Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Trog, John Minton and ‘Flook’

I was a childhood victim of my parents’ choice of newspaper, the unspeakable Daily Mail, in which Rothermere had once proclaimed “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” Only one thing was worth reading in the Mail: Flook, the snappy, satirical and beautifully drawn comic strip created in April 1949, a month before my birth. Flook was always drawn by Wally Fawkes as “Trog”; it was written by Fawkes’s fellow jazzmen Humphrey Lyttelton (from 1953) and George Melly (from 1956). Its only rival in the Mail was the hopelessly suburban and unfunny Fred Bassett.

Launched as a strip for children, Flook soon turned savvy and adult, with a great line in social commentary. Flook, the oddly snouted companion of young Rufus, the other central character, became less “magical” and more of an innocent satirical eye, and in the process used far less his ability to metamorphose into objects of his choice.

John Minton’s biographer, Frances Spaulding, mentions in passing that Fawkes took drawing lessons from Minton. This makes a lot of sense when you take a close look at Trog’s style. In the earlier years, as demonstrated in the Flook cache online in the British Cartoon Archive, the line was loose, fluid, almost erratic and amateurish at times, though soon showing the Minton influence. But by the mid ‘fifties it had tightened up wonderfully, and Fawkes became a master at enclosing finer lines of detail within heavier outlines, at hatching and small texture, at an alternating use of white line on black, at integrating silhouettes, and at stacking layers of figures within the enclosed perspective of the individual panel.

His work showed a fondness for pattern reminiscent of Edward Bawden, and he also developed a splendid virtuosity in stylised foliage in the Minton manner, though given the confines of the format, trees and leaves usually had to be tucked into corners. Even Fawkes’s children’s heads took on the distinctive horizontal elongation first seen, for example, in Minton’s Children by the Sea. The only faintly regrettable intrusion was the standard printer’s mechanical dotted grey tone, but Fawkes was cleverly restrained and appropriate in his use of it.

Not too much survives from the mid to late ‘fifties high era of Flook. In 1958 Faber and Faber put out a selection of three recent strips – “Roman in the Gloamin’”, “The Great Battersea Safari” and “S.S. Tapioca Cruise” – in a Giles book type format, titled simply Flook, but sadly the Mail never repeated the experiment. “Roman in the Gloamin’” has been scanned in its entirety here, so I’ll just pick out a few frames from my favourite, “The Great Battersea Safari”.

In this adventure, the permanently adolescent establishment mandarin, Sir Montague ffolly, persuades Flook, as a practical joke, to pose as a rare wild animal in Battersea Park, within the gun sights of the Blimpish big game hunter Buffie Cordite-Smith (“Col. [Retd.] The Bluffs”). The ensuing safari winds through London from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square, then heads west to cross the river for its Battersea Park denouement, via a rowdy Chelsea party thrown by Caroline Toppe-Draw, Sir Montague’s niece. “Safari” is 20th century British illustration at its best, soaked through with the cultural flavour of the time and place, all beautifully observed.

Here the safari makes a stop at the Fetish coffee bar in the King’s Road. Notice Fawkes’s clever use of silhouette and white line, and the opening up of the perspective of heads, potted plants and paraphernalia inside the coffee bar. Over fifty years on, the bar and its inhabitants seem remarkably modern – only the spelling of “cappuccino” has changed.

The Toppe-Draw party gets completely out of hand. The musical context is nicely sketched in these scenes: at the Fetish coffee bar the musicians play skiffle (“It takes a worried man …”), while at the Cheyne Walk party the hired band play modern jazz, read Kafka during their break, and say things like “She’s a jazz-type chick, the one in the pink. She wants to know like mad too.”

In the black and white counter-changing and the stylised detailing of the bed post, the Blue Room at Toppe-Draw House shows the clear legacy of Braque, maybe via the still lives of Robert MacBryde and other ‘forties and ‘fifties painters.

The Battersea Park setting of the final scene gives Fawkes an opportunity to indulge in Mintonesque leaves and branches, for which he clearly had a considerable affection.

11 responses to “Trog, John Minton and ‘Flook’

  1. Jan D. Cox December 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks for this Richard.
    John Minton and Keith Vaughan both used strange shaped heads in the ‘forties and early ‘fifties. For example, Vaughan’s “60 for ’51” picture “Interior at Mynos” (aka “Theseus and the Minotaure” – sold Sothebys, Nov 09, £300K+: http://beta.tate.org.uk/art/work/L02952 ).
    For Vaughan, the diminution of the head meant that the viewer’s attention was directed towards his overarching theme, namely that of the (male) body. Doubtless these artists acquired this concept from the Polish émigré Jankel Adler, friend of Paul Klee, who was located in the mid-1940s – along with Colquhoun and MacBryde – at the artists’ studios at 77 Bedford Gardens. These are the studios that Wyndham Lewis refers to in “The Apes of God”, where they belong to Dick Whittingdon (Richard Wyndham). An example of one of Adler’s heads is illustrated in “No Man’s Land” (1943): http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=452&searchid=9514&tabview=image).

