Poy (Percy Fearon): The Classic Churchill Cartoonist

Poy (Percy Fearon): The Classic Churchill Cartoonist

Excerpt­ed from “Churchill by Poy: Car­toon­ist of a Van­ished Age,” for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged text with end­notes and more illus­tra­tions, please click here.

“Fieldfare’s” Poy (Percy Fearon)

An enquiry from car­toon his­to­ri­an Tim Ben­son sent us to the library for Poy’s Churchillby “Field­fare” (1954). Tim runs the Polit­i­cal Car­toon Gallery, which exhibits and trades in orig­i­nal draw­ings. Many are from the great blos­som­ing of British car­toons in the first half of the 20th century. 

Among the most promi­nent was “Poy” (Per­cy Hut­ton Fearon, 1874-1948), who grew up on Stat­en Island, New York. His pseu­do­nym derived from the Amer­i­can pro­nun­ci­a­tion of his first name (“Poycee”), which he abbre­vi­at­ed “Poy.”  In Britain he joined London’s Evening News in 1913. He also worked for the Dai­ly Mail. Poy cre­at­ed over 10,000 car­toons in 34 years. He was retired when war came in 1939—regretting that he could not con­tribute to wartime car­toon­ing. 

To mark Churchill’s 80th birth­day in 1954, Per­cy Fearon’s nephew Hen­ry pub­lished Poy’s Churchill in trib­ute to them both. Hen­ry was also an Evening News hand, famous for his col­umn on coun­try walks, pub­lished under the pseu­do­nym “Field­fare.” His book­let is an elo­quent charmer, fea­tur­ing 50 of his uncle’s best car­toons. 

Poy’s Churchill  

“In this lit­tle book two great men are brought togeth­er,” writes “Field­fare”: In a sense, Poy is Churchill’s ear­li­est and most con­stant biog­ra­ph­er, and it is through his clear, cool, twin­kling eyes that we watch here the long and active life of his subject.” 

“Con­verg­ing Forces: The Psy­cho­log­i­cal Moment,” April 1908. Appoint­ed to the Board of Trade, Churchill was required to stand for reelec­tion, and lost to the Con­ser­v­a­tive, William Joyn­son-Hicks. Poy backed “Jix,” and his car­toons con­tributed to young Winston’s defeat. WSC was imme­di­ate­ly offered the safe Lib­er­al seat of Dundee; he was elect­ed, enabling him to join the Cabinet.

Field­fare begins with the reign of King Edward VII (1901-10). No monar­chy since the Nor­man Con­quest, he wrote, com­pared with it. Field­fare acknowl­edges the appalling pover­ty, crime, squalor and dis­ease that also accom­pa­nied those years. Nev­er­the­less, he sees “some­thing of its mag­ic,” and “the nev­er equaled fig­ures which it mag­i­cal­ly pro­duced in every sphere of life, espe­cial­ly in politics.”

There is much of Churchill in those words, for the Edwar­dian era had scarce­ly end­ed when the First World War changed every­thing. Join­ing the Cab­i­net at age 34, Churchill com­mand­ed atten­tion. He was, of course, a Vic­to­ri­an (born the same year as Poy). But “Thank God, every ves­tige of Vic­to­ri­an­ism was washed away in the ice-cool shin­ing waters of Edwar­dian Eng­land.” Poy inter­pret­ed Churchill’s polit­i­cal life, his tri­umphs and foibles, from the cat­a­stro­phe of one world war almost to the start of anoth­er. 

“A modern Aesop” 

Poy had no swords to rat­tle, no pow­er of invec­tive, no com­mand of ora­to­ry; his weapon was a sim­ple one of ridicule, and he could wield it with unerr­ing skill…. Car­i­ca­ture was the object of all Poy’s work, but he nev­er dipped his pen in vit­ri­ol…. He was not unlike a mod­ern Aesop who…drew the sim­ple truth with dev­as­tat­ing clear­ness. Look­ing at any of his pic­tures you laugh because of their very right­ness. It is only after­wards that you realise the bril­liance of the draw­ing, and are stag­gered by the genius that cre­at­ed it.

