Significant English cartoonist who worked in Sydney and Melbourne for three years in the late Colonial period: "a rival to Charles Keene as England's greatest cartoonist ever". He drew several strong anti-Chinese images in Sydney.
cartoonist, was born in New Wortley, a suburb of Leeds, Yorkshire, on 22 [27, acc. McCulloch] April 1864, of a large family. His father died when he was nine and Phil went to work when aged about 12. He said he wanted to be a jockey, but no stable would take him. Later he claimed to have worked in an estate agent’s office until he spilt ink over a plan and ran away, then dusted pianos for 2/6 a week, been a timekeeper in an iron-foundry and a clerk in a solicitor’s office. He began to sketch actors for a few pennies while employed at the Leeds Grand Theatre mixing paint for the scenery, painting scenery and playing Dick Whittington’s cat in a pantomime. His first published drawings appeared in the Yorkshire Gossip in 1878.
He went to London to try his luck in 1882 but met with bitter hardship and returned home in 1884. He began to sell drawings to London magazines from Leeds, his first successful sale being a caricature of Henry Irving, Bancroft and Toole reeling after a Garrick Club supper, which was published as a print by a London bookseller. The Prince of Wales purchased a copy, and May’s success led to introductions to London editors. (According to Caban, p.34, his bad luck in London changed when a drawing of three well-known actors was passed onto the editor of London Society. ) He was offered a job doing the cover and illustrations for the Christmas issue of the St Stephen’s Review and was soon regularly employed on that paper. When W.H. Traill arrived in England in October 1885 May was earning £8 to £10 a week, mainly illustrating for the St Stephen’s Review . He was the first artist to take advantage of process engraving on zinc. Traill offered him £15 to join the Bulletin after the alcoholic W.G. Baxter, the creator of the immensely popular 'Aly Sloper’, refused. Although only 21, May was already consumptive, frail and almost toothless, so was interested in going to Australia for health reasons. Even so, he held out for £20, i.e. £1000 p.a.
May and his wife arrived at Sydney in 1886 (Rolfe, 47-48). He remained at the Bulletin for three years, mostly in Sydney and briefly in Melbourne (included in c.1930s list of Bulletin Artists, ML Px*D557 pt 5, '14’). During this short period, he was immensely prolific. Thorpe estimates that the Bulletin published approximately 256 of his drawings in 1886, 361 in 1887 and 232 in 1888. At the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition the 'Sydney Bulletin’, along with other newspapers and publishers like the Picturesque Atlas Company, exhibited original drawings at the entrance to the NSW Court; they included a group by May and another by Hop (cat.58, p.492 in Official Record ). That year May drew a popular series of portraits of local identities entitled Things we see when we come out without our gun for the Bulletin : SLNSW has two undated originals, one of a very tall and a very short man (ML). The other, a flashily dressed man in a checked suit published 18 February 1888, p.7 (DL original Pd 721), has a verso note stating that it was shown at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Three of May’s Australian drawings were shown in the 1898 Grafton Gallery 'Exhibition of Australian Art in London’, by which time he was working for London Punch : cat.6 The Old and New Year , cat.366 Balance of Power , and cat.367 Which is to Stand in Front? all lent by the Bulletin Newspaper Company. Other cartoons from the Bulletin are illustrated in Rolfe (52-54, et al.), e.g. two dandies in the park 22 May 1886, 13. He drew several strong anti-Chinese images in Sydney, e.g. 14 April 1888 (Chinese immigrant men ruining young Caucasian women with opium).
In 1888, financially assisted by the Melbourne lawyer and land-boomer Theodore Fink, May left to study art in France. He returned to England accompanied by the American painter and illustrator Frederick B. Schell . May never achieved his ambition to be a painter but instead became an internationally renowned cartoonist. He continued to send back drawings for the Bulletin , though fewer as his fame grew in London: Thorpe lists 47 published in 1889, 26 in 1890, one in 1891, eight in 1892 and one in 1893 (some may have been old stock or repeats). An (unsigned) cover, Queensland offers to join the convention, an unpleasant preliminary (“You Dirty Boy”) , published in the Bulletin on 3 April 1897 [ sic ], attacks Queensland’s use of South Pacific Islander labour by parodying the well-known Pears Soap advertisement and statuette. Thorpe estimates that he made about 933 Bulletin drawings altogether.
