H M Bateman 1887 - 1970

20th century cartoonist and caricaturist

To many admirers of the art of the cartoon, H.M.Bateman is the most original, the most various, the most brilliant – and, indeed, the funniest – genius of his times. Born in 1887, he was already drawing for publication in his early teens. Astonishingly prolific and inventive, everything he saw became material, so that his work can be read as a social history of Britain in the first half of the 20th Century and, to an extraordinary degree, as a kind of autobiography. His family and friends; his trips to the fair, to the seaside, abroad; his passions for the Music Hall, for tap-dancing, for boxing, for fishing, for golf; his desperate experiences in the First World War; his car, his house, his vacuum-cleaner; his triumphs and disasters over many years – all find their way in to his cartoons.

The Man Who Missed the First Tee at St. Andrews  

His style developed and changed radically over the years. From the graceful and rhythmical lines of his earlier work to the stark brilliance of his strip cartoons and the furious energy of his “Man Who ...” series, his essential qualities of superb draughtsmanship, astonishing observation and a profound appreciation of humanity’s foibles, are always married to a wonderful wit and narrative perfection. He told marvellously funny stories in pictures.

He made three great and radical contributions to the art of the cartoon in this country. The first came in 1908 when, aged 21, he suffered a nervous breakdown probably caused by the dreadful choice he had to make between pushing forward with his career as a cartoonist, already much in demand, or trying to become a “serious” painter.

This derangement, coupled with an absolute devotion to the surreal madness of Music Hall comedians, seems to have given him a new intensity, a highly charged way of working. At a stroke he did away with the conventional stillness – not to say stiffness - of cartoon figures and, as he himself put it, “went mad on paper”. Until this time conventional cartoons had been illustrated jokes – drawings with a few lines of text or dialogue underneath. Take away the dialogue and the drawing becomes meaningless, the joke lay in the words. From 1909 onwards Bateman drew no more illustrated jokes and so changed profoundly the art of the cartoon, invested it with a new freedom of line and expression. The drawing became funny in itself, self-explanatory. He made emotion the subject of his cartoons and the characters became actors expressing feeling, rather than illustrations to an idea. This was a new, histrionic, hyperbolic creative method and its effects are still apparent amongst some of our greatest cartoonists today.

The second great and innovative contribution Bateman made to the art of the cartoon came during the First World War. He had been rejected by the army and retreated ill and deeply depressed to a remote inn on Dartmoor. But he worked prodigiously and started to produce, in 1916, astonishing strip cartoons that immediately gripped the public and the attention of his fellow artists. As a child he had been an avid reader of the new comic papers and these were, of course, full of comic strips. But these stories and adventures, full of invention and wonderful comic characters though they were, relied again on the story underneath, or speech-bubbles within, and were childish and simple. What Bateman did was to create self-contained strip cartoons without words, brilliant, innovative, cinematic comic stories, adult, often harsh and macabre, and frequently – at this period – to do with themes of guilt, punishment, retribution and death. Cartoons like The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass at the British Museum, The Guest Who Filled his Fountain Pen with Hotel  Ink or Mexicans at Play are all wonderfully humorous but also harsh and complex and they come as a tremendous shock amongst the predictable pages of Punch or The Tatler. Nothing like them had been seen in this country before.

His third major influence on the history of the cartoon came in 1921 and continued for many years. It is, perhaps, the most famous of all his contributions and profoundly changed the landscape of humorous art: he started on his great series of “Man Who” cartoons. Looking back through his work it is apparent that he had been playing with this idea for many years, but the publication of The Guardsman Who Dropped It by the Tatler as a full colour centre -spread caused a sensation and engendered a series of cartoons that lasted for the rest of Bateman’s career.

The majority of the Man Who cartoons describe some terrible social misdemeanour, some solecism or offence against accepted custom and behaviour.

The Guardsman Who Dropped It

They contain those repeated descriptions of anger, consternation and disgust that became the hallmarks of the Bateman cartoon: eyeballs popping out of sockets, contorted bodies, figures prone or airborne. The protagonist is shown recoiling in horror from his actions and the attention focused on him, or else blithely carrying on, innocent of the outrage he has perpetrated and the world’s indignant roar. And the cartoons single out for scrutiny not only the individual who has caused such offence but, perhaps more interestingly, the society that condemns him.

HM Bateman  

Bateman became the most highly paid cartoonist in the country, sought after by advertisers, engaged in America and Australia, published in Europe. All this time, certainly until the late 1920s, he was producing his brilliant strip cartoons and a huge amount of other work in many different and interesting styles, but the Man Who cartoons came to define him, captured the public imagination and passed into the mythology of the nation. These are still in great demand and hardly a week goes by to this day without someone in the press referring to a “Bateman situation”.

Astonishingly, right at the height of his fame, still in his forties, a few years before the Second World War, Bateman gave up all humorous art completely and slipped off quietly, alone, to pursue his old dream of becoming a “serious painter”. He died in his 84th year, still painting every day, out walking in the sunshine on Gozo, where he had lived simply and modestly in a quiet hotel, in the room with the finest view.


The Strip Cartoons of H. M. Bateman:

In 1916 H.M.Bateman started to publish his extraordinary, revolutionary, strip cartoons. These were strips without words, wonderful cinematic sequences that relied only upon the story that the drawings told and did away with any explanatory text. Nothing like them had been seen in Britain before. Coming across them in the pages of Punch or the Tatler is almost shocking – they were so vivid, new and different. In their vigour, their expressiveness and their form they are utterly distinct from any other work of the time.

