The Cotswold Cartoonist

  • Copyright Oliver Preston
  • Copyright Oliver Preston
  • Oliver Preston in his studio

Beloved local humourist Oliver Preston on making the jump into drawing professionally, establishing the Cartoon Museum and making friends with Jilly Cooper

CH: Originally you worked in finance as a bond dealer with Lehman Brothers.  What prompted you to make such a drastic career change?

OP: I had always drawn cartoons since a child, a hobby that I kept going throughout my 10 years in the City.  The pressure of selling bonds, and their complexities (mortgage backed securities, derivatives) were becoming increasingly unattractive to me, and I decided to switch careers - and to follow my heart.  When you are lucky enough to be given a talent, you should use it.

In what publications did you feature when you started out as a cartoonist?  Can you tell us about your very first commission?

In my first year I set myself a target of drawing for Punch Magazine, The Times and The Spectator, and achieved all three.  Many early clients were PR and advertising companies and an early lead saw me developing whole page strip cartoon with a new character, Marvin Marmite, for The Beano and The Dandy.  He had a cat called Damage and a friend called Tommy Toaster. It ran for eight months.  As a child reader of The Beano and The Dandy it was a dream come true to see my cartoons published alongside Dennis the Menace, The Bash Street Kids and Desperate Dan, and the originals now hang in my childrens' playroom.

You are co-founder and Chairman of London’s Cartoon Museum.  Can you tell us a little about that undertaking and what your role entails?

I have been a Trustee of The Cartoon Art Trust since 1992, and Chairman since 2001.  A registered charity, the Trust has built up a national collection and archive of British cartoons, comics and caricature, and a library of over 4,000 books.  With Lord Baker, my Vice Chairman, we raised over £500,000 to open the doors of The Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury which has achieved over 300,000 visitors to date.  I am particularly pleased that last year we educated over 1,000 children in cartooning and caricaturing courses (many of which tie into the national curriculum) and have had visits from, or outreached to, over 90 schools.  As Chairman and Chief Executive I oversee the curator, assistant curator and museum staff, and take responsibility for fundraising and the future growth and direction of the Museum.  It’s a big ask but I love it, and think in life, it’s important to put something back. 

The British have always loved cartoons and these islands have produced some of the greatest satirists in art history.  Why do you think the art form appeals to us in particular?

Satire has been integral to publications and the british political scene since the middle 1700’s.  From Hogarth, Gillray and Rowlandson, the political cartoons of Punch, Sir David Low, Vicky and Giles – we invented the art form of political caricature and it is thriving today.  Cartoons so often say more than words can ever express and the artistry and deft political insight of our current cartoonists – Steve Bell, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Brookes, Martin Rowson and others is as strong as ever.  The British press publishes images of our politicians that would never be printed in other countries - the USA, Russia, the Middle East - and our cartoonists are admired around the world for their skills and artistry. As a people we like holding our politicians to account and we seem to do it rather well.

At the same time, many feel that humorous works have never been really accepted as ‘proper art’.  Do you think cartoonists get the cultural respect they deserve?

In 1996 we set up The Cartoon Art Trust Awards, now in their 18th year to recognise the best of British cartooning – we have given Lifetime Achievement Awards to many of the greats: Thelwell, Scarfe, Steadman, Fluck and Law, Ronald Searle, and we make sure we have top quality examples of their work in our collections and exhibitions.  Other museums –  the Tate, the British Museum – dip into cartoons, but not with the dedication or scale that we do.  We have a superb exhibition opening in September, ‘The Age of Glamour - Stars of Stage and Screen’ with caricatures by the cartoonist Robert Sherriffs, and a rehang of our permanent displays. The variety of cartoons and humour is a real treat to see, and visitors spend hours going round the galleries. Prices of original cartoon art have soared over the past twenty years, so they are definitely on the map!

Who are some of your favourite cartoonists or artists?

James Gillray, H M Bateman, Ronald Searle, Thelwell, Pont, Rowlandson and Charles Addams of The New Yorker.

Jilly Cooper is a fan of your work.  Have you ever met?

We have – she kindly presented an Award for us at the CAT Awards at Bloomberg in 2000.  She is a near neighbour in the Cotswolds and has always been very supportive and complimentary about my work. 

Most of your work is sharply observational.  Have any of your friends grown wary that their behaviour might end up being lampooned?

I don’t purposefully lampoon my friends but I do have strong social observation.  I take in what people say, what they are wearing, what they do and often situations or their comments might lead me to put pen to paper!

What is a working day in the life of a cartoonist like?

No one day is the same – I might be drawing a caricature for a bank in London, Christmas cards in July, a regular strip cartoon for The Field Magazine, or a new greeting card for our publishing business, Beverston Press.  I have also published 12 books, so often I put myself into purdah to meet deadlines.

You won an art prize at Eton.  What sort of art did you enjoy making in your formative years?

I won the Gunther Graphics Prize for Art three years running – primarily for my work in screen-printing and lino cuts.  I also designed school play sets and catalogue covers and took commissions for advertisements as well as drawing for the Eton College Chronicle.  I was very fortunate that the teaching was superb and the Drawing Schools' facilities were a fertile ground for self-expression.  My tutor pushed for me to go to Kingston Art School, but my father had other ideas.  As a result I am completely self-trained, so what you see is what you get!

Tell us about your [new] book, Rich Pickings ...

‘Rich Pickings’ is my twelfth book – it is a collection of over two years work and the follow up to ‘Another Log on the Fire’ and ‘Shall we Join the Men?’  My cartoons are very much observational humour – in the Punch style - and it matters to me that the drawing is as important as the caption (I do both).  I am always amazed at how one can start with a blank piece of paper, and ideas and drawings will appear out of nowhere.  I am a very lucky man to have such a fun and enjoyable profession. 

For more information on Oliver and his work, please visit www.oliverpreston.com

This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of Cotswold Homes. Images reproduced by kind permission of Oliver Preston.