Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Canada's Forgotten Cartoonists: Peter Whalley

In his forward to The Collected Doug Wright, Vol. 1, the book's designer, Seth, remarks... "During these years I'd also been studying and collecting other Canadian cartoonists as well. They all had two things in common with Wright:"

"1.) They had produced a fascinating body of work."

"2.) They were largely forgotten."

One of the cartoonists Seth mentions is Peter Whalley, an artist whose work I was familiar with from my collection of old magazines, but had always assumed was an American, because his deceptively simple style reminded me so much of some of the gag cartoonists you might find in The New Yorker or Playboy. In fact, Whalley was born in 1921 in Brockville, Ontario and, after serving in the merchant marine during W.W.II, he moved to Quebec, where he lived until his death in 2007.

Here's one of my favourite pieces by Peter Whalley.

The editors' comment suggests that they didn't actually grasp how subtly clever Whalley's cartoon cover really is...

For those who didn't have the benefit of getting an art education in Canada, I'll explain. Every country has a certain heritage of art with which it is immediately identified. The French have the Impressionists, for instance, and when we think of the Renaissance we think of Italy. In Canada, we learn about the art of our Native Inuit people...

Cornelius Kreighoff, who famously painted the pioneer days...

... and of course, the Group of Seven.

Whalley shows all of those earlier artists content in the act of creating; inspired by the vast beauty of nature that is so abundant in Canada.

But the (then current) abstract expressionist, free to 'express himself' in any way he chooses, unconstrained by any requirements to appeal to an audience, sits sulking in a dirty, cramped studio, sullenly ignoring the beauty just outside his door. Hilarious!

Peter Whalley's daughter said that her father was "certainly not pretentious" and that "he would wince at the idea that he was an artist." But after the war, he moved to Montreal with the intention of becoming "a serious artist." In the end, however, cartooning won out because, Whalley said, "it paid more."

Whalley enjoyed a long and successful career producing cartoons for books, magazines, television... even advertising.

He also did film strips (remember film strips?) for the National Film Board of Canada.

Roy Peterson, editorial cartoonist at the Vancouver Sun said of Peter Whalley, "What is really amazing is that he was able to make a living freelancing at a time when there weren't any freelance cartoonists in the country."

In his later years, Whalley devoted himself to doing sculpture, even building his own foundry in Morin Heights, Quebec, where he lived until the end of his life.

When The Montreal Gazette's Alan Hustak wrote Peter Walley's obituary, he began by saying the artist "was one of the first cartoonists in Canada to display a warped, sardonic sense of humour on the editorial pages of a newspaper..." This group of cartoons below certainly demonstrates that quality to great effect. (And note the final gag, where Whalley once again pokes fun at abstract expressionism)

And here's something neat: on the CBC website, there's a short little television interview with Peter Whalley from 1959!
Click here to go to the CBC page and watch the interview.

The organizers of the Doug Wright Awards have inducted Peter Whalley into their "Giants of the North" Hall of Fame.


  1. Leif, I would be most interested in hearing how Canadian cartoonists were able to work when ice crystals kept forming in the india ink in their pen nib? Also, did they have to cut a hole in the ice crust in their ink bottle, the way they do to go ice fishing?

    PS-- please don't tell Jaleen Grove that I said this.

  2. Ken Steacy4:00 PM

    Thanx, Leif - yet another wonderful cartoonist from the Great White North gets his belated kudos! Quick quibble with your explanation for our pals south of the 49th: the first image from the MACLEAN'S cover is actually a reference to longhouse art by the Haida first nations from the northwest coast of British Columbia. No worries - you're only off by a few hundred kilometres, eh? Cheers!

  3. David;

    This is a secret previously shared only among Canadian cartoonists... but we keep our ink bottles sequestered.... 'in a place where body temperature is constant'. I'll speak no more of this... I've already said too much.

  4. Ken;

    Thanks for the clarification - you were probably the kid paying attention in art history class, eh? ;^)

  5. I was very lucky to have had art lessons from Peter in his house at Morin Heights back in 1956/7. I still cannot draw but they were fun sessions.