For years, Christmas cards were synonymous with cartoon images of a cake-loving Santa, snowball-throwing snowmen, revenge-seeking robins, IT-literate monks, and custard-lovin’ Christmas puddings. If you’re of a certain age, cartoons like these will instantly trigger feelings of intense festive nostalgia.
Whilst the cards themselves were extremely popular, very little was known about the artist behind the distinctive designs, a man known simply as “Rich”. After years of searching, I finally managed to track down the elusive Christmas Card Banksy.
… And it turned out he isn’t living in the shadows, shunning the spotlight and purposely trying to disguise his true identity. He’s British cartoonist, Richard Skipworth and not only has he gathered a loyal fan base, but he’s also an incredibly friendly bloke. I had the pleasure of interviewing Rich about his life and career as the most iconic artist in the history of greetings cards.
Back in the 90’s; your Christmas cards were stuffed in trays, backpacks and cardboard postboxes in primary schools across the country.
We’re you aware of the popularity of your cards or were you too busy doing the work?
I had absolutely no idea how popular my cards were, other than that they sold well, and the company I was working for at the time kept asking me to do more of them. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that I had a fan base!
Your identity has always seemed to be somewhat of a mystery. Was this intentional?
No, my mysterious shadowy identity was never intentional!
It just wasn’t common practice back then to give artists a credit on their work. I used to sign them and I was eventually credited with my name printed on the card backs. I also got promoted a little by the card company in their Christmas catalogue with my cards being referred to as “By the renowned Richard Skipworth” Alas, this didn’t result in hordes of adoring fans and an army of paparazzi at my door.
Let’s go right back – Were you always interested in illustration and cartoons?
Yes. Always. As a kid I was always drawing stuff
Who were the cartoonists who inspired you. Are there elements of your work which you’ve borrowed from other artists? I’m not going to lie, growing up, I flat-out, unashamedly stole your style of drawing.
Leo Baxendale, the creator of the Bash Street Kids in the Beano was one.
He moved from the Beano to work for a number of comics published by Odhams Press back in the 60s, namely “WHAM!” “SMASH!” and “POW!’ That’s where I came across his work and loved it. Those comics started out as purely funny cartoon publications but later went on to feature reprints of Marvel Comics stories such as The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Hulk etc. The Marvel artists working on those stories were a big influence on me at the time, most notably the brilliant Jack Kirby. His work was a real inspiration to me (though you’d never tell that from my work now) I would spend hours tracing his stuff, and scaling it up to make my own posters for my bedroom walls.
Have you had any formal education in art or are you self-taught?
Purely self-taught. My Dad used to be commercial artist in the years before the War, so I must have had some arty genes passed on. He used to show me how to draw stuff when I pestered him, but mainly I worked it all out myself because I just liked the whole process of drawing.
I never actually went to Art college. The school I attended didn’t really encourage you into any kind of artistic path. They preferred you to do the sciences. Art was something you did when you were crap at sports, or if it was raining too hard to go out and kick a ball around. Generally speaking, you were encouraged to go to University to do something science-y, with a view to ultimately getting a proper job. My Dad also told me that art as a way of making a living was not the best career choice. “It’s a rat race” he informed me. I took the hint. Science it was then.
University loomed in 1973 and I was accepted into the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology where I studied for a degree in Physics. After a year of Thermodynamics, Quantum theory, Astrophysics and numerous other branches of rocket science, the Art in my DNA began to make itself known. I was interested in Physics (I still am) but it was not my real passion. Dammit, deep down, I realised I wanted to be a professional artist. Always had.
So I decided I’d try changing courses from Physics to Art. The Physics department heads thought I was insane. The Art course heads at the places I applied to regarded me as some kind of weirdo, an alien scientist in their midst. It didn’t work out…the Art course gods decreed that with me having no official experience with things arty,I would only be allowed to join their course proper after I had completed a two year “Foundation Course”. This was a course designed to teach complete beginners and utter numpties which end of a pencil to draw with, how to sharpen a pencil to get a pointy end, and other very basic skills. There were no Student Loans in those days, there were Student Grants from your local authority. And I wasn’t eligible for one for a Foundation Course, so I would have had to fund myself. Sigh.
