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Collecting the Postcard Art of Donald McGill

by John Barber

The saucy postcard that was found in nearly all of Britain's seaside towns portrays a world long since vanished; but typical of a family's annual two week holiday at the seaside during the first half of the twentieth century.

Donald Fraser Gould McGill whose name was to become synonymous with the comic postcard was born on 25th January 1875 in Regents Park, London. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Blackheath in South London where a blue plaque was attached to 5 Bennets Park in 1977 to commemorate his life and time spent there as a professional artist.

He studied at the Art School in Bennets Park and began his professional career as a naval architect, then as an engineering draughtsman. He completed his apprenticeship in 1907 and apart from a term as a clerk during World War One made his living until 1967 solely from designing postcards.

McGill's world was populated by plump, but never obese, wives, diminutive hen-pecked husbands, dishevelled drunks and pert young women with ample bosums.

British people flocked to the seaside for two weeks, traditionally in mid-July when the cotton mills closed down - determined to enjoy sandy beaches, donkey rides, kiss me quick hats and the sea even if it rained for the whole two weeks.

McGill tapped into this.

A typical middle-aged father dressed in striped blazer, straw hat, check knee length trousers and carrying a bucket and spade who would be thought totally ridiculous at home is being looked at by his wife and incredulous young daughter.

"Is daddy going to a fancy dress, mummy?"
"No dear, but we're at the sea-side now you know!"

His early work was humorous without slipping into vulgarity. His later work was full of innuendo and ribald adult humour. They reflected all that was right about British tolerance and the ability to laugh at themselves. Wives may have been overweight but not so much as the women in oversized bathing costumes; husbands may have felt the wrath of the wife's tongue but was never so henpecked as those pictured.

Postcards were bought in their millions by holidaymakers who sent them home to family and friends with messages about the weather and the almost obligatory 'wish you were here'. There were stocked in every end of the pier shop and town centre gift shop; few people ever thought about collecting them as they were so common.

Many of the jokes that first appeared in the early 1900's were re-cycled for a new generation but the stock characters remained; Scotsmen were miserly and usually grumpy, professional men were always in pin striped suits and in an age when nudity was frowned upon McGill substituted statues.

A museum curator is talking to a lady visitor with one hand resting on the bare bottom of a classical statue:

"Ma'am, I've looked after 'em so long that I treat 'em same as if they were alive!"

They were characters and types we could all recognise and McGill was also adept at capturing the accent (or lack of it) of the ordinary working class. So vast was the choice on display that holidaymakers would go to some lengths to choose a card that suited the person to whom it was sent or recognise the butt of the joke.

McGill's family had strong Scottish connections so it was probably not so unusual to find many designs incorporating the Scottish people and their archetypical tightness with money.

A Scotsman with tam o'shanter hat sits at a restaurant table with his four young children. A waiter hovers ready to take his order:

"Let's hae a cup o' tea an' four saucers!"

McGill began designing postcards in 1904 and encouraged by his brother to pursue this direction, started to have his work accepted by the Picture Postcard Company.

Even in his early days the slightly risqué humour that became his trademark had began to surface. A postcard of the time shows a straight-laced and conservative young man smoking a pipe. Inside the billowing smoke is a picture of an attractive young woman.

The man is saying: "I want a good girl and I want her bad".

In the early 1900's the only market for postcards was at Christmas, Birthdays and Valentines Day. Usually they were of a variety of views and local scenery with the season overprinted.

The 1930's were the golden era of the postcard. Families went on holiday more, seaside towns became pleasure grounds and the countryside was opened up to a wider public keen on rambling, cycling and all other pursuits associated with the open air.

The Second World War interrupted this but McGill's humour remained patriotic. A young conscript is faced with the stores sergeant over a desk on which is piled his new kit.

"Here's yer kit, an' if there's anything that fits, bring it back and I'll change it!"

Quite perversely the resumption of peace brought a time of uncertainty and there were several cases brought against McGill and his publishers under the Obscene Publications Act.

During his career Donald McGill's output was by any standards phenomenal, It has been estimated that up until 1957 he had been responsible for anything up to 12,000 original designs.

Anyone with a broad sense of humour can still appreciate McGill's postcards and whilst doing so get a true sense of what it was to be British in the first half of the twentieth century.

Actual postcards can be found at craft fairs and on most auction sites and the prices will reflect the age and condition of the card from a few pence to a few pounds. More sought after are the original drawings. A collection put together by the film director Michael Winner at a recent auction was expected to reach £50,000 and some individual drawings as much as £2000 each although you might normally expect to pay about £500 or less. Considering his output there are still many of these originals around today.

Donald McGill died in 1962 at the age of 87 having made a large contribution to an understanding of British social history.

About the Author

John Barber is a full time Town Centre Manager and part time freelance writer with an interest in social history. Some published articles can be found on www.johnbarber.com.

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