Book review: Scrawl: An A-Z Of Famous Doodles, by Caren, Claudia and Todd Strauss-Schulson

Whoever signed off on the cover for this otherwise fascinating book needs a bit of a talking to. For a start, the title’s all wrong. The doodles contained within are not “famous doodles”. They are doodles by famous people, true enough, but as one of the co-authors, Todd Strauss-Schulson, points out in his foreword, they have mostly remained under lock and key for decades. Until such time as this book becomes a runaway bestseller, then, these doodles are the opposite of famous. Not only that, the poorly punctuated sub-heading which describes them as “Sketchings, Jottings, and Notes from the Greatest Minds in History” is nonsense. Sir Edmund Hillary was a great mountaineer, but I don’t think he could really lay claim to having had one of the “greatest minds in history.” Similarly, few people would be likely to put Harpo and Chico Marx or Queen Victoria on their lists of Top Ten Intellectual Heavyweights of All Time.

Sir Winston Churchill: quite good at drawing planes PIC: Keystone/Getty Images
Sir Winston Churchill: quite good at drawing planes PIC: Keystone/Getty Images

That said, there is much to love here. The featured doodles are drawn from the archive of the late American autograph and artefact dealer and collector David Schulson, and they provide intriguing insights into some of the most celebrated cultural, political and scientific figures of the past couple of centuries. Charlie Chaplin shows himself to be quite the student of Cubism with a highly stylised self-portrait from 1949; Joseph Conrad proves himself a skilled draughtsman with a suggestion for how the cover of his 1904 novel Nostromo might look; and Albert Einstein demonstrates that his genius didn’t extend as far as art, with perhaps the worst drawing of a dolphin ever committed to paper.

Elsewhere, Winston Churchill sketches a Spitfire beneath his signature in 1961, complete with a cross-section of the wing showing the placement of the guns, while Dwight D Eisenhower evidently spent more time at the Congressional Leaders Meeting of 25 February 1958 producing a detailed sketch of a golfer on his agenda paper than he did considering the Tunisian Situation, Reclamation Projects or Oil Import Quotas.

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The artists are predictably brilliant, particularly Edward Hopper, who finishes a 1930 letter with a wonderful sketch of the landscape of Truro, Cape Cod, and Salvador Dali, who creates an animated scene of three figures running towards a brightly shining star with a few ingenious strokes of a fountain pen.

It is dangerous to read too much into these unguarded moments, but tempting all the same. In Hillary’s signed sketch of two men on a mountain, does the fact that he has one figure at the top and another figure on its way down perhaps echo his regret that, while he took a photograph of Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Everest, there is no equivalent picture of him? And how much should we read into Alan Ginsberg’s apparent fascination with the extent of his beard?

These doodles seem poignant now, with the art of handwritten communication dying out. As Todd Strauss-Schulson says: “Letters are almost obsolete, and the business of autograph dealers, like that of my father, is shrinking. I touch paper less and less; I touch history less and less. Now more than ever, we need a time machine to stay rooted, to feel part of a larger story. This book is that time machine.” - Roger Cox

Scrawl: An A-Z Of Famous Doodles, by Caren, Claudia and Todd Strauss-Schulson, Rizzoli, £29.95