May joined London Punch in February 1895 and was soon the most popular English illustrator of the day, a rival to Charles Keene as England’s greatest cartoonist ever. Phil May annuals were produced from 1892 (in Sydney) to 1903, sometimes twice yearly. QAG has two English originals, one about a gullible man (who looks like Gladstone) buying fake busts in Pompeii. The Art Institute of Chicago has Arry and Arriet c.1884-1903 (pen and black ink over traces of graphite, 3304 × 240mm, Acc. no. 1927.4329) drawn for Punch Almanac , as well as drawings of Whistler ( Whistler and Phil May 1894, AIC #1933.238, and Sketch of Whistler’s Head n.d., AIC #1933.238A). His most admired collection of drawings, acc. Lindesay (p.32), has always been Guttersnipes (1896). Mainly depicting the low life and poor children of London, the figures had their genesis in May’s Sydney 'Push’ drawings, e.g. (woman with bruised face) Q.E.D. ': '“What’s up wi’ Sal?”/ “Ain’t yer 'erd? She’s Married agin!”’ reproduced in Humorists of the Pencil , London 1908, 12. AGNSW has an original group of Cockney Girls. Other London periodicals to which he contributed include the Graphic (Caban 34 & Dorothy Hopkins 97) and the Sketch (Dorothy Hopkins, 97). The Art Institute of Chicago’s drawing Blind Beggar and Dog 1894 (278 × 223mm: acc. no. 1927.6174) is noted in the catalogue as probably being for The Sketch .
In English Humour the author J.B. Priestly considers that May represents 'The Nineties’ more than any other single person. Whistler stated: “Black and white, its name is Phil May” (quoted, perhaps not precisely, by Rolfe, 48). Although suffering from phthisis (TB) and cirrhosis of the liver – Caban (33) quotes an unsourced contemporary journalist’s description of his 'cadaverous looking face, almost ghastly in its pallor, gums nearly toothless from ruined digestion in his starving days…’ – he nevertheless had to be regularly dragged away from pubs to finish assignments (Caban, 33). He died on 5 August 1903, aged 39, while Hop was en route to visit him, and was buried in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green.
Terry Ingram ('Sales of the century’, Art & Australia 37/2 1999, 271) states that at Walter Bradley’s sale of Phil May drawings for the Bulletin at Sydney in September 1903, 'Nothing – not even the slightest sketch – sold under a guinea and several ran into double figures’ ( Daily Telegraph 19 September 1903). 140 of May’s Melbourne drawings were sold at Gemmell & Tuckett’s gallery in 1903, following a Sydney sale-exhibition of almost 500 drawings and a London exhibition at the Leicester Galleries of English Punch drawings (see review by J. Lake, 'Phil May, his Australian sketches: their value examined’, Melbourne Herald 28 October 1903, Hop Scrapbook ML, p.741 H). In 1904 the Bulletin published a collection of his early Sydney work, Phil May in Australia , with an appreciation by A.G. Stephens. Theo Fink lent a large collection of May’s originals to the 1918 AGNSW loan exhibition.
May sketched from life then reduced the drawing down to its essential line, he explained in an interview in 1896 (Rolfe, 49, Caban 1983, 30) and in the foreword to Phil May’s Sketch Book: Fifty Cartoons (London: Chatto & Windus, 1895: popular edition 1897):
“What reputation I have made I ascribe to very careful preparation of sketches. First of all, I get the rough idea of the picture. Sometimes it is suggested by a story I have heard, or by something I have seen. Sometimes it occurs to me spontaneously. I sketch a rough outline of the picture I want to draw, and from the general idea of this rough outline I never depart. Then I make several studies from the model in the poses which the picture requires and re-draw my figures from these studies. The next step is to draw the picture completely carefully putting in every line necessary to fulness [sic] of detail; and the last, to select the particular lines that are essential to the effect I want to produce, and take all the others out. That is how it is done.
“My types are all individuals. I am constantly on the look-out for the individual who embodies a type. When I am drawing a picture with several figures in it I often go out into the street to look for types. But I am collecting them at all times and in all places, more particularly in trains and omnibuses. I collected fifty or so in a recent visit to Battle, and a lot more, of a different sort when I was on the Riviera last spring. They will all come in useful some day. Australia has supplied me with any number. A quaint old Sydney clergyman whom I know figured very usefully not so long ago in an allegorical and 'up-to-date’ presentment of 'The Temptation of St. Anthony,’ and a well-known Australian curate was the original of the parson in 'Parson and Painter’. I am told that when the book came to be circulated in Great Britain this gentleman’s sermons acquired a sudden and enormous popularity, with the result that he unexpectedly found himself addressing his exhortations to many persons who had previously been far too negligent of their religious privileges.”
