John McGlashan [Glashan] was born in Glasgow on 24 December 1927, the son of portrait painter and Royal Scottish Academician, Archibald McGlashan. Glashan attended Woodside School in Kelvin Park, and in 1945 won the gold medal in a Glasgow Corporation schools drawing competition. On leaving school Glashan did his national service in the army, then, like his father, studied painting at Glasgow School of Art. He also provided illustrations for the Glasgow University magazine, GUM.
In 1956 Glashan moved to London, where he lived in a garret studio and tried to get established as a portrait painter. In 1959 he married Augustus John's granddaughter Anna, but painting failed to provide them with a reliable income, largely, Glashan later claimed, because of his embarrassment at discussing money. He decided instead to try illustration and cartooning, arguing that “there were only six galleries which counted, and about 30 editors.” After numerous rejections he found a supporter in William Richardson, the editor of Lilliput magazine, which in 1959 began publishing his eccentric cartoons, drawn over the pseudonym “John Glashan”.
These Lilliput cartoons were drawn in Glashan’s characteristic style of sketchy cartoon figures living lives of quiet desperation in front of vast baroque watercolour backdrops. Lilliput closed in 1960, but the following year a collection of Glashan’s cartoons called The Eye of the Needle was published. Their success led to regular features in Queen magazine, from 1961, and in Private Eye, which was launched that year. From then on Glashan’s work appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines, books, and in advertisements for companies such as ICI, Aalders and Marchant and Blue Nun.
In 1966 Glashan became one of the founder members of the British Cartoonists’ Association. “What I’m trying to do in humour is the ultimate in deadpan”, he noted the following year: “Eliminate the laugh till it almost hurts. No laughing.” In 1978, Glashan took over Jules Feiffer's slot in the Observer Magazine, and created the “Genius” cartoon, featuring Anode Enzyme, with an IQ of 12,794, and his patron Lord Doberman, the richest man in the world. “I was looking for something that would give me a lot of freedom”, Glashan later recalled: “If you’ve got the richest man in the world allied to an Albert Einstein, they can do anything you want.”
At Glasgow School of Art Glashan had been close friends with the painter Alan Fletcher. Alasdair Gray, who studied at the same art school, knew them both, and later claimed that Glashan’s bohemian outcasts, alcoholics and even Anode Enzyme were an amalgamation of Fletcher and Glashan himself. Glashan certainly presented himself as a frustrated visionary and inventor, like Anode Enzyme, and he liked to drink. “I’ll eventually be found dead in a pool of vomit”, he told one interviewer in 1991, “a paintbrush in one hand and a glass of vodka in the other.”
“Genius” had a devoted following, but it puzzled many readers. “The world was divided into those who thought it was a work of genius and those who didn't get it”, recalled the editor of the Observer Magazine, Peter Crookston: “Donald Trelford (the newspaper's then editor) hated it; I defended it to the death.” The strip won Glashan the Glen Grant Strip Cartoon award in 1981. But that year saw a change of proprietor, and, soon after Trevor Grove took over as magazine editor in 1982, “Genius” was dropped.
Glashan, who remained bitter at his lack of success in fine art, returned to landscape and portrait painting, recalling afterwards that “my cartoons were becoming more like paintings and my paintings more like cartoons”: “It had got to the point where they actually touched.” He exhibited his work at The Francis Kyle Gallery in 1979 and 1983, at the Cartoon Gallery in 1991 and at The Fine Arts Society in 1991 and 1994. But by this time he had already returned to cartooning, having been taken on by Michael Heath at The Spectator in 1988, for whom he produced weekly cartoons for the next ten years.
An intensely private man, who refused to provide biographical details for his cartoon books, Glashan was remembered by a colleague as “an archetypal urban Highlander, both melancholic and sentimental.” He died of cancer in London on 15 June 1999.
- The Times, 13 November 1967, p.8, “Times Diary: Playing it by Ear.”
- Guglielmo Galvin “Genius or What?” Observer Magazine, 10 November 1991, pp.113-6.
- Michael McNay “John Glashan: Master cartoonist of our self-deluding world,” The Guardian, 19 June 1999.
- The Times, 21 June 1999, “John Glashan.”
- Letter from Joseph McGrath, The Guardian, 24 June 1999, p.22.
- Alasdair Steven “John Glashan”, The Scotsman, 1 July 1999, p.16.
- Martin Plimmer “John Glashan,” The Independent, 22 July 1999, p.6.
- Jack Mclean “John Glashan,” Glasgow Herald, 27 July 1999, p.16.
- Karen Mcveigh “Work of Cult Genius Set for Debut on the Small Screen,” Scotland on Sunday, 31 October 1999, p.10.
- Biography at www.johnglashan.com/biog.html
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