Friday, February 15, 2008

The Evolution of Billy Bunter

The Magnet #1, 15 February 1908

Today is the 100th anniversary of the launch of The Magnet which gave to the world one of its most famous characters, Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School. Bunter was more of a background character in the early stories, although arrived fully formed and well rounded (no pun intended) from the mind of writer Charles Hamilton, in the debut issue, where he was described as "somewhat stout, with a broad, pleasant face and an enormous pair of spectacles ... It was pretty clear that, big as his spectacles were, they did not assist his vision very much, for he had to put his head within a foot of Harry's to make him out."

The short-sighted (or "blind owl," as Skinner of the Remove calls him), somewhat stout Bunter who was forever saying "I'm sincerely sorry" and was prepared to make tea for the chaps who shared Study No.1 soon developed the traits that readers came to love. These extracts from the second issue tell you all you need to know about Bunter...
Billy Bunter was called the Owl in the Remove, on account of his big spectacles, which gave him an owlish appearance, but did not seem to assist his vision very much. He was always making ludicrous mistakes through his short sight...
"Hallo, Wharton!" said the short-sighted Billy, blinking at him. "Where did you spring from? You weren't in the common-room when we scoffed the new kid's grub, were you? I was against it, but I had half a dozen of the tarts. Thought I had better, to save them from being wasted."
Wharton and Nugent were alone on this particular afternoon when tea-time came round, and Nugent jammed the kettle on the fire, and Wharton cleared the table, each with the hope that they were to have the study to themselves. They didn't object to Billy Bunter, who was too harmless for anybody to object to him. Billy's only fault was a perennial impecuniosity, and he would share cheerfully in anything that was going, and owe his "whack" with equal cheerfulness, explaining on all occasions that he was in a stony state, which he hoped would soon be relieved by the arrival of a postal order, which, by the way, very seldom arrived.
Although William George Bunter was to become a household name he was not a nice fellow. He was a thief, forever stealing from study rooms; nor was he averse to stealing from masters because greed got the better of him every time, even overcoming has inborn cowardice; he was an arrogant snob who he had little to be arrogant about; he lied and cheated and spied and wheedled his way through school showing no academic abilities; his talents, outside of ventriloquism, were his natural cunning and his lack of scruples. Charles Hamilton struck just the right note with him and so he remained for over fifty years. Bunter was a fine character to have around while Harry Wharton & Co., the heroes of the Greyfriars stories, got on with the important business of winning cricket matches against rival schools, unmasking spies amongst the staff and pupils and solving mysteries, which were the basic plots of most school stories. He provided much of the humour in the Greyfriars yarns, a cruel but justifiable humour: every squeal and cry ("Yow-ow-ow! Beasts! Yarooooh!") was a laugh for the readers because they knew that everything Bunter suffered, whether it was a bumping from the Chums or having a cricket stump taken to his ample behind, he brought upon himself.

By the third issue, Bunter had found has natural place in the plotting of Charles Hamilton's storylines. In this instance, Bunter is responsible for putting Bob Cherry on the trail of Hazledene and a missing button. As Cherry put it, Bunter was "the right ass to be in the right place for once" and that was often his role in many a story. Whether it was through enforced detentions, sneaking off games practice or scurrying around Greyfriars in search of food, Bunter was usually separate from the rest of his classmates and in a position to eavesdrop on some vital piece of information or see something that would otherwise have been unknown.

Bunter became more of a object of humour in comic strips; he starred in many between 1939 and 1976 in the pages of Knockout and Valiant... in fact, he had appeared even earlier in a number of strips in The Magnet. The humour in the strips revolved almost constantly around the non-appearance of Bunter's postal order or his overwhelming desire to feast; most of the time he got his comeuppance, although occasionally he triumphed and was rewarded.

By the time the comics strips began their weekly appearance, The Magnet had been running for over thirty years, establishing the look of Bunter as well as his character.

Bunter did not appear in any of the Magnet illustrations until issue 7 when he was given the cover. Technically, his first appearance was issue 6, as the cover for the following issue was always previewed in those early issues.

The illustrator was Hutton Mitchell, who drew the illustrations for the early issues of The Magnet. Mitchell's Bunter was nothing like the Bunter we recall today. Rotund, definitely, but younger looking and lacking the checkered trousers, spotted bow tie and twin curls of hair that he would gain from the pens of later artists.

William Hutton Mitchell drew only 39 issues of The Magnet but, according to Hugh Fennell, who was working at the Amalgamated Press at the time, "Mitchell could have had the job indefinitely but he was always behind with his drawings and at length the editor just could not stand the delays any longer. Mitchell was a very swift worker and could dash off a set of pen and ink drawings in jig-time, but he would not start work until the very last moment—and sometimes after. A man of considerable erudition, a brilliant conversationalist, a painter and novelist, he just would not get down to the steady grind demanded by the A.P."

