Richard Willson was born in London on 15 May 1939, the son of an importer of bone and horn. He grew up in Sussex and in Epsom, Surrey, where he attended Epsom College. He later studied architecture at Kingston School of Art, but soon decided that, in his words, he was no Corbusier. Inspired instead by Pablo Picasso, Honore Daumier and George Grosz, he "dropped drainage systems and high-rise projects" and switched to graphic design at Epsom College of Art.
After graduation Willson tried book illustration, but later admitted that for some years he was kept afloat by generous parents, encouraging publishers, and good fortune. Then, in 1968, he was taken on by The Observer as a caricaturist and occasional cartoonist, and in 1971 transferred to The Times as a freelance, contributing striking caricatures for the profiles in its Business Diary.
The Times Business Diary provided Willson with regular work, but the large caricatures he drew in ink on board were savagely reduced, so that the fine lines began to disappear and the contrast was flattened by the coarse newsprint. However, in 1981, after David Driver became The Times’ head of design, Willson was given a wider role, which included illustrating a weekly profile in the paper, and providing a cartoon for the Saturday edition. He also acted as an occasional stand-in for Peter Brookes, and for Gerald Scarfe on The Sunday Times.
Willson also worked freelance for a range of publications, including The Spectator, Washington Post, New Statesman, New Scientist, Tablet, Business Traveller, Euromoney, Investor's Chronicle, Punch, Financial Weekly, Accountancy Age, Computing, Lloyds Log, Ecologist, New Internationalist, United Nations and Racing Post. In addition he produced a considerable amount of advertising work for clients including J Walter Thompson and Saatchi & Saatchi.
Willson was interested in ecology and the environment, and in the causes espoused by his great friend and companion, the actress Susannah York, whom he often accompanied on political protests. Willson became closely associated with The Ecologist, and was a friend of its magazine’s owner, the leading environmentalist Edward Goldsmith. In 1977 Willson and Goldsmith collaborated on an Ecologist anthology called The Doomsday Funbook. Willson’s colleagues at The Ecologist recalled him as “something of an anarchist” in the libertarian tradition.
Willson admired the work of Honoré Daumier and Saul Steinberg, but his fine, cross-hatched style with big heads on small bodies also showed the influence of David Levine. His ink drawings were often complex, and were sketched out in pencil beforehand. But he was nevertheless an extremely fast worker, and this made him attractive to newspapers with tight deadlines. He was also valued for his ability to produce portrait-caricatures from photographs, and drew large numbers of these to illustrate newspaper and magazine articles. With the spread of colour printing in newspapers, he also added colour with conte crayons or acrylic.
Willson lived in an isolated house in Peaslake, Surrey. “There was something of the countryside - a certain tweediness - in his dress”, noted Colin Seymour-Ure in his Times obituary, “he was, at heart, a private man”: “For many years he dutifully looked after his mother and aunt and would occasionally admit that he had sacrificed a lot in personal terms to do so.” Towards the end of his life Richard Willson suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and he died of cancer in Ewhurst, Surrey, on 18 November 2011.
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), p.244.
- Peter Bunyard and Robert Prescott-Allen “Obituary: Ecologist cartoonist Richard Willson”, The Ecologist, 30th November, 2011.
- [Colin Seymour-Ure] “Richard Willson: Caricaturist whose detailed pen-and-ink profiles of politicians and public figures were a feature of The Times over four decades”, The Times, 1 December 2011, p.47.
- Mark Bryant “Richard Willson: Political cartoonist and environmentalist”, The Independent, 26 December 2011, p.46.
44 boxes of artwork, photographs of artwork and photocopies
1 framed uncatalogued MO0015