So, back to the Physics course then. Two years later I had a Physics degree had been assessed by the University computerised career matching system, which informed me that “no career paths match this applicant”. I probably shouldn’t have entered “comics and cartoons” as my primary area of interest on the form.
I left the halls of academia with a rough knowledge of Quantum Mechanics and a portfolio of pretty amateurish cartoons and drawings that I’d worked on for the previous three years.
Before you pursued your dream of becoming a cartoonist, you were working as a graphic designer for advertising and newspapers. What was that experience like and what finally pushed you to really go for it?
Working as a Graphic Designer for our local newspaper group was a brilliant, life changing experience.
After I left University I knew I had to get a decent portfolio of work together to show to potential employers or publishers if I wanted to get a job in commercial art. I didn’t have any money, so I set about taking on loads of temporary jobs doing pretty much anything to make enough money to keep me going while I worked on my portfolio. I’d work for a month, then take a month off and just do drawing, then go back to work again and so on. This was in the late 70s, early 80s. Temporary work was fairly easy to come by via work agencies if you weren’t too fussy what you did.
I took on all kinds of work… like shovelling piles of scrap metal in a recycling yard, driving a van delivering boxes of bolts and screws, defrosting freezers used to freeze tons of mackerel. Ah, the glamour of it all!
Then one day I received a letter asking me to attend an interview for a job I’d applied for, that of a Graphic Designer in the advertising department of the aforementioned newspaper group. To my surprise, I was offered the job! I took to the job like a duck to water. The other two blokes in the art department taught me everything I needed to know to be a professional Graphic Artist. I just soaked up everything like a sponge, I loved the work. It was fascinating to me. In a short time I was deemed good enough to no longer be the office junior and was let loose on designing ads for the papers for real. At last, I was earning a living from commercial art, which was good as I was down to my last £90 in the bank.
After a number of years, having moved on to work for advertising agencies, then back to the under-new-management newspaper group, and being taken on by an art agency, and designing pub signs, I was kept very busy all the time. The art agency and pub sign stuff was done on a freelance basis, separate from my advertising job so I was working late nights and weekends to fit everything in.
Eventually, I was working on artwork so much that I realised one of the jobs had to go. I had a large number of contacts from my advertising and graphics work who agreed to supply me with work if I went freelance, and I reckoned I’d earn more money that way than being employed, and I’d get time to sleep, so I took the plunge.
How did you get started designing greetings cards?
Pure luck. One day, freelance graphic work was a bit thin on the ground, (well, actually non-existent at the time!) and my Girlfriend (later my Wife) spotted an advert in the paper from a company called Webb Ivory for a Graphic Designer to design their mail order catalogue. Webb Ivory did all kinds of Christmas gift stuff, including Christmas cards.
I arranged an interview and off we went to Burton-on-Trent, home of Webb Ivory HQ. I showed the Art Director my (now extensive) portfolio. He liked everything in there and then informed me that they’d decided to fill the post internally after all, but thanks for coming all this way and er, sorry it was a waste of time.
As I got up to leave he said “I see you have some cartoons in your portfolio. We produce Christmas cards with cartoons on, maybe you could send us some Christmassy cartoons and we might be able to use them…”
A few days later, having nothing better to do, I sat down and thought up some cartoon Christmas cards…
What was the first Christmas card you designed?
It was the one with my animated Christmas pud, pouring custard over itself. It was part of a set of four featuring those puds. I sent ‘em off in the post, not expecting to get much of a reaction, but…next day, the phone went and it was the Art Director from Webb Ivory. He loved the designs! Even better, he was offering me money! And he wanted to know if I could do a few more along the same lines. And that was the start of things in a big way.
