Cartoonist and illustrator Bob Dewar has never sought the limelight. An exhibition of his work could change all that
You might not know Bob Dewar’s name, but you’ve almost certainly seen his work. In a career lasting more than 40 years, he has been one of Scotland’s foremost cartoonists, and is now one of its most popular illustrators. But he has not sought fame, and it has never found him.
Not that he minds. Meeting Dewar at his home deep in the Fife countryside, one has the sense of a man who would rather do what he has always done: be a journeyman artist creating exceptional drawings, go on long walks with the dog (a russet-gold retriever called Finn), and feed pheasants from the kitchen window (“They’re very fond of cheap digestives”).
It feels like a privilege to be admitted to the cosy cottage he shares with his wife “of about 200 years”, the novelist Isla Dewar. Delicious smells waft through from the kitchen where she is making lunch, taking a break from working on her latest book. There is a sense of industry and companionship. He draws, she writes, at intervals they convene for coffee and chat. Neither seeks the limelight.
But Bob Dewar is about to get a taste of it when a rare exhibition of his work opens at the Doubtfire Gallery in Edinburgh next month. Soor Plooms and Sair Knees, unveiled on 5 April, takes its title from the first book he wrote and illustrated. Jim Hutcheson, art director of its publisher, Birlinn, says: “It still seems, here in the UK, we don’t value the work of illustrators as much as elsewhere in the world. This exhibition is a way of raising the profile of an illustrator we feel should be celebrated as a serious artist.”
Dewar cautiously admits to being pleased. “People seem to want to have that kind of thing on their walls. I consider them to be illustrations, I probably don’t think about them (after I’ve done them), I just want to do the next one. The next one is always going to be the best one, isn’t it?”
Soor Plooms and Sair Knees is a kind of pictorial memoir of growing up in post-war small-town Scotland when kids were “free range” and olive oil was bought from the chemist’s shop for cleaning out your ears. Drawing heavily on his own upbringing in Arbroath, he taps into a much wider seam of memory, undermining any tendency to be sentimental with his astute powers of observation and ever-present wit. “I wanted to do it, because it amused me how great the changes were between then and now,” Dewar says. “I got fed up of the half-hour whistle-stop TV cliché where you go from point to point, the war to post-war to the Beatles. I think it lacks humour sometimes. (The book) amused me, so that’s a good sign.”
Dewar was born in Edinburgh, but shortly afterwards his parents moved to Arbroath to stay with his paternal grandmother. She gets a portrait in Soor Plooms, a wiry, indomitable woman with a waist-length plait of grey hair. “I was very fond of her.” He grew up looking, looking, looking. Perhaps it’s no surprise that his observational powers were honed by the time he was a teenager. “I took a circuitous route to school, I always did, observing the world, because no adult told you anything about anything.”
And for as long as he can remember, he drew. Comics loom large in his childhood: the Beano, Radio Fun, and the Canadian Star Weekly, posted over by relatives. “It had things like Li’l Abner, The Katzenjammer Kids, Bringing Up Father, things that were completely different. They were actually aimed at adults. The Americans and Canadians didn’t seem to feel ashamed about adults reading comics.”
At 16, a keen member of the Scouts, he sent a comic strip of his own to Scouting magazine. Not only was he commissioned – and paid – he was invited to visit the scouting headquarters, then in Buckingham Palace Road. Dewar took particular pleasure in the view from the magazine editor’s window. “You could see over the wall into Buckingham Palace, and see the Queen walking about in her raincoat and headscarf with her corgis, looking fed up,” he chuckles.
His chief ambition on leaving school was to avoid “the factory” (which made sinks and lavatories) so he was delighted when his scouting cartoons won him a place in the art department at DC Thomson in Dundee, the home of the Beano and the Dandy. “There were some brilliant people in the art department, some really unsung heroes,” he says. He remembers watching Toby Baines, then in his eighties, complete a vivid rendering of the Charge of the Light Brigade in a single afternoon. “It was great, I loved it, because of the people. The humour was smashing.”
A strict separation was enforced between the comics department (largely male) and the teenage magazine department, but that didn’t stop Dewar meeting Isla, then working on popular teen titles Jackie and Romeo. The 1960s were in full flow, and it was this time in Dundee which provided the inspiration for the sequel to Soor Plooms and Sair Knees, Beehives and Beatniks. In it, Dewar captures a world of mods and rockers, Habitat lampshades, Germaine Greer, hostess trolleys and package holidays to Torremolinos.
Flicking through the book, he chuckles frequently. “That’s very typical of Dundee,” he says, spreading open a drawing of dolled-up, beehived women sneering at a passing duffle-wearer. “Beehives were incredible things, I think they just added more and more spray – some of them you could knock on like a door. There were lots of mods. Dundee had a lot of small tailors. I think the men were very fussy in those days. There was a thing called the Monkey Walk… You know how Italians parade on a Sunday? This was a Dundonian version of that.”
What about Dewar? What style did he favour? “I don’t know if I was a mod. I did have a scooter though. But what I wore on my scooter was a pair of shorts, and I would go off in the summer up into the Perthshire hills with a fishing rod tied to the side.” It makes such a great picture that I wish he would draw it for us.
After a short time in Edinburgh, he and Isla – both now freelance – moved to a cottage in Kirriemuir. “We didn’t have a car, we didn’t really have anything at all,” Dewar says. “We had a dog. And we would do then more or less what we do now, go out for long walks with the dog and speak. It’s ideas that interest me, and that’s what Isla’s like as well.”
In the 1970s, he began to draw political cartoons for The Scotsman, a role he performed for 15 years. “It was quite a vibrant scene politically in Scotland at that time. And it was the time of the Lib-Lab pact, David Steel, the early days of Thatcher. It was rich pickings.” He doubts there’s as much material today. “They are a bit bland, aren’t they?” he says of the current crop of politicians. “And that’s a kind word.”
During the build-up to the first referendum on devolution in 1979, Dewar drew a cartoon strip for The Scotsman called The Devolvers. “The last cartoon I did about that was a Saltire lying flat, there was a family in the middle of that Saltire, and the caption was: ‘Scotland at the Crossroads’. That was saying ‘vote yes’ without actually saying it. ”
Recent decades have seen fewer cartoons and illustrations commissioned by the press. The closure of Punch magazine first in 1992, then, after a brief revival, in 2002, felt like a death knell for British cartooning. Circulation of comics – in the millions in the 1950s – has plummeted, with many bestselling titles forced to close. Dewar has increasingly turned his hand to illustrating books, from James Robertson’s collections of poetry for children in Scots to educational material for the training of teachers (“Plenty of scope for humour there”). He has illustrated the Food Bible series for Birlinn (The Arbroath Smokie Bible, The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible) with The Scottish Food Bible, by Lady Claire Macdonald, due out this summer. He occasionally draws “for himself” and thinks he should do so more: “I would be exploring.”
Has his style changed over the years? “Oh yes, and I change it to accommodate new things. I’ve worked for (Scottish publishers) Luath Press and for Oxford University Press, that’s like chalk and cheese, two entirely different things. You have to have an awareness of what people like. You have to make a living, you know!”
So says the journeyman artist, who is surely now a master craftsman. As I leave the cosy house to its buzz of quiet industry, I have learned two things: that we should, indeed, know the name of Bob Dewar, but that Bob Dewar himself cares very little. His desk is beckoning. The next drawing awaits. And it might be the best one yet.
Bob Dewar: Soor Plooms and Sair Knees – Growing up in Scotland after the War is at the Doubtfire Gallery, South East Circus Place, Edinburgh, 5-30 April, www.doubtfiregallery.com