Like all the best satirists, Oliver Preston sends up what he knows best – the leisured classes at work and play. Shooting, racing, skiing, playing bridge, romantic pursuits, and the mixed pleasures of living in large country houses are all fodder for his gentle wit.
Philip Jenks - 4th December 2019
Oliver, when you worked in the City, did you always know that one day you’d chuck it in and become a cartoonist?
I have always drawn cartoons, and would caricature on the dealing room floor at Lehmans. They started making us sell mortgage-backed securities and I didn’t understand them (it transpired no-one else did either), and it was time to move on. Someone said to me, “Every time you talk about cartoons you look up, and every time you talk about the City you look down”, which prompted me to give it a go. My father wasn’t impressed!
What was your first commission and how much were you paid?
At school in 1979, I drew an advertisement for tailors Welsh & Jefferies, run by a legendary cockney called Sid Boddy. The strapline was, “You too can have a Boddy like mine”. It was published in the Eton Chronicle, payment £20. My first proper commission was from Rowe and Pitman in 1986 to celebrate Big Bang and their purchase by Warburgs.
When I became a cartoonist in 1995 I wanted to draw for Punch, The Spectator and The Times, all of which I did in the first year. The pay wasn’t great – The Times paid me £50 for a daily City cartoon and sent a bike from Wapping to Henley to collect the original drawing which cost more than they paid me. Then the internet, scanners and email arrived which made things a lot easier.
Can you remember the moment when you thought of your best gags, like the one of the skier at the urinal?
Ideas come when you are least expecting them and you have to write them down, otherwise you forget them. I have a notepad in use day and night, and I also take notes on my phone. Scrabbling around for a pen at 4 o’clock in the morning and trying to decipher half-asleep writing is a challenge.
As far as the urinal one goes, I do a lot of skiing cartoons and have always thought how ridiculous it is that the loos in mountain restaurants are situated downstairs – difficult to negotiate in a pair of ski boots.
Captions need to be punchy, short and pithy. Sometimes they come out of the blue – for instance, a captionless cartoon of dogs climbing on to a four-posted bed successfully became (after several glasses of wine), “Hey guys! They’ve changed the sheets”.
Who, if anybody, do you run ideas by before going ahead with a new drawing?
My father was a genius with humour, and I miss showing him drawings. I also have a very long-suffering wife who tells me with admirably honesty if the ideas are funny – or not.
Your pictures are affectionate even when they're poking fun. If you were asked to do a political cartoon, could you find the appropriate venom?
I am friends with many of the political cartoonists through the Cartoon Museum in London – Matt, MAC, Peter Brookes, Steve Bell, Martin Rowson. I always think cartoonists' work is very like their character. Most political cartoonists are left-leaning and pretty angry people. I am a gentle soul which probably comes out in my pictures! The closest I have got is my political playing cards.
"All my sons are pilots, except Mickey, who's just gone into the church."
Your cards are loved by people who shoot or ski, but does that make them a hard sell in, say, Stoke Newington?
Yes, it does, but then it is usually the case that cartoonists draw what they observe in their own lives. What Thelwell called, “the endearing lunacy of human behaviour”.
"The accused grew up on a very rough estate. There was a lot of shooting."
The Swiss are not known for their humour but your cards and prints sell well there. Are differences in national humour are overstated?
I have a British father and a Swiss mother (whose brother was a well known architect). The humour comes from the British side, the artistic talent from the Swiss. I have always said that if it was the other way round I wouldn’t have had much of a career.
What is the best feeling in your job and what is the worst?
When we exhibit at fairs – The Game Fair, Burghley, Spirit of Christmas – it is always a joy to see visitors getting the giggles over my cards and prints. I'm interested to see what they have bought, and often they tell me which their favourite is. Making people laugh is a great pleasure and I am lucky to have been given the talent to draw.
"It's the only way of getting them out again after lunch."
Why did you decide to publish your cards yourself rather than have them published by an established card company?
My first book, Liquid Limericks, which I did in partnership with Alastair Sampson sold 10,000 copies, yet I was paid a paltry sum. After that, we decided that we would do them ourselves, and the greeting cards followed on from there.
Vivien, my wife, runs Beverston Press, and we are both proud that most of our products are made in the UK – greeting cards in Gloucester, playing cards in Devizes, placemats and coasters in Stamford, tea towels in Suffolk. Our books are manufactured in Malta.
Do you enjoy the business side of being a cartoonist and which aspects are you good/bad at?
Both Vivien and I come from a business background and are pretty good at staying on top of it. Drawing is more fun, though.
If one of your children had the choice between selling bonds in the City and drawing for a living, what would your fatherly advice be?
I don’t care what they do so long as they are happy, and I would always make it my priority to reassure them and encourage them!
Thank you Oliver!
Oliver Preston's latest book, The Dictionary of Posh, written with Hugh Kellett, is published by Quiller Press.
Hardback, £14.95, ISBN 9781846893049