The puds became their best sellers, followed by some other cards featuring animated mince pies. Webb Ivory asked for more, and more. I soon dropped all the graphic design and advertising work to concentrate on cartooning for Webb Ivory. My name got passed around several other divisions of the company in other parts of the country and my cartooning output began to take off like a rocket. My stuff began to appear on the shelves of Marks & Spencer, Woolworths, and loads of other stores. If I remember correctly, Webb Ivory was taken over by a huge greeting card conglomerate called Britannia Greetings and I wound up working for them at an incredible pace. 7 day weeks became a regular thing.
At the time when you started out, what was the Christmas card market like? I imagine your designs must have been very ground-breaking. I certainly can’t remember any other cards from the era…
The Christmas card market when I first set foot in it was very buoyant and a very big industry. In fact the Greeting card industry as a whole was a huge thriving multi-million pound affair, constantly looking for fresh ideas and new artists. There were plenty of humorous artists working in the Christmas market, but my sense of humour and my style of artwork seemed to catch on and became very popular. Fortunately.
What’s it like working as a cartoonist for greetings card companies, did you get many notes on your designs or were you free to create?
It depends on the companies you work for, how they like to operate. For Webb Ivory and Britannia, there was no interference. I was left completely alone to create whatever I could think up. I’d sketch the ideas out loosely, send them in (by fax!) and they’d choose the ones they liked.
Other companies would send a written brief of what they wanted, often with a gag and punchline written by a copy writer. All I had to do was illustrate the joke. How I did that would be entirely up to me. Sometimes an Art director would describe what they wanted, which I really didn’t like much as all the creativity was taken away and I was left as a remote controlled art machine. I did my best to avoid those gigs. Often I’d rework their ideas. I functioned best when I was left to my own devices.
Sometimes though, you’d find yourself working for a particularly nit-picking Art Director, or indeed a committee of ‘em. That was a complete pain in the bum.
Does it pay well?
It can. Depends on the company, and on how successful your work is. Some companies offer a royalty on each card they sell, and if it’s a good seller, this arrangement can be very lucrative.
One of my most successful cards featured a fairly simple illustration of a Foreign Legion/Beau Geste fort in the desert. The caption read “Ok, this may not be the best Birthday card you’ve ever had… but it’s the fort that counts!” That earned me several thousand pounds in royalties over the years. Amazing.
How many cards have you designed in your career?
Blimey. A lot. must run into the thousands.
Where did your inspiration come from for recurring characters and themes such as The Monks and festive food?
The animated food thing originated from an idle doodle. I was working on some ideas for the advertising for a large DIY store and was thinking of a cartoon angle to sell their hardware and building goods. I drew an animated brick, which looked a bit like a square headed thug. Brick for a head and body, with skinny little legs and arms. Looked a bit too aggressive to use but I filed it away for future use. This eventually became an animated Christmas pud.
The Monks? Well, while at Webb Ivory I was sent some “merry monks” cards showing a bunch of slightly inebriated porky monks singing carols. All very conventional looking really. It seems these had been popular and I was asked if I could do something in the same vein because the original artist had retired.
The card samples I was sent were nothing like my style, so I set about doing my own version. It was the dawn of the digital age, with computers just being taken up and used commercially, so I thought it might work if I combined Monks in their medieval setting with modern day computers. I had one Monk labouring over an Illustrated manuscript that read “Merry Christmas” with another Monk producing the same thing a hundred times faster on a computer with a graphics package and a printer.
This proved really popular, and was used by loads of businesses for their corporate Christmas cards. It became another best seller and I was immediately commissioned for loads more Monks designs.
Who is your favourite Christmas character to draw?
Any of the Monks I think. I’ve grown quite fond of the little bald blokes over the years. I don’t draw them any more though, I finally grew tired of thinking up endless monk gags.
Are any of your human characters based on real people?
Nah. They are all the products of my imagination. This avoids lawsuits and public outrage.
