Carl Giles was born in Islington, north London, on 29 September 1916. His father, Albert Giles, was a tobacconist, but his mother was the daughter of a Norfolk farmer and he spent his school holidays in East Anglia. Giles attended Barnsbury Park School - where he was taught by the severe, skeletal Mr Chalk who later featured in his cartoons - but had no formal art training. As Giles later acknowledged, the closest he came to art training was the encouragement of Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy, to whom his uncle was butler.
Leaving school aged fourteen, Giles worked as an office boy for a Wardour Street film company, but then progressed to becoming a junior animator on cartoons. He moved to Elstree, where from 1935 he worked for Alexander Korda, and was one of the principal animators on the first full-length British colour cartoon film with sound, The Fox Hunt. After The Fox Hunt was completed, Giles went to Ipswich to join Roland Davies, who was setting up a studio to animate his popular newspaper strip "Come On Steve". Six ten-minute films were produced, beginning with Steve Steps Out in 1936, but although Giles was the head animator, he received no screen credit. On the death of his brother in 1937, Giles returned to London, and, after speculatively submitting work, got a job as staff artist on the left-wing weekly Reynolds News, producing single-panel cartoons and the strip "Young Ernie".
Giles was much influenced by the Punch cartoons of Graham Laidler - "Pont" - and later admitted that when Laidler died in 1941 it was "the same sort of shock as when someone dies in the family": "I missed his drawings and went on missing them." His "Young Ernie" strip was noted by John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, and in 1943 Giles was invited to the Beaverbrook headquarters in Fleet Street to be interviewed for a job on the Evening Standard. As it turned out he was offered a job on the Daily Express and Sunday Express, at a higher salary than he was getting, and duly left Reynolds News, taking his strip with him. His first cartoon for his new employer appeared in the Sunday Express of 3 October 1943.
In 1943 Giles moved to Ipswich, where he set up a studio. A motor-cycle accident had left him blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, so he was rejected for war service, but during the war he made cartoon films for the Ministry of Information, including One Pair of Nostrils for the Ministry of Health, and, in 1944, The Grenade. His cartoons were also reproduced as posters for the Railway Executive Committee and others. In 1945 he became the Daily Express "War Correspondent Cartoonist" with the 2nd Army. Giles was best known for his Express "family", which first appeared in a published cartoon on 5 August 1945, and had enormous popular appeal.
In 1948 Strube was sacked and Giles took his job on the Daily Express. However, he insisted on cartooning no more than three days a week - two cartoons for the Daily Express, where from 1949 he alternated with Cummings, and one for the Sunday Express. Yet he could still be late with his cartoons, which had to be sent down from Ipswich. He proved to be strongest in social comment, and in 1949 Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express, told Beaverbrook that his political skills were weak: "I do not think that Giles could possibly compete in Low's field. He is not a political cartoonist. Whenever he tries this line of country, he flops badly." Despite being praised by Vicky as "a present-day Hogarth", he never succeeded in this area.
>Giles also contributed to Men Only and other publications, drew advertising cartoons for Guinness, Fisons and others, and designed Christmas cards for the RNLI, Royal National Institute for the Deaf and Game Conservancy Research Fund. In 1959 he was awarded the OBE. Giles cited his influences as Bairnsfather and Pont, and he himself directly influenced the style of Jak, Mac and others. He set his cartoon figures against elaborately-detailed naturalistic backgrounds, often with fascinating sub-plots occurring away from the main focus of the picture. He never submitted roughs, observing that "I can't work that way - I just sit down and draw the thing." He also never worked at the Express's office in London but sent his drawings in from his home in Ipswich, Suffolk.
Sending his cartoons from Ipswich allowed Giles to play games with the newspaper's editorial staff. The cartoonist Mel Calman, who joined the Daily Express in 1957, recalled that a member of staff on the picture desk pored over Giles' cartoon each night: "I watched him scanning the drawing very carefully and asked him why he gave it this careful scrutiny. 'Giles once sneaked in a packet of Durex right on the back shelf of one of his crowded shop scenes and since then I check every inch of his cartoons.' And he laughed affectionately."