Mitchell was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1870, the son of Peter Mitchell, a Presbyterian Minister in Kilmarnock. He was married to Alice Odell and had four sons and a daughter (the latter by a second marriage); three of his sons, Alan, Alexander and Bruce, acted as models for the Greyfriars boys, even Bunter thanks to pillows stuffed into their trousers.

As well as being an illustrator, Mitchell also wrote two novels, Deviations of Diana (London, A. M. Philpot, 1925) and Fourth Man (London, Selwyn & Blount, 1931). He lived in Peignton, South Devon, in the 1920s and died in Great Bardfield, Essex, in 1934, aged 64.

It was Arthur H. Clarke who put Bunter into his familiar striped trousers. Clarke was to illustrate The Magnet for some 160 issues. The illustration above comes from issue 99 and the shape of Bunter has by now developed along familiar lines (and curves). By issue 130 (below), Bunter is in his checkered trousers.

Clarke, despite his importance to the look of Bunter, seems to be the forgotten man of the Magnet. I was unable to find out anything about him amongst the many sites dedicated to Greyfriars and only a brief mention in George Beal's The Complete Magnet Companion (1996) which admitted "few biographical details are known."

Arthur H(yde) Clarke was born in South Hackney in January 1871, the son of Edwin Hyde Clarke and his wife Isabella. Edwin, a London-born solicitor, had married Mary Maria Lawson in 1864 but Mary Clarke died the following year. In 1866, Edwin married Isabella King with whom he had at least eight children. The death of his first wife was not to be Edwin's only tragedy: although she was 25 year his junior, Isabella Clarke died in 1897 and her death adversely affected their eldest son (also Edwin Hyde Clarke, born in 1869), who committed suicide two weeks later. Edwin himself died in 1898.

Arthur was their third child and not the only artist in the family. Elder brother Edwin, after serving in the Army for eight years, was later engaged as an artist on an illustrated London paper. Younger sisters Caroline Hyde Clarke (b. 1876) and Adeline Gertrude Clarke (b. 1878) were also listed in the 1901 census as artists.

Arthur seems to have found regular work with the Amalgamated Press boys' papers, also contributing to Boys' Friend, and various other papers put out by the Harmsworth brothers. He would draw Billy Bunter & Co. from November 1908 until around March 1911 (with occasional fill-ins by R. J. Macdonald). According to Beal, he "died suddenly ... aged only 38, apparently while actually engaged in drawing a Greyfriars illustration." This is clearly not true as, in March 1911, Clarke had recently celebrated his 40th birthday.

Although I've been unable to establish his year of death with absolute certainty, my best bet from perusing the death records is the Arthur H. Clarke whose death was registered in Edmonton in 1916, aged 45 (unfortunately, the records don't give middle names, only initials and there are at least a couple of other Arthur H. Clarkes who died in roughly the same period).

Beal is on stronger ground with his comments on Clarke as an artist: "He was a first-class draughtsman, with a strong, individual style ... He has been criticised for the 'sameness' of his drawings; that his schoolmasters especially were very grim-looking and Victorian in appearance."

Bunter found one of his finest artists in Charles Henry Chapman who was The Magnet's main artist from 1911 until its demise in 1940. You should be able to find all you want to know about the artists' life on this page, written by his grandson John Chapman. Chapman is credited with making each and every schoolboy at Greyfriars an individual; he certainly gave them character and his work, although following closely to the template established by Arthur Clarke, had none of Clarke's stiffness.

Chapman was responsible for some of the finest of Bunter's comic strip adventures, although that's a subject for another day. Briefly, he drew Bunter in the early issues of Knockout in 1939 and again—a much more substantial run—in Comet in 1958. During his days on The Magnet, a number of other artists helped spread the workload, amongst them Peter Hayward, Ronald Simmons and, most notably, Leonard Shields, who shared the art duties with Chapman from 1926; in 1936 he began producing all of the covers to the paper although from roughs produced by Chapman. A reminiscence written by Shields' son, Edgar, can be found here.

Chapman and Shields were both hugely popular with fans of the Greyfriars stories and Old Boys writing about the series rightly praised their work. However, in the evolution of the look of Bunter, considerable credit must go to Arthur H. Clarke who, although his work was less attractive than Chapman's, established Bunter as a consistent and well-delineated character, the artwork finally matching the skill shown by Bunter's creator, that master wordsmith, Charles Hamilton.

Further Reading
If this hasn't sated your appetite for reading about Billy Bunter and The Magnet, there are plenty of sites worth visiting. A good starting point is Tony Hiam's Greyfriars, The Magnet & Billy Bunter - Facts, Figures & Fun website. The Friars' Club celebrates everything related to Charles Hamilton. Both sites include various links to other online resources. Enjoy!

BBC Radio 4 are broadcasting a show entitled 'Billy Bunter's Birthday Bash' on Tuesday, 19th February (11.30 am) presented by Gyles Brandreth. No doubt it will be available through their Listen Again facility for the following week.


