The man who made Granny great

Suffolk cartoonist Ronald 'Carl' Giles and Christmas seem to go hand in hand. As another of his popular annuals hits the bookshelves, Richard Bryson spoke to one of his admirers, Dr Nicholas Hiley, head of the British Cartoon Archive

The Suffolk cartoonist Ronald ‘Carl’ Giles and Christmas seem to go hand in hand. As another of his popular annuals hits the bookshelves, and greeting cards appear bearing his inspired artwork, Richard Bryson spoke to one of his admirers, Dr Nicholas Hiley, head of the British Cartoon Archive

I used to regularly get a Giles cartoon book for Christmas when I was a boy and liked seeing his drawings on greetings cards. It’s almost as though he has become part of the festive season.

There is a strong association between Giles and Christmas, says Nicholas Hiley. From 1946 onwards a Giles Annual appeared every year, and from 1970 he also produced a full-colour RNLI Christmas card each year. The numbers produced were enormous - in 1980 the RNLI sold 590,000 Giles cards and raised �50,000, while by that time the print run for the annual was 750,000 copies. Dads all over the country got the annual for Christmas. Giles often drew an idealised version of Christmas, with snow and carol singers, but he admitted that “white Christmases are a bit of a myth”. He also confessed that Christmas lunch was “one of my least favourite meals...because it always seems to go on forever.”

There is always tremendous detail and atmosphere in his work. Do you think that sets him apart from his peers?

Giles began his career as an animator, and in 1935 had worked on the first British Technicolor animated film, The Fox Hunt. He continued to run his own film animation studio in Ipswich, even after joining the Sunday Express in 1943, and this had a big impact on his style. He loved to use cinematic viewpoints, especially high angles, and always constructed an entire background to the central joke. He also imagined entire histories for his characters. “When he shows his drawings to friends”, one journalist wrote in 1947, “he delights in telling them what the characters have been doing up to the moment he has chosen to draw them – and what happens to them afterwards.” This combined with Giles’s love of detail to ensure that there was always lots to look at in his cartoons, which often included anarchic subplots involving the younger members of the “Giles Family.”

Did he also think up the jokes?

Most Read

Some topical cartoonists have worked with writers, but Giles thought up all his own jokes. He worked at home in Ipswich, rather than in the London office of Express Newspapers, and got his ideas by listening to the radio news, and reading the local and national papers – asking himself always the question “What will they be talking about at the bus stops tomorrow?” What do you like about his cartoons?

We have 150,000 original cartoon drawings in the British Cartoon Archive, but I particularly like the Giles cartoons for the response they get. If we hang a Giles exhibition people laugh out loud in the gallery, which is the best response you can hope for.

What do you know of the man aside from his artistic abilities?

A vast amount – his entire personal archive arrived at the University in 2005, in two huge furniture vans. It includes material from every aspect of his life, both public and private. One of the strangest things was discovering passports and official documentation relating to “Ronald Giles”, which of course was his real name. “Carl” was a nickname from his first studio job in film animation. He joined as a teenager, and had his unkempt hair cut very short, gaining the nickname “Karlo”, after the monster played by Boris Karloff in the 1932 release of Frankenstein. He came to Ipswich to work with Roland Davies in a studio making animated versions of a popular newspaper strip. He must have liked the town as he stayed here. Giles was born above a tobacconist’s shop in Islington, London, in 1916, but he saw himself as having rural origins, explaining that “my father comes from a family of Newmarket jockeys and my mother from a family of Norfolk farmers”. As a child he spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s house in Norwich – even going to the Willow Lane Roman Catholic school for a period. One of his uncles was butler to the painter Alfred Munnings, who lived in Dedham, and Giles went there to recuperate after a serious motor-cycle accident in 1936, which left him blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. From there he got the job with Roland Davies, and decided to remain in the area. He always felt at home in East Anglia, and in later life was described as having a “curious broad Cockney-Suffolk accent.”

He became a 'war correspondent cartoonist’ for the Daily Express and met a concentration camp commander who was an admirer of his work. A truly bizarre incident I would think?

Giles became the Daily Express “official war cartoonist” in September 1944, making a series of short visits to the front while still working as a newspaper cartoonist and animator on propaganda films. Over several trips, he followed the British army across Belgium and Holland, and into Germany. In April 1945, he was with the British troops who liberated the concentration camp at Belsen in Germany, and was traumatised by what he saw. “Not a day goes by when I do not think of Belsen”, he said 50 years later. “I am as haunted and horrified as the day I entered those gates.” He refused to draw what he saw, but went with another correspondent to interview the camp commandant, 39-year-old Josef Kramer, who had previously been in charge of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Remarkably, when Kramer realised who Giles was, he told him that he admired his cartoons, and asked to be sent an original drawing. This bizarre request took Giles by surprise, and he agreed, accepting in return Kramer’s Luger pistol, swastika armband, and ceremonial dagger. Kramer was soon tried and executed, and, looking afterwards at his gifts, Giles realised that they represented “the purest evil you can imagine.”

Did he set many cartoons in Suffolk and Ipswich? They mainly seem to be non-specific city settings.

Giles set many cartoons in recognisable local settings – John Field has compiled a whole book of them, which he hopes to publish. If he wanted to set a cartoon in a bank, Giles would use his own local branch in Ipswich, over the road from his studio. If you search Giles and Ipswich on our catalogue (see also below) you get a lot of local scenes –

I think he was an Ipswich Town fan. Has he drawn any cartoons about the club?

He did menus and programme covers for them, but they didn’t feature in his cartoons for the Daily Express or Sunday Express.


The British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent has the entire archive of published and unpublished work of Giles online - that’s 9,000 images. Go to

Comments powered by Disqus