 HM Bateman - Something Wrong - The Plumber Fixes It  

It is, of course, too easy to divide up any artist’s work into self-contained, disparate sections. But in Bateman’s case his life and work were so remarkably intertwined that pulling out these threads is often illuminating. For example, when he went “mad on paper”, he was actually having a nervous breakdown and spent his 21st birthday in bed. So what was happening in 1916 that lead to cartoons like The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass at the British Museum, The Man Who Filled his Pen with Hotel Ink and Mexicans at Play? In terms of their subject matter it is noticeable that they deal, however amusingly, with themes of guilt or punishment or death. This was the middle of the First World War: a desperate time for so many and a terrible - though fantastically productive and inventive - period in Bateman’s life.

Most of Bateman’s friends and acquaintances, fellow artists and cartoonists, were away serving at the front. He had tried to join up, had fallen ill and been rejected by the army. He fled to a remote inn on Dartmoor and brooded, feeling desperately lonely, inadequate and depressed. But he continued to work incredibly hard, to escape into his work, and produced a stream of brilliant strip cartoons (as well as many others) that dealt with life in the armed services and became immensely popular, especially with serving soldiers and sailors. Eventually, towards the end of the war, the War Office realised what a potent source of inspiration and morale these cartoons had become, and sent Bateman off to the Front, to gather material for his work and to entertain the troops with demonstrations of his drawing, making caricatures and cartoons of subjects they chose for him. This had a wonderful effect on Bateman, doing as much for his own sense of self-worth as it did for the troops.
But how had Bateman arrived at the form of the strip cartoon? There are certainly two major influences that are immediately apparent, as well as certain moments and developments in his life and work that help to point the way. The first of these influences was the fantastic proliferation of comic papers that sprung up in Britain when he was a child. He was an obsessive devotee of the halfpenny comics, of Comic Cuts and Chips and Larks and Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and Fun and many others. In fact, his earliest surviving drawing, done when he was perhaps eight or nine, was done in imitation of Fun, a title page with lots of funny little characters and the inscription: “You are requested to keep dirty fingers off the page – by order...”. From the very beginning, when he started to sell cartoons and sketches to the magazines in his early teens, there was a noticeable tendency for his cartoons to relate more than just a single incident, to have little additional strips appended under the main cartoon or to be made up of a number of separate scenes. He wanted to tell a story. And certainly, by 1910 or 1911, he can clearly be seen to be drawing proto strip cartoons, not quite yet the mature strip cartoon, still including some words and speech or text, but very definitely narrative and cinematic.

HM Bateman - Snooker

Then, sometime just before the beginning of the War, probably on one of his many trips to France, he came across the work of the great French cartoonist Caran d’Ache. His work became the second decisive influence or source of inspiration for Bateman’s strip cartoons, probably the most important both in matters of form and content. Years later, in 1933, he wrote the introduction to a collection of Caran d’Ache’s cartoons published by Methuen (who had published Bateman’s own various collections). In fact, he had almost certainly encouraged Methuen in this, urged on by his own abiding love for the artist. In the introduction he wrote that Caran d’Ache “combined perfection in telling a really droll story with superb draughtsmanship and an astounding observation and knowledge of humanity. For me he defies criticism. I simply admire. He was the most trenchant and illustrious of all designers of what we now call “the comic strip”.
The first great strip cartoon Bateman drew was The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass at the British Museum. It is now in the British Museum! It appeared in Punch in October 1916 and was inspired by the zealous vigilance of the attendants when he went there one day with some friends. He thought how very odd it was that such care was being taken to look after so many dead things while, only a few miles away, men were being slaughtered in their thousands. Immediately – as was so often the case with Bateman – this became material for his work, his life feeding into his cartoons to the most extraordinary degree, so that they can be read not only as a history of his times, but as a personal biography. But, of course, a biography wonderfully charged and transformed - here, particularly, into a bizarre melodrama, stark, ironical and brilliant amongst the rather predictable, rainy-Sunday-afternoon pages of Punch.

Bateman developed the strip cartoon to a degree that even Caran d’Ache had not imagined. His draughtsmanship – freed from the wood block that reproduced the French artist’s creations – was far more fluid, more energetic and expressive, his own appreciation of and delight in the absurd even more extreme. In cartoons like The One Note Man, Getting a Document Stamped at Somerset House, Something Wrong-The Plumber fixes It or The Possibilities of a Vacuum Cleaner the strips would cover three or four pages, something never seen before. These are the very best of British comic art, the most inventive, the most delightful - logical impossibilities that became instant icons of their time. His contemporaries understood this entirely, knew that they were witnessing something quite unprecedented. When The Tatler printed Getting a Document Stamped at Somerset House in 1923, it billed the cartoon as a “Masterpiece” - no other work was ever heralded in such a manner.
The Tatler started to sell Bateman’s strip cartoons as little separate booklets, and flicking through their pages it is at once apparent how cinematic they are, how nearly they approach animation. No wonder Walt Disney was a great admirer. Though Bateman continued to produce original and new work in many different forms, and though his “Man Who...” cartoons are perhaps his most famous creations, his strip cartoons are, in many ways, the most extraordinary creations of his particular genius. They are as vivid today - absurdist pieces of theatre of astonishing design – as they were when they were created, nearly a century ago.