose appearance was so at odds with his inquisitive wit that I used to wonder if he practised looking miserable because he thought it suited him better".
Calman was married twice, with two daughters from his first marriage, and he shared the last ten years of his life with the novelist Deborah Moggach. Calman died in the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, London, on 10 February 1994. In 1995 the British Cartoonists' Association and The Times founded the annual Mel Calman Awards for young cartoonists in his honour. There is a blue plaque on his family home at 64 Linthorpe Road, Stamford Hill, reading "MEL CALMAN 1931-1994 Cartoonist and writer Lived here 1931-1957."
- Ian J. Scott (ed) British Cartoonists Year Book 1964 (London, 1963), p.40.
- Helen Speed and Jackie Lindhurst "Extra Special: With a quartet of cartoonists", Woman, 20 February 1965, p.8.
- "Make us Laugh", Honey, April 1980.
- Mel Calman What Else Do You Do? Some sketches from a cartoonist's life (Methuen, London, 1986).
- Amanda Atha "Mel Calman", Infusion, Spring 1990, pp.4-5.
- Simon Heneage "Mel Calman", Independent, 12 February 1994, p.45.
- CSCC Archive.
- Allan Mclean "Mel Calman: Cartoonist", The Scotsman, 12 February 1994.
- "Mel Calman", The Times, 12 February 1994.
- Guardian, 12 February 1994, p.30, "Soft Pencil, Soft Heart."
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.44-45.
- Simon Heneage, "Calman, Melville (1931–1994)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
- "Hackney Council - Plaques" - www.hackney.gov.uk/ep-mel-calman.htm
Partially catalogued CA0001 - 2636
80s (18/1/80 - 27/6/86)back to top