A Feminist British Illustrator Who Satirized the British Middle Class

Cartoon drawn live during a centenary conference about women’s suffrage, London, 2018 (all images © Posy Simmonds and courtesy of Thames & Hudson)

Posy Simmonds, one of four volumes in Thames & Hudson’s The Illustrators series, chronicles the life and work of the pioneering British illustrator. The volume, authored by British writer and comics publisher Paul Gravett, rests on the thematic strengths of its subject’s oeuvre, including her feminist reimagining of the girl next door and satirization of the British middle class. Unfortunately, the book employs a rather dull chronological structure; a thematic organization would have been more dynamic. The volume is also entirely lacking in footnotes or endnotes, instead based entirely on what Gravett describes as “years of interviews, conversations and correspondence with this book’s author,” which don’t provide readers much opportunity for additional research. 

Simmonds was known for a particular and wry voice, evidenced even in childhood illustrations. In “Marilyn Monroe goes shooting,” drawn by Simmonds at age 9, a blonde, rather childlike Marilyn in blue jeans holds a rifle in one hand, its tip erupting in a puff of smoke. This tendency to reenvision the expected portrayal of a female character — Monroe is more cowgirl here than sex symbol — would be a defining feature of some of Simmonds’s most well-known later work.

Posy Simmonds, “Marilyn Monroe goes shooting,” drawn at the age of 9

In a 2018 London conference about women’s suffrage, Simmonds drew a cartoon. One side shows the evolution of man, from fish to caveman, slowly climbing up a mountainside. But on the other, two human women have discovered how to climb the mountain, and one waits jauntily, in pink top and hat, at the tip-top, looking down at man’s tedious progression. This cheeky appreciation for female cleverness runs throughout Simmonds work. It certainly dominates her series “The Silent Three of St. Botolph’s: 20 years on,” which she drew for The Guardian’s Women’s Page in the late 1970s. Simmonds’s strip was a grown-up tribute to “The Silent Three,” a  comic that ran in the magazine School Friend from 1950–1963. In the original version, a group of three British boarding school girls solve crime. In Simmonds’s version, the women are grown up, and the ambitions their parents had for them, or even their silly teenage dreams, have been transformed into middle-class doldrums. Wendy’s thoughts have evolved — in 1957: “I want to read Geography at Edinburg & play Lax for England”; in 1967: “I don’t want to have to move again” in response to her husband’s career ambitions; in 1977:  her husband is thinking about his career and she ominously has no thoughts at all.

“What do The Silent Three Want? (and what do they get?),” Guardian, 20 June 1977

Often Simmonds’s feminist themes coincide with her general satirization of the ambitions of the British middle class, as in “Gemma Bovery,” her 1999 Guardian comic strip, (also published in the same year as a graphic novel). The strip’s full title: “The Late Gemma Bovery: A tale of adultery and soft furnishings narrated by Raymond Joubert,” hints at Simmonds’s humorous and very British reimagining of Flaubert’s tale of middle-class marital ennui. 

Preliminary character studies for Gemma Bovery, 1997

Simmonds 2018 graphic novel “Cassandra Darke” takes a more openly dismal view of female life trajectory, exploring the days of a rich, overweight, lonely, older woman. Society has shunned her for supposedly stealing from her ex-husband’s art gallery. She is not drawn appealingly, and makes an unusual lead character — the sort of grumpy role often comfortably and even charmingly occupied by a man but rarely by a woman. 

Posy Simmonds, preparatory character studies for Cassandra Darke (2014)

Posy Simmonds gives its namesake short shrift. While it does delve deeply into its subject’s artistic trajectory, it also doesn’t place her clearly enough in the context of other illustrators. It suggests that her work as a female illustrator was groundbreaking, but doesn’t offer supporting examples to compare her style to her peers. The book succeeds as an introduction to an artist, but not as a critical analysis. Her legacy deserves a more thoughtful enquiry.

Two unused episodes of Gemma Bovery, one without typeset text, the other finished, 1999

Posy Simmonds: The Illustrators was published in June of 2019 by Thames & Hudson.

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