Comic Creator Spotlight: Cartoonist Joseph Lee

Here’s a smashing World War Two cartoon by Joseph Lee, currently on offer on eBay a cartoonist who in later life also contributed to comics such as Wham! and Whizzer & Chips.

This original comic art sketch, measuring 55 x 45 cm, was found in an attic, the work of the talented cartoonist perhaps best known for his “London Laughs” in the London Evening News. A fairly fragile item, the sketch had been prepared for final editing as the signals featured have been corrected and “papered over”.

A profile of Joseph Lee on the British Cartoon Archive notes he established his reputation as a newspaper cartoonist with the Pall Mall Gazette at the age of just 19. Working for various periodicals during the 1920s and early 30s, he joined the London Evening News in 1934, when he produced his initial “London Laughs”, the first series of non-political topical cartoons in a British newspaper, and one that would make Lee the longest-running daily cartoonist in history.

Born in Burnley-in-Wharfedale, Yorkshire, on 16th May 1901, and educated at Leeds Grammar School as the result of a scholarship, Lee showed such a talent for art that, in about 1915, his mother found enough money for him to attend Leeds College of Art for three years, with the intention of his becoming an architect. Fellow students also included the sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Lee took a correspondence course in cartooning with Percy Bradshaw’s Press Art School in 1919, and sent specimens of his work to London. Despite rejections, his mother found £20 for him to go to London to take up a scholarship at the Royal College of Art. However, following his arrival in the city on Christmas Eve, he was unable to pay his way and so produced freelance cartoons, eventually securing a job in the art department of an advertising agency.

He joined the Pall Mall Gazette in 1920 aged 19 as daily cartoonist and political writer, issued with a Press Gallery pass for the House of Commons. He was soon described by The Strand magazine as “the youngest of the men of his craft who now have an established reputation”.

When the Gazette was absorbed by the Evening Standard, 18 months after he’d joined the paper, he moved to the Liverpool Daily Courier as cartoonist and Art Editor. From there he went to the Sunday Express, and also did some work deputising for Strube on the Daily Express. However, as a committed socialist, he resigned from the Express soon after joining it, in response to the paper’s line on the General Strike.

Through the late 1920s, Lee supported himself with freelance work, producing a daily political or social cartoon for the Daily Chronicle (from 1926), as well as syndicated cartoons for Allied Newspapers, and contributions to the Bystander, the Sketch, Tatler, London Opinion, Punch and others. By the early 1930s, he had also become a general artist for the Daily Mail, most notably creating its comic strip “Pin-money Myrtle” (in 1933) which ran for several years.

An early “London Laughs” by Joseph Lee, based on the 1934 production of Dick Whittington at London's Lyceum Theatre. Held by the V&A
An early “London Laughs” by Joseph Lee, based on the 1934 production of Dick Whittington at London’s Lyceum Theatre. Held by the V&A

In 1934, Lee sent four trial cartoons to the Evening News. One of these was published on 14th May 1934, so instigating the series “London Laughs”, which he continued to create until his retirement retired in 1966.

“Streamlined Trains” by Joseph Lee, depicting streamlined locomotives in trains, dated 13th February 1936, part of the “London Laughs” series. Held by the Science Museum

During World War Two the series was retitled “Smiling Through” while, in 1946, it was briefly called “New York Laughs”, when Lee was staying in the city.

A clash of classes in the wartime factory for one of Joseph Lee’s “ Smiling Through” cartoons
A clash of classes in the wartime factory for one of Joseph Lee’s “ Smiling Through” cartoons

According to The 100 British Cartoonists of the Century, Lee “is thought to have drawn over 9000 cartoons, often two a day for different editions – and at one point, in addition to “London Laughs”, he was also producing another daily cartoon, for the Allied Group of provincial papers, at the same time.

“While apparently influenced by Rowlandson and Phil May, Lee certainly followed in the line of H M Bateman,” notes his biography at the British Cartoon Archive, “and had a similarly strong grasp of the relationship between the classes of British society.”

Inexhaustibly creative, he received an award for Special Services to Cartooning from the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain in 1963.

Although Lee retired to Norwich in 1966, he continued to produce political cartoons for the local Eastern Daily Press (although by now exhibiting a Tory bias), and worked on several comics, including Whizzer & Chips, credited by some as drawing some episodes of “Angel Face and Dare Devil” (a strip also drawn by Mike Lacey) and “Batty Bat” (also drawn by Reg Parlett).

An episode of “The Spooks of St. Lukes” for Lion and Thunder, cover dated 23rd October 1971 by Joseph Lee. With thanks to Lew Stringer. © Rebellion Publishing Ltd
An episode of “The Spooks of St. Lukes” for Lion and Thunder, cover dated 23rd October 1971 by Joseph Lee. With thanks to Lew Stringer. © Rebellion Publishing Ltd

“Joseph Lee was better known for ‘The Spooks of St. Lukes’ in Thunder“, notes fellow comic artist Lew Stringer, “and I think it was him who filled in for Ken Reid for several months on ‘Frankie Stein’ for Wham!

Lee also drew advertisements for British Rail and others, although I’ve not been able to find any examples of these yet.

He died on 15th March 1974.

The eBay item can be found here – it sold for a bargain £17

• Examples of Lee’s work are held in the British Museum, the V&A and the Cartoon Museum; and in particular, the British Cartoon Archive, at the University of Kent, Canterbury, which holds thousands of his cartoons

The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Explorer (previously known as Star Trek Magazine) and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of "Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies" for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.

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