Posy Simmonds (The Illustrators) is the inaugural volume in a new series showcasing the most significant illustrators of the modern era. It is fitting that the series begins with Posy Simmonds, one of Britain's best-known satirical cartoonists and author of both children's books and graphic novels. Her work, infused with literary allusions, skewered middle class mores and blazed a feminist trail in the 1970s and 1980s.
Author and broadcaster Paul Gravett had unprecedented access to Simmonds and her archives, containing sketchbooks and rare or never-before-seen artworks. His analysis of Simmonds's life and career follows a major retrospective exhibition of her work held at the House of Illustration in London from May to September 2019.
One British newspaper commented on the exhibition, "Any social historian a century from now wanting to know English life of the late 20th and early 21st century would be well advised to dwell on the work of Posy Simmonds. She has a knack for skewering the detail of people's lives in an absolutely recognisable way".
Simmonds, who once described her job on a census form as "visual engineer", says she was often asked, "And do you ever do any proper writing?" Yet, Clive James has noted that Simmonds work "is more powerfully armed than almost any contemporary British novelist". Simmonds is published by Jonathan Cape and has the same book editor as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis.
She started drawing at an early age. From the age of three, Simmonds recalls exploring the family's volumes of Punch magazine dating back to the 1890s, "on a shelf I could reach". She particularly admired the cartoons by George du Maurier, 'Fougasse', 'Pont', 'Anton' and Ronald Searle, among others. Later she would be influenced by the drawings of satirical artists such as Hogarth, Rowlandson and Cruickshank.
Simmonds also devoured American comics. At boarding school, she parodied women's magazines in her drawings, which had cover-lines such as 'Lady Whoresome Reveals', a publication that was confiscated by the matron. The 2019 London exhibition included an early cartoon, 'Marilyn Monroe Goes Shooting' and a pastiche of Woman's Own, with the coverline, "he only married you for your money".
Much of Simmonds' work appeared in newspapers from the early 1970's, especially the Guardian, whose readers avidly devoured her long-running graphic strips. Simmonds' satire and female characters quickly captured attention. She was quick to pick up the incipient sexism and misogyny in 1970s Britain, particularly in newsrooms.
Simmonds was a trailblazer for women in the world of graphic novels. True Love (1981) has been called the first modern British graphic novel. She says, "Women were accused of muscling in on a scene that was male, particularly the superhero scene in the US, but now there's a whole generation of women who are completely uninhibited and drawing just as themselves".
Simmonds has also said, "In a graphic novel, I don't want to sort of bash people over the head with bromide, but absolutely, there should be a feminist element". Her feminist themes are often linked with "the furrowed brow of liberal guilt".
Other well-known books by Simmonds include Fred, made into an Oscar-nominated animation, and Gemma Bovery (1999), "A tale of adultery and soft furnishings", which updated Flaubert with the British in rural France. Simmonds says of the depiction of Gemma, "I rather liked the way Princess Di looked under her fringe, that gave me the idea for Gemma's face".
Nicholas Garland reflected on Gemma Bovery's " humiliating agony of sexual jealousy; the banal lies that are essential to infidelity; the smugness of the affluent; the emptiness that lies at the centre of snobbery. Now Posy has dipped her pen in acid".
Then came Tamara Drewe (2007), loosely adapted from Thomas Hardy's Far from The Madding Crowd. Tamara turns from ugly duckling to every man's dream thanks to plastic surgery. Simmonds places Tamara in a village which highlights the tensions between the locals and metropolitans seeking a rural retreat. Both graphic novels subsequently became successful movies.
Simmonds' 2018 Cassandra Darke, partly inspired by Charles Dickens' Scrooge, takes a much darker trajectory. Cassandra, a rich, overweight, lonely older woman, is the first-person narrator, who despite her wealth is often, like many older women, invisible in society. Simmonds certainly reflects the times.
Posy Simmonds (The Illustrators) is superbly illustrated with numerous black-and-white and colour illustrations, which demonstrate Simmonds' extraordinary precision of drawing, her powers of observation and her sharp but subtle satire. She is indeed a British national treasure.
- Posy Simmonds (The Illustrators), by Paul Gravett. Thames & Hudson. $39.99.