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Nicolas Bentley Drew the Authors

Nicolas Bentley, one of the most prominent English illustrators of the mid-20th century, always considered himself to be an author rather than simply a cartoonist. His oeuvre, which includes several books and several hundred more cartoons and illustrations, has one common thread – the telling of stories.

“You ought to be used to walking home by now.” – The London bus strike continued for five weeks.

“You ought to be used to walking home by now.” – The London bus strike continued for five weeks.

Bentley was never a caustic satirist, rather the clean lines of his stark black ink drawings drew attention to the stories recognisable in everyday life: the funny, the sad and the ridiculous.

His celebrated contributions to Punch and later to Private Eye were prized for their accuracy, offsetting the more searing articles they accompanied, adding richness to the jokes with intricate narratives of their own.

“I don’t think I’ll bother to read it. I’ll wait and see the film.” – On 2 March 1960 the Guillebaud committee published its report on railway workers’ pay, recommending substantial pay increases.

“I don’t think I’ll bother to read it. I’ll wait and see the film.” – On 2 March 1960 the Guillebaud committee published its report on railway workers’ pay, recommending substantial pay increases.

For this lover of stories and one who with a rich literary heritage (his godfather was G. K. Chesterton and his father invented the clerihew), it is little wonder he found such a rich source of material in the illustration of authors, often seeming to enjoy the game of adding satirical flavour to his literary drawings.

A noticeably supercilious Lord Byron.

A noticeably supercilious Lord Byron.

In his various author illustrations, mostly produced throughout the 1960s to accompany book reviews in the Sunday Telegraph, Nicolas Bentley displays some of his most overt narrative sensibilities.

Notably his drawing of Byron published in the Sunday Telegraph in 1966 adapts Byron’s features to match his iconic status – adding a quiff and unmistakably Elvis-esque curl of the lip.

John Keats: the poet’s large eyes are touched in green.

John Keats: the poet’s large eyes are touched in green.

A portrait of John Keats in 1965 for the same paper shows the poet with his hand under his chin, with enormous green eyes gazing into some romantic distance – the perfect image of a 60s daydreaming adolescent.

Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Josef Goebbels and Arturo Toscanini in a wooden crib.

Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Josef Goebbels and Arturo Toscanini in a wooden crib.

He goes further into comic interpretation in other drawings, in which he has contrived a stand-alone narrative to complement the book review or article.

From the unusual grouping of Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Goebbels and Arturo Toscanini as babies in a wooden crib (Goebels slashing the air with a cosh) to the more traditional comic framing of a fully grown Gustave Flaubert fleeing an old woman – his mother with whom he lived for most of his adult life.

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert, hat in hand, flees from a wailing old widow, presumably his mother with whom he lived most of his adult life.

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert, hat in hand, flees from a wailing old widow, presumably his mother with whom he lived most of his adult life.

In all of these drawings, Bentley’s tendency towards the narrative of the everyday is irresistible. He takes great writers – many of whom he would have respected and admired – and gives them qualities instantly relatable to the more mundane lives of his audience.

Sherlock Holmes, with magnifying glass, and Dr Watson investigate the mysterious rise of the young David Frost, host of That Was The Week That Was.

Sherlock Holmes, with magnifying glass, and Dr Watson investigate the mysterious rise of the young David Frost, host of That Was The Week That Was.

Through his pin-ups, moody adolescents, screaming babies and long-suffering mummy’s boys, this collection of Nicolas Bentley’s work gives us a picture not just of historical and literary figures as we never expected to see them, but they tell a story about the time his pictures were published. Like all great storytellers, Bentley had the power to show readers themselves, as well as the men and women in the pictures he drew.

Works from Bentley’s literary portrait collection.

“When you say he’s an unsuccessful author, you mean he wasn’t called to give evidence?” – Virtually every published novelist alive had been called to give evidence in the Lady Chatterley trial.

“When you say he’s an unsuccessful author, you mean he wasn’t called to give evidence?” – Virtually every published novelist alive had been called to give evidence in the Lady Chatterley trial.

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