Giles continued to avoid political caricature, although just occasionally public figures did appear among the stock characters - as in his cartoon on 12 May 1970, which featured the opening of a cartoon exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and included Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. He was generally treated with enormous care at the Express, but he was fundamentally shy and could be petulant. On a number of occasions he threatened resignation. Lynn Barber, who joined the Sunday Express in 1982, recalled how "editors and picture editors quailed before him and silently endured the thrice-weekly nightmare of getting his work from Ipswich": "When the trains were delayed they sent a taxi; when Giles was snowed in, they sent a helicopter. His rare trips to London for lunch with the editor were as meticulously planned as a royal visit."
In 1989, Giles finally parted company with The Daily Express, after the editor, Nick Lloyd, called his bluff. His cartoons were now being allocated less space in the paper, and he came to London for lunch with the editor. After waiting an hour and a half for Lloyd in a restaurant, Giles was told by a waitress that the meeting had been cancelled. As he later explained, "I just thought, 'sod this'", and walked out. He continued working for the Sunday Express until 1991.
Giles claimed to be a Socialist - "a dirty leftist" - supported the trade union movement, and hated Mrs Thatcher. Yet he was comfortable with the limited horizons of Middle England, and his cartoons did nothing to extend them. The "Giles Family" was the bizarre fantasy of a working-class household living a comfortable middle-class life, and, as Nicholas Lezard wrote in 1994, "one wonders whether the aspirational, acquisitive working class was as much his creation as Mrs Thatcher's." Giles died in hospital in Ipswich, Suffolk, on 27 August 1995.
The following are glimpses into Giles' life based material from the Giles Collection, his personal archive donated to the British Cartoon Archive in 2005.
- Childhood - Giles’ origins, and early life in London.
- School and “Chalky” - Schooldays in Norwich and London, and Giles’ infamous teacher Mr Chalk.
- Animation and freelance - Giles’ first jobs in cartoon animation studios in London and Ipswich.
- Reynolds News - First newspaper work with Reynolds News from 1937 to 1943.
- Express Newspapers - Giles’ transfer to the Sunday Express in 1943, and the spread of his cartoons to the Daily Express.
- War correspondent - Giles’ employment as the Daily Express “official war cartoonist” in 1944 and 1945.
- The genesis of the Giles Family - Giles loses his cast of wartime characters, and creates the “Giles family” as a replacement.
- The Giles Family - Early days - The beginnings of the Giles Family, and its move from working class to middle class.
- The Giles Family - Final version - The classic Giles Family characters, and their popularity.
- The origins of Grandma - Giles’ creation of his most famous character.
- Grandma and Giles - Was Grandma in fact Giles himself?
- Giles at work - Sending the cartoons - Giles’ working day as a cartoonist.
- Making the annuals - How Giles compiled the million-selling annuals.
- Charities and societies - Giles’ cartoon work outside his contract with Express.
Carl Giles Archive 5849 original artwork, pulls, sketches, annuals, Christmas cards, studio contents, awards, correspondence, reference pictures, photographs.
The Carl Giles Archive can be browsed via the British Cartoon Archive catalogue under collection reference CG.
References used in biography
Michael Bateman, Funny Way to Earn a Living: A Book of Cartoons and Cartoonists (Leslie Frewin, London, 1966), pp.31-4.
Mel Calman, What Else Do You Do? Some sketches from a cartoonist's life (Methuen, London, 1986), p.50.
Lynn Barber, "Funny Man's Express Delivery", Independent on Sunday, 1 November 1992, p.34.
Nicholas Lezard, "Giles family values", Modern Review, February-March 1994, p.20.
Simon Heneage, "Carl Giles", Independent, 29 August 1995, p.12.
The Times, 29 August 1995, "Obituaries: Giles."
Denis Gifford, "Cartoonist to the Nation", Guardian, 29 August 1995, p.14.
Daily Telegraph, 29 August 1995, p.19, "Obituaries: Giles".
Dennis Barker, "Cartoonist to the Nation", Guardian, 29 August 1995, p.14.