(Charles Henry Chapman
Page updated 117th June, 2016
Billy Bunter Gallery (External site 2016)
from a Grandson
To most Grandchildren a Grandfather is someone to look up to. In my case Charles Henry Chapman, the famous Billy Bunter artist, was that and more. He was not a large man; in retrospect he was somewhat small in stature and with cartoon-like features, but a man to respect.
He had enormous talent which I appreciated at an early age. I used to marvel at him when I was small. He would sit me on his knee and with rapidity scribble down a picture, usually a cartoon of some animal or local character. He had the uncanny knack of being able to pick out the prominent features of a person. Not just the facial features but the character and personality as well.
The talent went beyond drawing. He would sit down at the piano, roll out and sing along with some hot tune. Perhaps his most enjoyable performance for us as young children was when he took out his banjo and strummed away a selection of old minstrel tunes. To this day I am fascinated by his method of tuning the banjo, partly using the pegs and partly by adjusting the bridge.
Some years later when I was married and had children of my own I would sit back and watch how he would perform for them in much the same way he did for us. He obviously had the ability to relate to children. With adults, however, he could be of a contrary frame of mind. Although it never occurred to me at the time it was my wife who pointed out how many of his remarks could be quite inconsiderate, even pompous and bigoted at times. He had, what was to me amusing yet quite disconcerting to others, a habit of criticizing and talking to the television. He used to love watching interviews with politicians so he could actively debate out loud with them. All of this was either of amusement or disgust depending on your point of view.
His ability to mount his old 'sit up and beg' bicycle and take off through the country lanes was legendary. He would go for hours at a time and, being very much his 'own man', never gave any inkling as to where he was off to or when he would be back. Although I left England in 1969, when he was 90, he was still riding his bicycle, although more selective of the weather than he used to be.
I can honestly say that in all the years I knew him I can never remember him being ill. Apart from a cold or the flu, neither of which set him back excessively, he was a fit, healthy and active person. Even on the day he went off and had his remaining teeth pulled by the dentist (as usual he told no one of the appointment). Within 24 hours he was back in high spirits.
John C. Chapman: March 5, 2000
In February I made, what has now become an annual ritual, a trip to England for family reasons. One of my more pleasurable obligations is always to visit Wingfield, the bungalow in Tokers Green, near Reading, where my Grandfather lived until he died. In his later years was looked after by his two daughters, Dorothy and Marjorie. Dorothy died several years ago and Marjorie passed away shortly before Christmas. His studio was attached to the rear of the bungalow but quite separate from the house. It had large windows from which he could look over the garden in one direction and in the other, at the end of an open space some 200 meters away were the Beech woods. On this visit, however, it was not to meet with my aunt but to help sort out the many old family documents, photographs and memorabilia as we cleared out the house ready to go to the auction.
Of particular interest was the fact that the studio was virtually untouched since his death in 1972! I must confess that in all my previous visits I had not ventured into this hallowed space, so I should not have been surprised at this. There were many of his original drawings, sketches, illustrations and writings. I did not know that he had written several short stories and several hundred short poems! I am in the process of transcribing the stories and poems for future publication. It appears that much of his published work (and unpublished work) was filed away, most of it, apparently, in a random way. The collection is my no means complete, however, as he was quite generous at handing out examples of his work to those who asked for it. Also from time to time visitors and family members were given drawings as momentos. The whole collection is now being cataloged and placed into protective covers to preserve it for posterity.
One of my joys was to pick thorough the many old photographs in the family archives. Some of these go back to glass plate negatives of uncertain date, but many sepia prints were taken in the late 18 th century. From about 1880 I have good documentation of the very large family in excellent black and white prints. In addition I now have a full range of prints of C. H. Chapman at various periods of his life. Some examples of these I would like to share with you.
John C. Chapman: November, 2000
Its only after the first snow fall here in Alberta that I have the urge to start the winter chores and tidy up my office. Also at this time I have a chance to continue the more interesting aspect of my winter activities, namely working on the family tree and writing about interesting relatives I have uncovered. This past weekend I started to catalog the many files I have on various relatives. These include large brown envelopes full of old photographs, letters and to my surprise as I had completely forgotten about them, a bundle of original drawings and sketches by my Grandfather C. H. Chapman.