Field­fare says Poy led car­toon­ists away from “cru­el lam­poons” to “sane commentary…. 

This did not mean that he lost any­thing of the robust­ness of satire…but sim­ply that he nev­er made a sin­gle ene­my. On the con­trary, was loved by all who knew him. He could bring home his point, admin­is­ter his rebuke, with­out ever resort­ing to per­son­al­i­ties. Poy nev­er lam­pooned phys­i­cal defects:  

Through Poy’s eyes we look upon [Churchill’s] whole career, all the vagaries and uncer­tain­ness of pol­i­tics, until at last he becomes Prime Min­is­ter…. Alas for all of  us, Poy retired in 1938 and was, there­fore, unable to round off his his­to­ry… show­ing the great­est states­man of the age at the zenith.

“Destiny took her time in claiming him…”  

Accord­ing to his nephew, Poy ini­tial­ly pic­tured young Win­ston as a chap thor­ough­ly pleased with him­self:  

He is neat­ly, if care­less­ly, dressed [and] car­ries him­self with a slight stoop, hold­ing the lapels of his coat in the cor­rect politician’s man­ner. He is not a lit­tle proud of the red­dish curl on his head, and he is inclined to speak down to his audi­ence…. Soon we see a sub­tle change: the plums of office are wait­ing to be plucked!…. Poy looks on amused at all the polit­i­cal jock­ey­ing and reduces it to terms which we can all under­stand. 

“O wad some poer the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!” 7 Jan­u­ary 1920. Field­fare claims Poy first brought Churchill’s under­sized hats into promi­nence and satire: “Win­ston, point­ing to the tiny hat (marked “Office”) perched pre­car­i­ous­ly on his head, telling Labour, ‘You couldn’t wear a hat like this. It would make you look so silly.’”

At the Admi­ral­ty, Churchill moved from domes­tic to inter­na­tion­al affairs and, in time, the First World War. Poy now showed him as “a Man of Des­tiny, yet a man of excel­lent good humour with­al.” Des­tiny took her time in claim­ing him, Field­fare writes, but that wasn’t Poy’s fault. 

Poy may have been the first car­toon­ist to make fun of Churchill’s tiny hats. Churchill claimed this start­ed in 1910, when he donned a felt cap sev­er­al sizes too small, and pho­tos were tak­en. (See Gary Stiles, “Churchill in “Punch.”)

Poy him­self denied this: “I had noticed the small­ness of his hats long before 1910, but at that time the salient fea­ture of my car­i­ca­tures was the curl on the top of his head. It was only when this van­ished pre­ma­ture­ly that I turned to the hat, and made it the new hall­mark.” 

1921: “He who laughs lasts” 

In ear­ly 1921, Churchill left for the Mid­dle East Con­fer­ence at Cairo amidst “hal­cy­on calm” in Par­lia­ment. No soon­er had was he gone than there came an upheaval. The ail­ing Andrew Bonar Law resigned as Leader of the House of Com­mons, an invit­ing posi­tion. To the amuse­ment of polit­i­cal Lon­don, Poy lam­pooned Churchill for miss­ing all the fun. Churchill wrote: 

“Fid­dling While Rome Burns,” March 1921. Away in Cairo, Churchill missed par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Cab­i­net shake­up. Poy’s humor was lost on him over this one.

I had tak­en my paint-box to Cairo, and while the Con­fer­ence was work­ing under my guid­ance I made some love­ly pic­tures of the Pyra­mids. Of course, I was neglect­ed in all the rearrange­ments which took place in Lon­don. Lord North­cliffe was delight­ed with this car­toon. He sent me the orig­i­nal. He was par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased with the lit­tle Arab news-vendor…roared with mer­ri­ment as he point­ed its beau­ties out to me. I accept­ed the gift with a stock grin. Of course, it was only a joke, but there was quite enough truth in it for it to be more fun­ny to oth­ers than to oneself!