    The Mintonesque leaves remind me of the luxuriant foliage of Minton’s ink drawing “Surrey Landscape” (1944: http://www.artscouncilcollection.org.uk/showWork.do?id=282), and more particularly of Minton and Ayrton’s sets for Geilgud’s 1942 production of Macbeth, where the cast members appeared to need machetes, so overwhelming was the vegetal scenery. The composer William Walton remarked to them: ‘My music is supposed to be incidental, I don’t think your sets are’. We associate this Neo-Romantic love of greenery with their veneration of Samuel Palmer and his bucolic images of the English countryside.

  2. richardawarren December 20, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Thanks, Jan. Interesting links. I hadn’t associated Dick’s studio in “Apes of God” with the Bedford Square studios of Adler, Colquhoun and MacBryde. And then Minton moved in, later moving out to lodge with Vaughan. Fewer than six degrees of separation here!

    Fascinating that Palmer’s clustered greenery, via early Sutherland, via Minton, should pass into a newspaper comic strip. I’ve never seen anything “serious” drawn by Fawkes. I always liked his stuff, and I always liked Minton, but always had them mentally in separate boxes until I noticed the mention by Spaulding.

    • Jan D. Cox December 23, 2011 at 9:35 am

      Proof of the Bedford Gardens link is provided by the advert that Richard Wyndham placed in The Times on Tuesday 17th June 1930 which reads:

      PAINTINGS by PERCY WYNDHAM LEWIS. 9ft. by
      7 ft. and 6 ft. by 4 ft., for Sale, unframed: inspection
      by appointment.- R. Wyndham, 77, Bedford-gardens.
      W.8.

      This was Wyndham’s fit of pique after his portrayal in The Apes of God.
      The pictures, lost to the world, are thought to be ‘Plan of War’ and ‘Kermesse’.
      Paul O’Keeffe says that the ‘Daily Express’ sent a reporter to 77 Bedford Gardens, but that
      “the pictures could be viewed ‘only after arrangement with Captain Wyndham, whose present address is unknown, because he is travelling in France'”.
      This is surely proof that the intention of Wyndham’s advert was revenge rather than a sale!

  3. richardawarren December 23, 2011 at 11:04 am

    There are a few paintings by Wyndham on the BBC site: (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/richard-wyndham). About suitable for greetings cards. You can understand Lewis’ resentment …

  4. Adam Smith September 15, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    Hi I interviewed Wally earlier this year for The Comics Journal – he touches on the Minton influence in the text – http://www.tcj.com/looking-back-at-flook-an-interview-with-wally-fawkes/
    I enjoyed reading this post as part of my research, and I have to admit I had it at the back of my mind when asking Wally some of the questions.

  5. Harry Warren January 15, 2014 at 4:29 am

    I’ve been amazed to find so much material on the net tonight about Wally Fawkes and ‘Flook’, when there seemed to be very little the last time I looked, a couple of years ago. It suggests an upsurge of interest, which I hope will result in the strips being reprinted. I remember them fondly from the early ’50s, when I was very young. I even had a rubber Flook toy that squeaked. Wish I had him now.

    • richardawarren January 15, 2014 at 11:24 am

      Hello Harry. (Are we related?) You’ve probably found it already, but if not, be sure to look at Adam Smith’s interview with Wally Fawkes – a very full account – link in the comments here on my Flook post. Yes, reprints would be good!

      • Harry Warren January 15, 2014 at 10:15 pm

        Hi, Richard. Given the number of Warrens in the world – I keep coming across them in history books too – only a DNA test could say whether we’re related. I tried to follow my own branch of the Warrens a couple of years ago, but ran into a brick wall after finding out that my grandfather (who was given a military MBE after Word War One) was born in Lambeth in the 19th century. Other branches of the family were easier to trace.

        Fingers crossed for ‘Flook’ reprints – especially the early strips, imbued with that neo-romantic look so typical of British illustration in the 40s and early 50s. I’ve been wondering, incidentally, if Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ strip was influenced by ‘Flook’ at all, or vice versa. I bought her new, long overdue biography the other day, but haven’t had time to examine it yet.

  6. Gillian Baxter August 16, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    I’ve been searching for Flook for years I’m trying to find the toy that was made of him Mine was stolen when I was 9….ouch maybe in the archives a patten exists so I could make one

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