Where the interest and fascination for caricature design came from I've never understood, except through my love of the theatre and my early idolatry of theatre people - which after over fifty years in the profession has never left me. I suppose I was first influenced by the great Ronald Searle whose simple yet painfully accurate caricatures used to illustrate the theatre page of Punch back in the 1950’s. There was always a whole stack of these magazines at the back of my classroom in Eastbourne, and whenever I was kept in for misbehaving, which I fear was fairly often, I used to tear out the page with his drawings and once home copy like mad. Eventually I developed my own style but not before being influenced by the likes of Oscar Berger, Nicolas Bentley, Einar Nerman (with his tantalizing usage of red) Gerald Scarfe, until eventually stumbling across the American caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld, who I suppose I revere above all overs. I met him briefly in the 1980’s at an exhibition of his work at the National Theatre where he kindly presented me with a signed lithograph of Carol Channing to auction on behalf of the Actor’s Charitable Trust.
I have been fortunate in that most of my subjects have either been colleagues that I’ve worked with at one time or another or know well on a fairly personal basis. So I have been able to observe at close hand actors grow into the characters through rehearsals; the backs of my scripts becoming my artistic notebooks, squiggles and blobs representing nostrils and eyes and any number of mouths twisted into gaping potholes.
It was while I was rehearsing a television version of Caesar and Cleopatra that Alec Guinness spotted me crouched in a corner scribbling. When he discovered that I was actually lampooning members of the cast he looked at me suspiciously and graciously declined to view. So it was hugely gratifying when fourteen years later he selected my design for the cover of his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise. Mind you not every actor has relished the way I’ve brush-stroked their delicate features into objects of derision. Rex Harrison reacted simply with: ‘You bugger!’
I suppose the greatest honour ever bestowed upon me was when I was appearing in a play in the early 90’s. William (Bill) Hewison who had taken over from Searle was then the chief caricaturist for Punch, and when he came to illustrate the play drew me in my own style, which was hugely different from his. I suppose it was then that I realized I had arrived!
Over the years I’ve been fortunate in having had three very successful exhibitions at the National Theatre and a number of my theatrical illustrations of John Gielgud now hang in the Gielgud Theatre, in London’s West End, as do those of Noël Coward in the Coward Theatre. I’ve illustrated a number of biography’s and produced four books of my own- of which a number are included here.
Caricature in a way is rather akin to plastic surgery. As bits are taken away so bits are added, the only difference being that the caricaturist reveals mercilessly, warts, tucks and all. Someone once described my work as bold and sympathetic. Bold I can understand, because that signifies an economy of line – not always easily accomplished, simplicity being by far the most complex equation to unravel. But sympathetic! That seems to evoke a note of compassion, a degree of sympathy towards my subject as though I felt sorry for them for looking the way they do. Which is certainly not the case.
In all seriousness, I would define my work as tongue in cheek portraiture. While Scarfe attacks with a machete I go at with a blunt penknife, and I can’t be fairer than that.
Details of Clive’s acting career and his current performances can be found at www.actorclivefrancis.com