Artist with the human touch drew on reserves of decency

WE RELISH the cartoons and caricatures in newspapers and magazines because, at a glance, they reflect an age, and more specifically an event, person or people. These days newspapers also print verbal parliamentary ‘sketches’ which, usually with all too obvious striving for effect, lack the immediacy or resonance of the well-observed drawing.

George Gale, who died in Edinburgh last week, was an artist in the tradition of Gillray, Cruikshank, Low and Vicky. As, from 1989 to earlier this year, the cartoonist of parliamentary weekly The House Magazine, he believed in, and depicted, the essential humanity of politicians. Even when they were at their silliest (Michael Heseltine swinging the mace in the House of Commons, Tarzan at Bay; and the subject of the cartoon, as so often, was to buy the original) Gale didn’t suggest that their behaviour emanated from an alien planet, as was the case with so many of his more extremist contemporaries.

He was born in Leven, Fife, in 1929, the son of a civil engineer. His decent Presbyterianism – for many years he was an elder of St Columba’s, Pont Street, the Scots Kirk in London – was a fundamental part of his character.

After leaving school he trained in Leven as an engineering draughtsman, then spent his National Service with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Aldershot. He studied thereafter briefly at St Martin’s School of Art.

In 1952 he started work as a graphic artist at Ravenna Studios, Putney, which created catalogues for the likes of Harrods. He remained there for 25 years, simultaneously having his first cartoons published.

He made a foray to Scotland in 1954 to marry Elizabeth Watson, a teacher, at St Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle, before setting up home in Richmond, Surrey.

In the 1960s George Gale’s cartooning career took off, first with weekly drawings for the left-wing Tribune, then for The Times’ weekly Europa supplement, co-published with leading European dailies. From 1973-80, under the editorship of William Rees-Mogg, he produced weekly cartoons for The Times. He is remembered particularly from that period for a long, horizontal drawing (over a number of pages) of the Bayeux Tapestry brought politically up to date to celebrate, or at least note, Britain’s entry into the EEC.

His work also appeared regularly in the Economist, Financial Times, Evening Standard, Socialist Commentary (though he was no socialist) and European newspapers and magazines. In the 1980s he provided splendid portraits (big heids and wee bodies) of northern worthies in the news for Roddy Martine’s Scottish Field, and later in his life affectionate and sharp drawings for the early years of his son Iain Gale’s Caledonia monthly.

In 1986 he was invited by Max Hastings to join the Daily Telegraph in succession to Nick Garland as editorial and political cartoonist, where he enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the paper and its readers, and no doubt would have remained had not Garland returned in 1989. This was Gale’s only staff appointment. As a man of independence, if not independent means, he preferred the freelance life.

He much enjoyed being the resident cartoonist on Andrew Neil’s BBC TV show Midnight Hour, drawing apposite images of the topic under discussion in the studio each Friday evening as the programme went out live. He illustrated a number of books, including The Flying Hammer by Iain Gale, now art critic for Scotland on Sunday.

A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at Waterman Fine Arts Gallery in London’s Jermyn Street in 1992. His drawings are in both public collections (Edinburgh University, Florence Nightingale Museum, Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature at the University of Kent) and private ones, including those of the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, Baronesses Thatcher and Boothroyd, Tony Benn and Lord Archer (as he still is), as well as actors such as Peter Ustinov and Christopher Plummer. Other collectors included Enoch Powell and John Betjeman.

Although created a Freeman of the City of London in 1998 (he was a dab hand at drawing luminaries of livery companies, banks and other corporations), in July 2002 Gale and his wife moved back to Edinburgh to be close to their son and his family, and they saw each other every day. He even joined the New Club.

George Gale took pride in dressing immaculately. In person he was tall and lean, and the friendliest of men. Such was his good nature and sheer agreeableness that even after only a brief conversation with him the day was enhanced.

As man and artist, George Gale believed in the fundamental decency of mankind (and in that regard he relished classical music, good claret, fine whisky). Thus his drawings of the great and the good, the bad and the absurd, and the mostly mediocre, with generosity and insight, provide perceptive visual footnotes to the recorded foibles over our lives and sullen times.