Celebrity interview: Private Eye cartoonist Barry Fantoni returns to Croydon, Saturday 27th June

By - Friday 3rd July, 2015

Un-drawing, undressing and hot-desking in Sixties Soho – Liz Sheppard-Jones listens and regrets an unpopped question

Photo author’s own.

Barry Fantoni returned to Croydon on Saturday 27th June. It had been a while.

In the fifty or so years since he taught at Croydon School of Art, he’s done OK: Private Eye magazine and the Times’s celebrated cartoonist, artist on the BBC TV series ‘That Was The Week That Was‘, critic, the hidden face of poet E.J.Thribb, winner of 1967′s Male BBC TV Personality Of The Year award and the man who shared a microphone with Ray Davies of The Kinks.

He’d been invited by Hale Man,Whitgift Centre’s artist-in-residence, to give a talk and take part in an art class in her studio as part of the 2015 Croydon Heritage Festival’s ‘famous Croydonians’ theme – but a talk wasn’t quite what he gave because that’s something you’ve rehearsed, and this didn’t feel rehearsed. Rather, it was a free-flowing, captivating sequence of recollections, ideas and responses to the questions he encouraged us to put to him, pretty much any time we felt like it. “Some people don’t like talking about personal stuff”, he observed,” but I enjoy it” – which takes assurance (and he’s certainly assured) but unless you are insufferable it also takes humility. He seemed genuinely open to whatever the afternoon, and we, brought along.

The human body is such a complex form

Barry Fantoni.
Photo author’s own.

The questions didn’t get particularly personal, but that was my doing. He was expelled from Camberwell School of Art, he told me, “because I was a bad boy”, and I wanted to know more but the moment passed – a mistake right out of Interviewing 101, for which I could kick myself. (By the power of the internet I have now learned, amongst other things, of an incendiary episode involving a chair and enthusiastic fraternising with the opposite sex). “It was the spirit of the age”, he said to me,”like Brando in The Wild One: ‘What are you rebelling against?’ ‘What have you got?’”

I did ask him about Croydon, because the audience hadn’t, and can report that his main recollection of his period teaching here is traffic noise, echoing and re-echoing along the newly-developed Wellesley Road. Plus ça (depressingly) change. That, and his first lesson as art tutor to Malcolm MacLaren, father-to-be of punk rock, and Jamie Reid. Barry didn’t think much of them as draughtsmen, and instructed them to go out and buy a copy of the Beano, select a frame then re-draw it, 6 feet by 6 feet, until they’d learned technique. Technique fascinates him, and at Croydon School of Art he also taught life-drawing: “the hardest thing on the planet to draw… the human body is such a complex form”.

From there to – cartooning… how? Why? Cartoons were in fact Barry’s first love, the thing he wanted to do as a boy, when he wrote to celebrated Punch cartoonist Jimmy Symington, who he eventually met in his early teens and who advised him he had no talent for it but should study art. This is how he came to enrol at Camberwell. Symington’s rather abrupt feedback must have affected him – at one point Barry observed that “we carry our rejections just as we carry our successes” – but what it didn’t do was dent his determination and life as a cartoonist remained his goal: he wanted, as he put it, “to engage people in laughter”. And perhaps do rather more than that, for cartoons are, as he explained to us, an artistic medium of extraordinary power and force.

Your heart is the golden measure of a canvas

Image by Hale Man workshops, used with permission.

“Cartoons can change mentality… for example in war, they were used to change attitudes to the Nazis by ridicule, so as to end up not in hate but in something else”. Although of course cartoons do inspire hate – and he referred to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris six months ago. Clearly both gifted and driven, by the age of twenty-three he was sharing a cramped office in Soho with fellow contributors like Willie Rushton (“original hot-desking – the guy who did the accounts sharing with the guy who was producing 40% of the magazine”), employed as a cartoonist on Private Eye, which as he points out still produces 45 cartoons a week: 25% of its content.

He described the cartooning process as “learning to un-draw” – meaning, I think, that the work is reductionist, cutting to the essence of a matter, and that is the source of its power. “Your heart is the golden measure of a canvas,” was the rather wonderful way he put this, and a line I won’t be forgetting any time soon.”You’re only alive as long as you have an image”.

Then, because this wasn’t your usual kind of afternoon, Barry sat as the model for an art session, and Hale Man encouraged the audience to use charcoals and draw him. An amazing mixture of outcomes resulted, with more chat during breaks in the work – and too soon it was the end of his visit. Barry had observed earlier that “forty-seven years went past quite quickly”; time has a way of doing that.

This was a wonderful occasion leaving lots to think about afterwards, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling it. Thanks for Hale Man for organising and to Barry Fantoni for giving so generously. I wish we’d had longer.

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Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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