William George Rushton was born in Chelsea on 18 August 1937, the only child of John Atherton Rushton, a publisher. Willie Rushton was sent to Shrewsbury public school where became friends with Christopher Booker, Paul Foot, and Richard Ingrams, who was born the day after him. A keen cartoonist, Rushton’s drawings appeared in the school magazine, The Salopian, and in also in a parody of it called the Wallopian, which he produced with Ingrams and Booker.
On leaving school Rushton did his National Service in the army, serving in Germany. He then worked in a solicitors’ office, where he doodled cartoons on files and case notes and submitted material to Punch, without success. Rushton’s contemporaries from Shrewsbury had gone to Oxford, where Ingrams was editing two magazines, called Mesopotamia and Parson’s Pleasure. John Wells, who was also involved, recalled that Rushton “joined us at Oxford at the weekends when he was a lawyer's clerk”, and contributed cartoons.
Rushton left the solicitors’ office disillusioned, and in June 1960 got a job at the Liberal News, where Booker was working as a journalist. For the next nine months he contributed a weekly strip called “Brimstone Belcher”, featuring the comic adventures of a journalist. After this ended he continued to draw a weekly political cartoon for the Liberal News until the middle of 1962. His cartooning style was strongly influenced by the subversive drawings of Ronald Searle.
Rushton had meanwhile become involved with Ingrams, Booker, and Foot in the publication of a satirical magazine. This appeared in October 1961 as Private Eye, initially under Booker’s editorship. Rushton not only supplied cartoons, but provided jokes, puns, and doubles entendres, and did the layout in his bedroom at his mother’s house in Kensington. However Ingrams, who became editor of Private Eye in 1962, felt that the cartoons “were his greatest achievement”: “He was a brilliant cartoonist, a born cartoonist who had no training. It was completely natural to him.”
Rushton had also become involved with acting, making his stage debut in Spike Milligan's "The Bed-Sitting Room" at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, in 1961. Kenneth Tynan gave Rushton's performance a favourable notice, which led to further revue work and, in 1962, to an invitation from Ned Sherrin to join the satirical BBC television show That Was the Week That Was. Sherrin recalled that Rushton “excelled as the embodiment of pompous, overbearing establishment figures, ripe for knocking down”, and became known for his impersonation of the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. As Rushton commented, “I had voted for him, so he owed me something.”
In 1963 Rushton and another Private Eye contributor, Barry Fantoni, entered a satirical painting entitled Nude Reclining for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name of “Stuart Harris”, and caused some controversy. In November 1963, on the initiative of Private Eye, he stood against the Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, in the Perth and Kinross by-election, under the slogan “Death to the Tories.” Rushton regretted the decision, and on the eve of polling day urged his supporters to vote Liberal. He gained only forty-five votes - prompting a cartoon by Margaret Belsky in the Daily Herald that "only another 14,103 votes and Rushton would have been in."
The writer Patrick Marnham, who began as a journalist on Private Eye in 1966, remembered first encountering Rushton “sketching with his legs on the desk and his tongue sticking out.” He continued to produce cartoons for a range of books and publications including the Daily Telegraph, Literary Review, and - to a diminishing extent - Private Eye. He also contributed a regular contents-page illustration to the Independent Magazine, and from 1993-6 drew cartoons for Channel 4’s television series “Rory Bremner...Who Else?” The journalist Henry Porter recalled that Rushton “always carried a shoulder bag stuffed with elegantly crafted drawings”, but it came to be regular television work, and commercial voice-overs, that provided the bulk of his income.
Willie Rushton died in the Cromwell Hospital, Kensington, on 11 December 1996, following complications after heart surgery.
- Simon Holden “Tributes Flood in After Death of Willie Rushton”, Press Association, 11 December 1996
- Angus Mcgill “Our Willie, One of the Best Liked Men in England”, Evening Standard, 12 December 1996, p.16.
- Henry Porter and John Wells “Willie Rushton: An Original Eye For Wit”, The Guardian, 12 December 1996, Features p.21.
- David Lister “Willie Rushton, Humorist, Satirist, Artist, Dies at 59”, The Independent, 12 December 1996, p.3.
- Ned Sherrin, ‘Rushton, William George (1937–1996)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
- “Willie Rushton” at Wikipedia - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Rushton
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