The illustrations (all dated 1894) include plate 1:
ARTIST. 'My good man, may I have the honour of sketching your likeness? I am Mr. Phil May.’
RUSTIC. 'Oh! are yer? Then, this time you’ll be Mr. Phil Mayn’t.’
DANBY, A.R.A. (to lady Art-Student). 'Yes, Miss Smith, the Old Masters used to mix their colours with brains in those days.’
MISSSMITH. 'Oh! How cruel!’
May allegedly once told Archibald that his salary should be inversely proportional to the number of lines used. Although he briefly drew political cartoons in Australia, he was never interested in politics and always had to have the entire scene and idea laid out for him (acc Lindesay, Overland , 30). He had no political loyalties and worked for conservative publications in England as well as for the then radical Bulletin in Sydney. It was Archibald, not May, who believed that the convict years explained much that was brutish and unattractive in the Australian character and that worthwhile history began with Eureka, although May illustrated both themes outstandingly. The History of Botany Bay by “Arthur Gayl” (the former monk Frank Donohoe), illustrated by Hop and May, appeared in the Bulletin in 1888. Put together in modest book form it sold more than 20,000 copies and was reprinted.
Key images include: A Curiosity In Her Own Country , published Bulletin 3 March 1888, 18 (ill. Rolfe, 197), reappeared in Phil May in Australia and was also reproduced as a postcard (see David Cook). Cf. May’s own comic inversion of it The Mother of Civilisation 18 February 1888 – an Indigenous mother with an Indigenous baby who is Henry Parkes. Its influence extended as far as New Zealand where a local cartoonist drew a Maori man looking into a shop window with Pakeha gazing at him with astonishment (see Grant).
May’s The Same Old Tune (And a Bad One at That) [1788 versus 1888], Bulletin 2 January 1888 (see Joan Kerr Archive file) cf his The Day We Celebrate? : 'New South Wales (indignantly): “My centenary, you dare to call it! Are these the things of which you wish me to remind the world? Are these the memorials of the day you would have me celebrate?” – (See page 4)’, showing a statue of a convict labelled 'Our Founder’ and a relief of the Backhouse/Bruce image on the plinth, Bulletin 11 September 1886, 10. SLNSW originals include the large Any Port in a Storm (V*CART/10) depicting Bulletin readers and politicians sheltering under the umbrella of young woman (Federation?} against 'Republicanism’.
Numerous portraits and self-portraits exist, including a very large Hop original for a serial story about May (ML, reproduced Kerr 1999): ’1. This is a Comic Artist (who shall be nameless), and who is in the habit of picking up characters during his walks abroad, drawing upon his shirt-cuffs—anything’, surrounded by six vignettes telling story of May’s washerwoman and her husband who, angry at his wife being drawn, goes to protest and gets talked into posing himself (ML *D431/13, annotated published 6 February 1886, p.11). Also Hop portrait of May dated 24 January 1886, pen & ink, AGNSW, original for Bulletin portrait published 6 February 1886 surrounded by six smaller drawings.
Series of self portraits in a serial drawing The man who would not be sketched about May pursuing his quarry, a judge, and being constantly foiled until finally capturing him by peering in a window when he is in bed asleep, undated Bulletin original (ML SV*CART 23).
That’s me when I’m old , plaster/clay (?) model in Melbourne Savage Club; also reproduced as a postcard. (There is some speculation that this is the same as Phil May , clay mask, illus. Caban 1983, 29), Self Portrait (That’s me when I’m Old) from Phil May in Australia , reproduced Caban 1983, 25, et al. Profile self-portrait with cigar 1898, pen & brown ink, AGNSW.
Phil May, A New-Chum’s Benevolence. 'Our Artist (who is very charitable) to little Sydney street urchin whom he has just picked up: “Now, my little man, if you come in every morning for an hour and stand for me as a model, I will give you six shillings a week. Think of that.”/ Boy: “Six bob a week? Oh, I make six bob a day selling the Bulletin.”/ (Studio to LET.)’ Bulletin 19 June 1886, 7.
Phil May in Sydney (Sketched by himself) , reproduced from the Bulletin in Our Swag—Christmas Number 22 December 1905, 18 (in article on May); Phil May by Himself , reproduced from The History of Punch by kind permission of Mr M.H. Spielmann, the owner of the original drawing’, in L Raven Hill, Humorists of the Pencil (London: Punch Office 1908), 2.
Sketch of Phil May by R.W n..d., pencil BFAG (gift of Valerie Albiston and Yvonne Cohen, 1977).