Glasgow's 'Wilfred Owen of cartooning' rediscovered after 100 years

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Media captionA detail from Archie Gilkison's 'The Reason Why' cartoon from 1915. Such hard-hitting depictions of the horrors of the war were unusual during the conflict, especially in the popular press

An artist from Glasgow has been described as the "Wilfred Owen of cartooning" following the rediscovery of his World War One work.

Archie Gilkison's war cartoons appeared in newspapers including the Herald and Evening Times.

It was published from 1914 until his death in 1916.

According to a Glasgow University expert, his style is highly unusual in displaying anti-war sentiment while the conflict was ongoing.

The university now plans to exhibit and research Gilkison's work.

Cartoons often appeared in the newly influential popular press which sold hundreds of thousands of copies a day, and were widely used during WW1 as a propaganda tool to keep morale high among the civilian population.

Gilkison's work as a journalist and cartoonist appeared in newspapers across the UK from the early 1900s.

Image caption Archie Gilkison's light-hearted cartoons for Christmas 1915. War cartoons were used as a propaganda tool to keep morale high among the civilian population

When Britain went to war with Germany in 1914, he contributed cartoons - drawn with pen and ink - regularly to the then Glasgow Herald and the Evening Times.

The flow of creativity ended when Gilkison, who suffered ill-health throughout his life, died of pneumonia, aged 31 while in military training at Berwick in 1916, after being conscripted into the army. He never made it to the front line.

For almost 100 years, Gilkison's cartoons remained largely forgotten outside his family.

They were brought to the university's attention a few weeks ago by his great-great niece, who thought they may be of interest during the 100-year commemorations of the start of the war.

According to Prof Laurence Grove, director of the university's Stirling Maxwell Centre for the study of text and image, the cartoons are a major find due to the quality of the penmanship and the unusual approach to the conflict.

He said: "Archie Gilkison's work is an astounding discovery.

"Through him we live the war first hand. He is the only cartoonist of the time I know who evokes an anti-war sentiment during the war itself. He could be for cartooning what Wilfred Owen was for poetry."


Prof Laurence Grove, University of Glasgow

The Reason Why, below right, depicts a stark view of a fallen soldier, his skull-like head face down, with the birds of death circling above - it is in marked contrast to the depiction of the war both sides were used to seeing.

Gilkison's soldier is a far cry from those depicted in works such as The Integrity of Belgium, by British artist Walter Sickert, which shows a resplendent soldier in shining blue uniform, or glory-peddling allegories such as Charles Butler's Blood and Iron.

Like the Renaissance symbols that came before him and the 21st century ads that followed, Gilkison manipulates the interaction between title, image, and meaning: here, the Kaiser's promise to "never retreat" is depicted as an ironic premonition of German massacre.

Gilkison's stark anti-war patriotism is the forgotten forerunner of the Why? posters from the Vietnam War.

Image caption Archie Gilkison's work was unusual in that it depicted the horror of the trenches, such as above right

Gilkison's family has donated a rare book of his work to the Stirling Maxwell Centre and Prof Grove intends to include his cartoons in a major exhibition of text and image being staged by the university in 2015.

Marianne Taylor, Gilkison's great-great niece and a journalist at BBC Scotland, said: "Archie's family couldn't be more thrilled that his work has finally been recognised. For generations we have enjoyed looking at his cartoons and it's wonderful to think that others will now have the chance to see and study them too.

Image caption A rare book of Archie Gilkison's work has been donated to the University of Glasgow

"It's particularly poignant that Archie died in training after being conscripted - in this day and age he would never have been sent to war. But it's wonderful that his work will be kept alive for the future, in the city he loved."

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow added: "We are delighted to receive this generous gift of Archie Gilkison's work.

"This gift adds a rare World War One document of international importance to our collections in the Stirling Maxwell Centre, which are already noted as being amongst the strongest in the world for text and image cultures."

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