Looking at these drawings not only brought back memories of my Grandfather but also enabled me to reflect a little on his character. As I have written previously on my memories, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to show the drawings to some of my colleagues who knew nothing about him, and to observe their reaction to his drawings. One of the viewers has training and a background in art having sold several of her paintings in the past.
Naturally all were intrigued by the material and fascinated by the style and accuracy of some of the drawings. I was particularly taken by the way they could so accurately sum up his character by the illustrations. Their observations were that the drawings were so economical in lines, every line had a meaning with no wasted effort. An incredible use of space with little white space on a page and every square inch of paper used. The pen and ink drawings were also precise with every line having a meaning. The style was close to that of a wood cut. The characters were always happy, everyone had a smile or some wild expression of a joyous experience. When not laughing characters were always content, either laid back in a relaxed manner or even having a nap. There were political characters too, all instantly recognizable, but most were the every day people my Grandfather saw constantly about him.
Several would now be considered political cartoons such as the one of a crowded doctors waiting room with the comment The new Welfare State (below left). Another shows an obvious Charles De Gaul in the background, with a sign ici on ne parle pas anglais. Other drawings make statements on pollution The smelly sea and various comments on country life. These drawings are dated from 1904 to 1970.
To me these observations were a revelation. My Grandfather was always an efficient little man. Always on the go and could not stand to see a piece of blank white paper! At every opportunity he would scribble a little drawing on any paper or suitable material at hand. There always seemed to be a little stub of pencil either in his hand, on his ear or in his waistcoat pocket. (Yes, he would wear a waistcoat almost all the time regardless of whatever else was wearing). This scribbling was always an efficient use of space and time. A drawing could be completed in seconds; it was never refined but acceptable as drawn and once completed a new one started. His pockets often contained small sketches on scraps of anything at hand, ranging from old used cigarette packages, to bus tickets and blank pages torn from books.
He was so observant of everything around him. His drawings of horses were anatomically correct but in many instances, in true cartoonist style, they were exaggerated. His birds, farm animals and dogs, in particular, were always in contorted position undergoing some experience we could only guess at. I liked, personally, his drawings of people. Frequently simple country folk but always with some exaggerated expression of joy, laughter, fear or other exclamation. He particularly enjoyed sitting in a train (he commuted daily from Reading to Paddington for some years) and drawing the characters in the carriage (see righthand side illo further up). I often wondered how he got away with it perhaps some lucky passengers were the receivers of one of his sketches.
Also found in the collection of material was a notebook containing a couple of hundred short poems and a folder with several short stories. I never knew my Grandfather had written anything remotely like this. Once I have chance to review the material in more detail I will present some examples in another future review
It seems his drawings did reflect his personality even more than I had always known. To me, apart from being my Grandfather, he was the epitome of a happy, sprightly and active old man (his bicycling around the country lanes are legendary). In fact I did not know any better in my early years, I thought all old men were happy, enjoyed life and experienced good health with a large family around them. As I approach retirement I can only hope my fortunes will be half as good as his was.
April Fool Concert
I have mentioned previously that my Grandfather had a peculiar comic streak in him. I suppose that being an artist-illustrator for various comic papers and his predilection for drawing even the most prominent people in comical situations, this should not be a surprise. This trait was well demonstrated in the program he designed for Les Lawrence and his April Fools Concert in 1969.
Les Lawrence was an impresario of sorts who organized many musical events in the Reading area in the 1960s. I am not sure how long after into the 1970s he continued as I left the UK at that time. On my infrequent visits in later years I was not able to track either Les down or find reference to any more of his productions. Les and my Grandfather got on well together, I think they had much the same sense of humour. My Grandfather was very aware of the music Les produced but I don't remember if he ever attended any of the concerts. I was involved as a violin player in the orchestra and a long time friend of both Les and his wife Sue.
