Claire Simpson's profile of the cartoonist
Rowel Friers is arguably Northern Ireland’s best known cartoonist. From the late 1960s to his death in 1998, he documented every stage of the Troubles with his witty and insightful political cartoons. Claire Simpson spoke to his widow Yvonne about his work.
Born in Belfast in 1920, Rowel Friers was the youngest of four surviving children. His closest sibling in age was 11 years older and his wife Yvonne recalled how Friers referred to himself jokingly as ‘an afterthought’. Yet his upbringing greatly influenced his later career. He began to draw caricatures of his aunts at the age of four and would produce the finished cartoons from behind the sofa. Yvonne also talked of how his mother and particularly his brother Ian encouraged him to develop his talent. In fact his career as a cartoonist began when Ian submitted some of his drawings to the Portsmouth Evening News.
Friers was employed as an apprentice lithographer during his late teens but after four years he opted to study full-time at Belfast Art College. Yvonne noted how his time at the Art College had impacted upon on his work and his view of art. One of his tutors, and possibly his greatest influence, Newton Penprase, introduced him to the importance of line, particularly the use of variation in a continuous line from thin to thick. This early training is clear in his work and his unique use of line renders his cartoons instantly recognisable.
Friers’ first published work appeared in the Portsmouth Evening News when he was still a schoolboy. He was a contributor to an impressive number of newspapers and periodicals including Dublin Opinion, Punch, the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, but is best known for his work in the Belfast Telegraph.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he invested an enormous amount of detail in his drawings - every crease of fabric and nuance of facial expression is clearly sketched. He had a fluid and subtle technique, whether created with pen-and-ink, paintbrush or mezzotint. Yvonne remarked ‘he was very sure in his drawing…he could see it in his mind’s eye’. As a consequence he rarely made revisions or used an eraser.
Curiously for a man so well known for his political drawings, Friers never regarded himself as a political cartoonist. His first collection of cartoons was published in 1948, two decades before the Troubles began, and his column for the Belfast Telegraph started life as a collection of loosely news-based cartoons. When the political situation in Northern Ireland began to deteriorate Friers felt compelled to comment, but only then did he begin to concentrate on his political cartoons.
Friers was not a polemicist and he consciously tried to display a balanced approach in his drawings - one of his cartoons shows Ian Paisley and Bernadette McAliskey being weighed in a set of balances by a judge who finds them both equally guilty. He also explored the frustrations of being a cartoonist in an era of political uncertainty - another drawing depicts an artist’s desk strewn with crumpled pieces of paper beside books entitled The Law of Libel and How to Win Editors and Influence People.
Difficult political situations produce strong views on both sides and many are suspicious of those who say they have no political leanings but in an interview Friers gave to the News Letter a year before his death he said ‘I have no side in all of this. I just make fun of all the madness.’ In a political climate of polarized opinions, his was not as easy a stance to take as one might assume. Despite receiving a letter and threatening phone calls from all sides of the political spectrum, Yvonne noted he felt a moral obligation to be impartial as Northern Ireland’s first serious political cartoonist.
Yet although his cartoons dealt with serious and often painful events, the only drawing he was ever prevented from publishing was based on Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson. His wife Yvonne said he was understandably baffled when the cartoon, showing two Northern Irish mothers bemoaning the loss of another prospective son in law, was not published on the grounds it was disrespectful to the Royal Family.
Undoubtedly his fame as a cartoonist overshadowed his other artistic interests - in later years Yvonne said he regretted not being able to devote as much time to painting as he would like. As a painter, he loved working in oils and his paintings were exhibited in the Royal Ulster Academy and the Ulster Museum. He illustrated Fairy and Folk Tales, edited by WB Yeats, and produced ‘stills’ for UTV’s production of The Reminiscences of an Irish R.M. by Somerville and Ross.
Friers was also involved in the set design of a number of theatre productions and his wife recalled how he was attracted to the drama and excitement of theatre - a love of which is reflected in some of his cartoons. One of his most powerful drawings depicts a bloodied corpse with a gun by his outstretched arm and a caption from Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, ‘Take away this murderin’ hate’. Yvonne talked of how he admired the combination of comedy and pathos in O’Casey, and in many ways the two share similar qualities.
Friers’ work displays affection for the people of Northern Ireland even while he vents his frustration at their political leaders. His humour was subtle but incisive and he had no need to resort to the scatology so beloved of other great political cartoonists. Cartoonists are often seen to be the poor relations of the visual arts world but Yvonne noted both Rowel and his brother Ian, who was an academician of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts and a sculptor in his own right, worked hard to raise the Academy's artistic standards. Indeed Friers' election to President of the Academy in 1994 served as formal recognition of his achievements.
Yet Friers did not live in an artistic ivory tower, he created a world populated by familiar characters and situations. In fact his subjects were so familiar that Yvonne recognised some of their friends and acquaintances in his caricatures.
Some may argue a number of his cartoons were based on an idealised version of Northern Ireland’s countryside but Friers attempted to depict images of what could be, juxtaposed with those of stark reality. Fellow cartoonist Ian Knox called Friers ‘one of the greats’ and his drawings remain as an essential insight into our political history.
By Claire Simpson
Drawn from Life (1994) by Rowel Friers