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Punch cartoonist who took a swipe at middle-class life

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to George du Maurier

21 December, 2018 — By Neil Titley

George du Maurier in the middle of his career

THERE can be few Camden families whose combined history manages to connect The Phantom of the Opera with Johnny Depp, and Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now with Punch magazine. However, the du Mauriers of Hampstead did exactly that.

The founder of this distinguished clan was the cartoonist and novelist Sir George (1834-1896), who around 1877 with his wife Emma and five children settled first in Church Row and later in New Grove House.

Born in Paris and nicknamed “Kiki”, George du Maurier had been a talented art student living and working in the ateliers of the bohemian Latin Quarter, when aged 23 the loss of his left eye due to a detached retina forced him to stop painting. His precarious eyesight remained a lifelong problem.

However, on moving to London in 1860 and joining the staff of the satirical magazine Punch (the Private Eye of its day), he was able to use his artistic skills to become arguably the most famous cartoonist of the Victorian age.

For 30 years he specialised in skewering the foibles of middle-class life and in one case created an enduring English joke when he drew the cartoon entitled “True Humility”, or “The Curate’s Egg”.

A usefully influential Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.”

Ingratiating young curate: “Oh no, my lord, I assure you. Parts of it are excellent!”

His pictures had a wide circulation and much influence. The joke circulated that du Maurier’s partiality for tall women and his penchant for elongating their skirts in his drawings raised the height of the average English girl by several inches.

Other targets included English snobbery.

Grateful Beggar and recipient of a handout: “Bless you, my lady! May we meet in Heaven!”

Appalled donor: “Good Gracious! Drive on, Jarvis!”

In the 1890s, and with his eyesight again threatened, du Maurier turned his hand to writing novels. One of them, Trilby (1894), harked back nostalgically to his student days in Paris. Although a gothic horror story, it was influenced by Henry Murger’s book La Vie de Boheme, which also provided the material for Puccini’s opera La Boheme.

One of George du Maurier’s Punch cartoons

Trilby was a huge success and sold over 200,000 copies. It was adapted for the stage and gave Herbert Beerbohm Tree one of his greatest roles as Svengali. The plot also inspired the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux called The Phantom of the Opera, which in turn begat the eponymous Lloyd-Webber musical, currently running at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket. (In a curiously circular coincidence, this is the theatre that Beerbohm Tree built from the profits of Trilby.)

Sir George’s daughter Sylvia married a local barrister named Arthur Llewelyn Davies but both died young. Their five children were brought up by the writer JM Barrie and became the inspiration for his famous play Peter Pan.

The story of the creation of the show and the family behind it was portrayed movingly in the 2004 film Finding Never­land, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, and with Julie Christie in the role of Sir George’s wife Lady Emma.

His second son, Gerald, became an actor (in 1904 playing the original Captain Hook in Peter Pan) and was himself later knighted. A devoted tobacco smoker, he endorsed the du Maurier cigarette to help pay a tax bill – although he disliked the brand itself, preferring Craven A. A blue plaque can be seen at his old home at Cannon Place, Hampstead where Sir Gerald died in 1934.

He in turn fathered the redoubtable Dame Daphne du Maurier whose novels provided a rich source of material for the cinema world, the 1973 Don’t Look Now being one of the best known. Alfred Hitchcock used her books for three of his films, including the 1963 horror story The Birds.

Although Trilby had brought him wealth and even more fame, George du Maurier came to detest the ruthless commercialisation of his book, both in Britain and the US. The market was flooded with Trilby shoes, soap, toothpaste, songs, sausages, ice-cream moulds, kitchen ranges – and of course the soft felt hat with an indented crown still known as the Trilby. There is even a town in Florida that was renamed Trilby in honour of the novel.

Already ill, Sir George became disillusioned and the stress may well have led to his death two years later in 1896. He is buried in St John’s churchyard in Hampstead, close to his daughter Sylvia, his son Gerald, and his five grandsons – the Peter Pan Lost Boys.

Despite Trilby, George du Maurier is still remembered and admired for his classic Punch cartoons.

Miss Priscilla (an elderly spinster who lives on the coast): “Yes, it’s a beautiful view. But male tourists are in the habit of bathing on the opposite shore, and that’s rather a drawback.”

Fair Visitor: “Dear me! But at such a distance as that…surely…?”

Miss Priscilla: “Ah, but with a telescope, you know.”

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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