  1. Lovely piece, Steve - especially the details of the artists. The presumably apocryphal tale of Clarke dying in mid-sketch has been folk-lore in Bunter circles for decades. I was reading a Collectors' Digest from 1954 yesterday, which contained the same assertion, but in tones to suggest that this was already well-known to all.

    I wouldn't agree that Chapman was the best artist, though no doubt he was the definitive one. Obviously, Chapman's style was to some extent constrained by his need to mimic Clarke's drawings, but the advent of Leonard Shields in 1926 resulted in a vast increase in quality and characterisation. According to an article I read in CD from the late '50s, Shields was the acknowledged leader amongst the AP artists, at that time. Certainly, Chapman seems to have learned much from him, and his illustrations improved markedly thereafter.

    Shields's particular genius was in executing humour so well - as in the picture of Bunter squirming in the armchair, just a few feet from the head, in your blog - a beautiful Shields drawing. Indeed, Shields would not uncommonly "adjust" the illustration for comic effect, rather than follow the story exactly - a very nice example occurs in the Mauleverer Towers Christmas series of 1931, when Bunter falls over in the snow, and is helped to his feet by his ears! On other occasions, though, he was just careless, which Chapman never was. It is my distinct impression that Chapman really loved the stories, whereas for Shields, the more gifted artist, it was more a job of work.

  2. Just as a further aside, Steve; in your blog you show a number of later Magnet illustrations - presumably chosen for comic effect - and all are by Shields, which illustrates the point I was making about Shields's skill.

  3. Nandu,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and informative comment. I hadn't actually realised how much of Shields' work I was choosing when I was writing: I wanted a few examples of how Bunter had developed artistically and to illustrate some of the points made in the article; but my main aim was to put together some information about his earliest artists so the choices for later illustrations were somewhat random. Since I wasn't planning to cover Chapman and Shields in any great depth it didn't really matter whose artwork was used. If I liked the illustration, in they went!

    Now I've had time to sit back and look and the piece, I agree that the blunt statement that Chapman was Bunter's "best artist" was rather too casually tossed off. If anyone wants to write a piece comparing Chapman's artwork to Shields' I'll be a happy host for it.

  4. Nothing specific to add, Steve. Just wanted to say congrats on a terrific blog. It's the kind of lovingly well-informed thing one always loves to stumble across.

  5. Thanks for your splendid piece. I agree with Nandu about Shields, but I am still a great admirer of Chapman. Actually, I think that the quality of Chapman's work waxed and waned along with Frank Richard's own writing: it definitely deteriorated in the late thirties.

  6. I would also hardly agree that Chapman was the best artist. In my opinion that accolode should rightly go to Leonard Shields who was the most competent illustrator, and whose best drawings for the Magnet could never be bettered by any of the other artists.
    I do agree with most of what Nandu states about Shields (above), with one exception. It was not a 'job of work' for this artist to contribute to the Magnet illustrations. We have an article by Shield's grand-son which clearly intimates that he enjoyed his years drawing for the story-paper and indeed loved the characters & stories.
    Added to this, it is my view that Shields could never have done such splendid art-work, if he had not conceived a real love for Frank Richards stories. The prove of the pudding is---in the excellence of the finished illustration, and perhaps even some of his own positive comments regarding the Magnet.
    From 1926 onwards when he made his debut in the India series, most of his drawings were very worthy.

    As for Chapman, it is true that he was constrained to follow the style of his predecessor Arthur Clarke. But when he came into his own (circa mid to late 1920's), Chapman's own style was rather superficial and more attuned to the 'comic' paper than a story-paper like the Magnet. He was more at ease with rural scenes, but lacked perspective and clear delineation in many of the other settings.
    I think that one reason that his drawings are more laudable to folks is the fact that he was indeed associated with Billy Bunter and the Magnet.
    This was demonstrated in post-war years when the Billy Bunter books were initially illustrated by someone else (the Gem artist RJ Macdonald). There was a huge clamouring for Chapman to come back to the easel, so to speak.

    But Macdonald was otherwise the more competent artist judging by art-work alone, and I much prefer his work otherwise.
    Some very good illustrations in the Gem too, such as the Old bus series (but that's another story)!

    It is nice to contemplate that the two artists (Shields and Chapman) got along personally so well, and that Chapman was always modestly complimentary of his colleague, who sadly passed away in 1949.

  7. To summarize my thoughts (above) on the respective artistic merits of Leonard Shields, CH Chapman and RJ Macdonald, I would say that Shields was excellent at his best, Chapman was nothing to write home about (though he does have some pics that are worthy to browse), while RJ Macdonald can't be neglected, especially for some of his very good Gem drawings.
    I never enthused over Chapman as others do in the 'hobby'. Over-rated in my opinion!



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