An approach was made in the planning of this concert to have a suitable program design. As I recall both Les and I mentioned this to my Grandfather one day and in no time he came up with the following design*. Naturally we were all delighted with it. The whole concert was a roaring success and we received many very positive comments about the program. As you will note the program sold for one shilling but I can tell you none of the proceeds went to C.H.Chapman! His contribution was donated gratis.
1969 was a time of gentle retirement for C.H.Chapman. He was now feeling his age but still riding his bicycle around the country lanes. Both his gait and riding skills were deteriorating rapidly, but at the time there was no way to slow him down. Today we would say he was "his own man and followed the beat of his own drum". He always did exactly what he wanted to, often without any real regard to people around him. Perhaps this sounds a little unkind, however, by this time he was very benign and not in a position to harm a soul. This trait merely provided much amusement to many onlookers and naturally a little consternation to his two daughters, Dorothy and Marjorie, who were caring for him.
John C. Chapman, January 21, 2008
Another cold snowy day that gives me the chance to pull the many envelopes and files I have collected for my Chapman family tree project. Wandering through the material I come across more material on my grandfather than I was aware of. I find several sheets of paper containing short stories and another sketchbook of drawings. This will take me quite a while to place in some semblance of order. In the mean time I find I have received new information and old photographs from family members and other interested people.
Its not a surprise that there are many examples of his work out there; both drawings and paintings, as he was, at time to a fault, generous at giving away examples of his work to people that appreciated it. From time to time I get requests from people to verify the authenticity of his art. A job Im quite happy to do. I would welcome hearing from anyone that has examples of his work in order to have some idea of how much there is in the hands of private collectors.
As I have stated
previously CH Chapman was a man of enormous talent. I now
have in my archives an audio tape of him playing the
piano and banjo. Also he also singing along just as I
remember him as when I was younger. I have also a
videotape of him in his home and studio at Wingfield
where he lived the last years of his life. It is almost
surreal to hear and see him again.
His next most
common subject is a series about living in the country
and various country characters. Following this there are
poems about birds and animals, individual family members,
local places, the weather and other rural pieces. He also
had a fair smattering of political and not so socially
correct items that reflect his biases
A few examples of his poems as follows:
(C) The copyright of artwork and poetry reproduced on this page is vested in John C. Chapman and reproduction elsewhere by any means, either electronic or in hard copy format, is strictly forbidden without the permission of the copyright holder. Queries may be directed to the copyright holder via the link below.
We welcome your memories of CHC and
his famous characters.
* To be added at a later stage.
In the late sixties I was the Book Buyer at one of the branches of W H Smith Booksellers in Broad Street, Reading (there were two branches in the the same street!) I was approached by a representative of the publishers Cassell & Co in 1969 to do a window display for the Billy Bunter books. He asked me if I was aware that the illustrator lived near by in the village of Tokers Green. He said he was sure that if we asked nicely we could borrow some art work to feature in the window display.
So it was that my fiance, later my wife, and I found ourselves on your grandfather's doorstep early one evening. He was very welcoming and after listening to our proposal he proceeded to pull prints and original art work from the drawers of a plan chest, which, as you described, seemed to be stuffed in no order at all. Before we left I asked him how long it took him to complete an illustration and he asked if we would like to see him do a sketch.
Selecting a large 2' x 3' sketch pad he produced a piece of charcoal from his pocket and began to sketch a portrait of Billy Bunter sat by a table on which a large pie dish sat, with a large wedge of pie missing! In a matter of minutes the portrait was finished He wrote at the bottom 'Billy Bunter The Fat Boy of Greyfriars School' and signed it C H Chapman. Detatching the sheet from the pad he said "you can have that one,, but I should like the other ones back"
Two weeks later after the window
display was changed we once again journeyed out to Tokers
Green and returned the borrowed artwork and spent some
time discussing the garden and his health. I remember
your grandfather as a very bright, interested and
trusting man. The picture was later framed and is now on
the wall in our dining room and we never tire of telling
people who ask about the circumstances that led to the
picture being completed.
Any problems or questions? Email John email@example.com