Antony Harding pays tribute to his father, Tony Harding, artist on “Roy of the Rovers”, “Twisty”, “Look Out for Lefty” and many more classic British football strips…
During my school years, from time to time older kids would come up to me and ask me for my father’s autograph. On hearing this, my dad would make a joke of it but still send me off to school the following day with a signed comic in my satchel. But for me, having a comic artist for a father wasn’t such a big deal. I mean, Dad had always sat at his desk drawing footballers with his clutch pencil and inking them in with his nib pens and brushes. It was as much a part of my childhood as my mother’s Irish stew! In fact, he only seemed to stop drawing on Saturdays to play football and on Sundays to go to Church.
To pay the mortgage Dad often worked on two comics at the same time: Roy of the Rovers during the day and Victor or Scoop in the evenings. So he was always at his desk, leaning over his old homemade, wooden drawing board, listening to Radio 2 or the football.
I remember clearly the tools of his trade: the big sheets of thin white cardboard he drew on, the large pieces of blue blotting paper blotched with Indian ink, the little piece of sandpaper stapled to a small block of wood which he used to sharpen his pencil leads on, the little pot of Process White and the old silver tankard full of assorted nib pens and brushes.
I would marvel at how he could sketch out a three-page story from the scripts he was given, always leaving just the right spaces for titles and speech bubbles. Abstract, sketchy pencil marks soon became fully pencilled in drawings which in turn became stark, black and white images. All traces of pencil were then erased, leaving the floor covered in little bits of green rubber. He would roll up the pages of his finished artwork, wrap it in brown paper and send me or my big sister off to the local post office to mail it by recorded delivery to either IPC or DC Thomson, while he waited for the next script to arrive.
Saturday mornings would see the delivery of Roy of the Rovers and either Victor or Scoop through our letterbox. Very occasionally an annual would arrive and Dad’s art would strangely be in colour (coloured in by someone else at the offices, much to Dad’s disapproval).
As my mother will confirm, leaving artwork unattended on a desk with two young kids in the house would occasionally lead to disaster! My older sister exploring Dad’s desk, in her early years, managed to spill a pot of Indian ink over a freshly inked in page. To make matters worse, this was a rush job that needed to be posted in the following day. But Dad still made his deadline.
I remember myself, many years later, passing Dad’s vacant desk while he was on a toilet break, and finding a page half inked in, with his nib pen invitingly sticking out of the pot of ink. He was working on a story where the owner of the football team also owned a pork pie factory and in one of the drawings the fans are hurling the pork pies back at him. I couldn’t resist inking in a few of the pies. Dad had obviously taught me well as he didn’t seem to notice on his return. I was quietly proud of my work and even prouder when I eventually saw it in print!
His love of football spread much further than the pages of the football comics. A lifelong Arsenal fan (he kept an impressive collection of ticket stubs and match day programmes from Highbury) and a talented schoolboy sportsman (we recently found certificates for first place in shot put, running and long jump) he later won several armfuls of cups and plaques with East London’s Gartan Sports FC during 1959 and 1971.
During his Guernsey years he made headlines in the Guernsey Star as “Clever Harding – Match-winner” (we still have the newspaper cuttings) for his time playing with St Martin’s FC where he helped the team to win the league and several cups in just a couple of seasons (1963-65). Dad finally hung up his jock strap and muddy old boots at the age of 43 and only because of a dodgy knee, having played over 300 games for Rookley FC on the Isle of Wight. Picking up the titles of Life President, Player of the Year and Club Man of the Year along the way, he captained the team to win the league and cup double in 1977-78 amongst many other titles.
It wasn’t all glamour though. Rookley’s football pitch was actually a cow field and match day preparations included the shovelling off of cow pats and the marking out of the lines of the pitch over clumps of thistles with whitewash. There were two small rickety caravans, one for the visiting team and an even shabbier one for the home side. Post match showers were either done with buckets of cold water or a quick dip in the cow trough for the harder players! From time to time, my big sister and I, who attended every match, would get stuck in the mud and the ref would have to stop play long enough for Dad to run over and pull us and our wellington boots out. It all seemed like a storyline taken straight out of a copy of Hornet or Scorcher!
Once Dad had retired from the football field, Saturday afternoons in the mid eighties would also be spent at his desk working on the two or three page stories. To earn extra pocket money I was given the tedious task of sticking in all of the hundreds of football cuttings, snipped out of Shoot Magazine or the sports pages of the newspaper, into scrapbooks which made up Dad’s own personal reference library. There were books for goalies, shooting, heading, tackles, overhead kicks and diving!
On occasion, Dad would make a rare mistake, and somehow it would slip under the radar. My mother remembers a drawing featuring a football player who had managed to pass unnoticed all the way to the pages of the printed comic despite having accidentally been drawn with three arms! A missed opportunity, it unfortunately didn’t spawn a new hit storyline about an unbeatable goalkeeper!
There were also personal touches in Dad’s comic art. He would often include the names of friends or neighbours in his drawings, written on the advertising boards at the sides of the football pitches, much to their delight.
It is only really now, after his death, that I truly begin to appreciate the body of work he left behind. Over 30 years working full time as a comic artist on weeklies and annuals, plus several years more working part time on monthlies, the daunting task of compiling the definitive list of Dad’s work from his apprenticeship at Link Studios in London in 1958 to his final illustrations in the pocket Football Picture Story Monthly comic books in 2003, seems impossible!
Today’s collectors keep their comics in individual plastic envelopes to keep them in tip top condition. Dad kept his in big cardboard boxes up in the loft. But these battered boxes are treasure troves overflowing with musty old copies of Hornet, Action and Bullet, Scoop, Victor and Roy of the Rovers. Faded, tattered and torn, these dog eared comics from the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties still provide a thrill to whoever ventures up the ladder and into the cobwebbed darkness.
And my father lives on between the pages of these adventure comics, in the characters that he helped bring to life: Roy Race, Bernard Briggs, Bobby of the Blues, Twisty and Lefty, to name but a few, forever tying up the laces of his lucky boots, running on for the last ten minutes of the match and scoring that spectacular winning goal!
Our thanks to Anthony for providing this fascinating snapshot of his father’s life and comics work.
• “A Lovely Bloke…”
Fellow artist Barrie Mitchell pays tribute to Tony Harding