In 1924, to Churchill’s delight­ed sur­prise, new­ly elect­ed Prime Min­is­ter Stan­ley Bald­win asked him to become Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer. It was an exalt­ed posi­tion, one his father had once held. “Poy,” wrote Field­fare, “now showed him putting on a hat which real­ly fit­ted him!”

“The Top­per,” 8 Novem­ber 1924. WSC dons a hat that fits, for a new post con­sid­ered tan­ta­mount to the top job. Prime Min­is­ter Stan­ley Bald­win is the haberdasher.

Poy at his best 

In ear­ly 1927, Chan­cel­lor Churchill was prepar­ing his third bud­get for deliv­ery to the House of Com­mons in April. March 19th pre­sent­ed Poy with a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty. It hap­pened to coin­cide with the bicen­te­nary of Isaac New­ton. Here was a chance for Poy to apply what his nephew called his “top­i­cal flair”….  

On the very eve of the anniver­sary, his car­toon showed us a won­der­ing John Cit­i­zen, sit­ting beneath the famous apple tree, while an enor­mous “Bud­get” apple in the shape of Winston’s head is about to fall heav­i­ly upon him! By any mea­sure, and at any time, this would be an out­stand­ing­ly bril­liant car­toon, but here its top­i­cal­i­ty lift­ed it into the spheres of immortality.

“It is just com­ing to him: Mas­ter New­ton and the full mean­ing of ‘grav­i­ty,’” 19 March 1927. Field­fare regards this as one of Poy’s finest thanks to its timing—the bicen­te­nary of Sir Isaac Newton.

“The real apotheosis” 

The gen­er­al elec­tion of 1929 end­ed Baldwin’s first gov­ern­ment and Churchill’s tenure at the Trea­sury. He would now spend a decade out of office, with accom­pa­ny­ing loss of car­toon­ist atten­tion. And he missed it: 

Just as eels are sup­posed to get used to skin­ning, so politi­cians get used to being car­i­ca­tured. In fact, by a strange trait in human nature, they even get to like it. If we must con­fess it, they are quite offend­ed and down­cast when the car­toons stop. They won­der what has gone wrong, they won­der what they have done amiss, [fear­ing] old age and obso­les­cence are creep­ing upon them. They mur­mur: “We are not mauled and mal­treat­ed as we used to be. The great days are ended.”

Of course as we know, the great days were yet to come. Poy had drawn “The Apoth­e­o­sis of Win­ston” in 1911, his nephew wrote, “but he lived to see the real apoth­e­o­sis in the ter­ri­ble days of the Hitler con­flict.” And there was that final draw­ing, “Accent on the WIN,” which summed up the sto­ry.  

Hail and farewell 

Today, when even Churchill’s minor gaffes are mag­ni­fied out of pro­por­tion by the ill-read and the igno­rant, his rep­u­ta­tion broad­ly sur­vives. Fieldfare’s elo­quent con­clu­sion to Poy’s Churchill is there­fore worth repeat­ing: 

The pet­ty jeal­ousies which had cloud­ed the ear­ly years, the polit­i­cal squab­bles, the many mis­takes and mis­un­der­stand­ings of a long life in the House of Com­mons are all for­got­ten now by the ordi­nary man in the street—the lit­tle man who was called John Cit­i­zen by Poy. Few recall the burn­ing days of Home Rule: few, indeed, can remem­ber John Red­mond stand­ing like a colos­sus over AsquithLloyd George, and the young Churchill. But Poy, in his last days, must often have hear­kened back in his mind to these dis­tant years, and he must, I think, have been ful­ly con­scious of his own con­tri­bu­tion to history—recording for all future gen­er­a­tions a pic­ture of our times, and of its great­est fig­ure, unequalled by any oth­er man.

Further reading

In Search of Churchill’s First Polit­i­cal Car­toon,” 2021

Gary Stiles, “Churchill in ‘Punch’: His Fan­ci­ful Hats Helped Fash­ion His Image,” 2022

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