Were there ever any designs which were deemed to be too risqué?
Well, for a a number of years I was commissioned to do a series of cards known as “Slim Humour” cards, which were popular in the eighties. These were tall, slim cards (hence the name) and were based around dodgy double entendres. Nothing obscene of course, just er, suggestive in a humorous way.
They were mainly text-based gags with an accompanying fairly simple illustration. They would commission 12 in a batch and they were quick to do once you’d thought up the gag. My record was 11 in one day!
In my mind, your Christmas cards suddenly vanished. What happened and where did all the funny cards go?
I started working on a lot of non-Christmas stuff. I switched companies to UK Greetings when Webb Ivory got re-organised by their parent company Britannia. For UK Greetings I was producing mainly Birthday, Mothers Day, Fathers Day and all manner of stuff. My Christmas output dropped off a lot then.
Do you see your influence in modern day greetings cards? Do you ever get a card through the post and think, “Hey, they stole my idea!”
Sometimes I see layouts and styles that look similar to the way I do things, and I’ve seen several Monks designs that appear to be a rip-off of my work.
What kind of fan base have you developed over the years?
The Monks cards developed a devoted fan base over the years. One year my usual publisher, Collisons, decided “We’ll give the Monks a rest this year Rich… maybe you could concentrate on something else like, er, penguins” This created a stir in the fanbase, and I was inundated with emails wanting to know where the Monks cards were for that year. Sensing an instant business opportunity, I set about printing and selling my own Monks cards online, with great success I’m pleased to say. I got to know a lot of Monks fans, and they were all lovely people. Some of them used to put their collections of Monks cards up every year as decorations!
Do you still have all the old designs? I’d love to see them published in a book someday. If you want a partner to kickstart it with, I’m definitely available.
I have a lot of printed copies of old designs, but none of the original artwork. That was never returned from the publishers. Later, I went totally digital, and so everything resides on my hard drives these days.
What are you up to these days?
I’m retired, sort of. I no longer work for other companies, I just do my own stuff and sell it online. After 40 years of deadlines I finally decided to just do my own work.
I started putting some Greyhound cartoons up on Facebook a couple of years ago ( I’ve got a Greyhound, and they’re lovely creatures) and was surprised at the amount of interest they generated. Lots of other Greyhound fans wanted to know where they could buy the cartoons as prints, on mugs etc. So I uploaded some artwork to a print-on-demand company called Redbubble who print your stuff onto all kinds of merchandise. The stuff was an immediate hit, and I began to accumulate a small army of Greyhound fans. I’m up to about 34,000 followers on Facebook now, have published two books and numerous calendars of Greyhound cartoons, with another book in the works. Amazing how busy you can be when you retire.
What makes greyhounds so fun to draw?
They’re beautiful elegant beasts with lovely graceful lines. And they’re funny, quirky, and surprisingly lazy (they don’t need a lot of exercise, they prefer just lolling about and snoozing. I love ‘em.)
What advice do you have for budding cartoonists?
If you want to be a cartoonist, you can. Draw stuff all the time, build a portfolio of work (digital or real) and practice. Your portfolio is what proves you can do the work. You can’t talk your way into it. It’s not easy, but if you really want to do it, then the desire to do it is your greatest asset. That’s the bit of your psyche that makes you get good. Going freelance as a cartoonist was the best career move I ever made.
What are your career goals?
Well, I don’t really have any now…I did what I dreamed of doing: making a living drawing cartoons. Did it for years, and even became sort of famous. Job done!
What was Christmas like for you growing up?
Lovely. Mum, Dad, the dog, presents, selection boxes of sweets. I had a good childhood. Don’t remember any funny Christmas cards though.
You can visit Richard Skipworth’s website, follow him on Facebook / Twitter and buy his stuff from RedBubble (And yes, I now feel ridiculous not knowing who “Rich” was despite his large internet presence. I’m a terrible detective).
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