John Kent was born on 21 June 1937 in Oamaru, New Zealand, the son of R.C.H. Kent of the New Zealand Justice Department. A self-taught artist, he came to London in 1959 and worked at first as a copywriter and art director in advertising, before having his first strip "Grocer Heath" accepted by Private Eye in 1969.
In 1969 Kent also approached the Guardian with drawings for a strip called "Varoomshka" - featuring an innocent blonde girl asking simple questions of wily politicians. Kent speculatively posted them several A3 boards wrapped in brown paper, and Peter Preston, the Features Editor, was very impressed. The weekly series began in the Guardian on 13 October 1969 and ran for ten years. The central figure of Varoomshka was originally based on Kent's wife, Nina, and inspired by the eccentric fashion model Verushka - Countess Vera Gottlieb von Lehndorff - who in 1966 had famously appeared as herself in Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow Up. Kent's scantily-clad heroine also had similarities with "Little Annie Fanny", who had been appearing in Playboy since October 1962, and "Oh, Wicked Wanda!", who first appeared in Penthouse in September 1969.
Kent's heroine Varoomshka posed innocent but awkward questions. "Why celebrate disaster?" she asked Harold Wilson in one cartoon. "I have to," Wilson replied, "because compared with what's to come, these are the good old days." The content was subtly penetrating, but the style - satire framed by Varoomshka's short skirts and long legs - was a new departure for the Guardian. Michael McNay, then a sub-editor on the paper, recalled that "a hard core of the staff regarded themselves as the repository of Guardian values, and delivered a petition demanding the withdrawal of Kent's subversive work": "But the editor, Alastair Hetherington, had the great virtue of always trusting his executives, and he saw off the opposition."
Kent described Varoomshka as "the permanent link between absurdities": "A Miss Everyone who, unlike most people, manages to retain a sense of incredulity at all she encounters." The series continued as a feature in the Guardian until May 1977, when it was reduced in size and taken off the Women's Page - being replaced by Posy Simmonds' first strip, "The Silent Three of St Botolphs." Varoomshka was dropped entirely in 1979, and although it reappeared in the NUJ paper, the Journalist, it was again dropped after allegations of sexism. In 1982 Kent gave the style and format a further reincarnation in the Sunday Times, as a strip entitled "Zelda."
Varoomshka herself was apolitical, although the strip did once provoke libel proceedings from the trade union leader Jack Jones. However, Kent could produce partisan work, and during the 1983 general election campaign he drew "The Lefties", an anti-Labour strip commissioned by the Daily Mail. In 1985 the Nottinghamshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers also commissioned him to design thirty-foot high posters showing Arthur Scargill, national leader of the NUM, urging "Lepers, outcasts, lend me your votes." These recalled the 1984 Miners Strike, when Scargill had warned the Nottinghamshire miners that their opposition made them forever "lepers and outcasts."
From 1973 to 1975 Kent was guest cartoonist on the Sun, deputising for Rigby and Franklin, and in 1975 he was also invited to contribute to the Daily Mail, to the annoyance of its established political cartoonist, Mac (Stan McMurtry). Kent also continued to work regularly for Private Eye, combining political comment and caricature in strips that included "The Brothers" (dealing with the trade unions), "Fifth Form at St Maggie's", "Maggie Rules, OK", "John Major's Big Top," "Capt. Bob" (featuring Robert Maxwell), and "The Dirty Digger" (featuring Rupert Murdoch). He also contributed to the Sunday Times (from 1980 to 1983 and 1990 to 1994), and to the Evening Standard from 1982 to 1986. In 1998 he joined The Times, where the legacy of "Varoomshka" was clearly visible in "La Bimba", a strip he produced for the Saturday edition. However, he also produced illustrations for the parliamentary pages.
In addition, Kent lectured at the RIBA and elsewhere. Influenced by the American cartoonist Al Capp - creator of "L'il Abner", he worked mostly in felt-tip pen on A4 paper, with a striking use of white space and black silhouettes. He died in France on 14 April 2003.
- Keith Harper "Poster campaign attacks Scargill 'lepers' speech", The Guardian, 22 August 1985.
- Michael McNay "John Kent: The man who introduced Varoomshka to the Guardian", The Guardian, 19 April 2003, p.21.
- The Times, 19 April 2003, "Features" p.49, "John Kent."
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), p.132.
1 uncatalogued original [PU0855]
Archive and drawings
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