Chris Priestley was born in Hull on 25 August 1958. He was an avid reader of American comics as a child, and when he was eight or nine, and living in Gibraltar, he won a prize in a newspaper story-writing competition. He decided then “that my ambition was to write and illustrate my own book”.
Priestley studied at Manchester Polytechnic from 1976 to 1980, and worked at first as a caricaturist for the Record Mirror, from 1981 to 1985, at the same time “plotting short stories and keeping notebooks.” He also provided illustrations for the Listener and Radio Times, and - from 1983 - for The Times and Independent.
In 1990 Priestley acted as holiday stand-in for Chris Riddell on the Economist, after which the art editor offered him a permanent job. He joined the small group of cartoonists providing illustrations and covers for the magazine, “sitting between Chris and Dave Simonds every Wednesday for the next six years.” In 1992 Priestley also wrote the strip “Bestiary”, which was published in the Independent on Sunday and illustrated by Riddell, who had begun working for the paper the previous year. Priestley characterised it as “an extended riff on the fun to be had with inventing animals on the back of awful puns.”
“Bestiary” ended in 1995 when Riddell moved from the Independent on Sunday to the Observer. Priestley was due to succeed him as political cartoonist on the Independent on Sunday, but Riddell persuaded him to move to the Observer with him. “I was to do a portrait each week for their profile page”, Priestley recalled, “and I came up with another strip called ‘Babel’...inspired by the wonderful Feiffer strips that used to grace The Observer.” However, Priestley’s profile cartoon was dropped soon after, followed by “Babel.”
In 1996 Andrew Marr, a former journalist on the Economist, became editor of the Independent, and planned a redesign of the paper. Priestley was persuaded to leave the Economist and Observer to become the newspaper's political cartoonist. As he later recalled, “I took my inspiration from American cartoonists more than British ones (or at least living ones). I get very tired of the seaside postcard nonsense of British Political cartoons.”
One of Priestley’s first tasks at the Independent was to develop a caricature of Tony Blair, but he complained that the leader of the Labour Party was “such an estate-agent figure, it won’t be until he gets into power that we’ll really get a hold on him”: “He is determined not to give us anything hard to push against, so we’ve gone overboard on what there is. He’s got no more sticky-out ears than me, but you’d think he was an elephant, and the grin has turned into Jack Nicholson in The Shining.”
Priestley was also to provide illustrations for the Independent, some in full colour, and to develop a strip called “7.30 for 8”, which, as Marr informed readers, was to feature “a never-ending dinner party, where a mix of guests chew over the pasta, themselves and the world around us.” “It was a good idea, recalled Priestley, but “as with everything I did for the Indie it was done far too quickly and without enough planning. It took a little while to find a stable form and by that time it was dropped.”
Marr was sacked as editor of the Independent in 1998, after failing to halt its declining circulation and refusing to make further redundancies. Priestley left the paper in October 1998. “I wasn’t actually fired, but things had run their course”, he recalled: “They made it easy for me to go. My very short career as a political cartoonist had come to an end.”
Priestley has also contributed to the Financial Times, Guardian, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, and Sunday Telegraph. Chris Riddell suggested that Priestley should write and illustrate a children’s book, which started another successful career as writer and illustrator, beginning with “Dog Magic!” (2000) and “Jail-breaker Jack” (2001). Riddell also encouraged Priestley to develop a strip cartoon for the New Statesman, which resulted in the weekly “Payne’s Grey” - a bleak satire named after the very dark blue-grey colour used by artists to darken paint.
Priestley was inspired by Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” strip and Jules Feiffer’s cartoons in the Observer magazine in the 1970s. He admires the work of Jules Feiffer, Tomi Ungerer, Andre Francois and the early drawings of Ronald Searle. He works mostly in dip-pen, brush and ink, but he also paints. “I’m an artist and I’m a writer”, Priestley says proudly: “We are screwed up so you don’t have to be.”
- Rebecca Fowler "Satire and the great cardy challenge", Independent, 4 July 1996, p.5.
- Andrew Marr "Our Changes", Independent, 16 September 1997, p.2.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), p.176.
- Chris Priestley's blog at chrispriestley.blogspot.com particularly the entries for 25 January, 4 May, and 29 August 2008, and 7 February, 7 July, 27 July, and 28 July 2009.