Next year not only marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, it also commemorates the centenary of the birth of the cartoonist David Langdon OBE, once described by the Evening Standard as ‘the greatest comic artist of our time’.

Aged 97 when he died, he first came to prominence during the Second World War and was the last of that classic wartime generation of Fleet Street cartoonists which included Osbert Lancaster, David Low, Vicky (Victor Weisz), Leslie Illingworth, Carl Giles, Philip Zec, and JON (W J P Jones), all now sadly deceased.

Langdon’s professional career lasted more than 70 years, beginning when he sold his first drawing (a joke about Mussolini) in 1936. One of the longest serving and most prolific Punch cartoonists ever – producing at least 5000 cartoons for that magazine alone over a period of 55 years (1937-1992) – he was also a regular contributor to the Sunday Mirror for more than 40 years (1948-1990) and the New Yorker for more than half a century. He was also a highly successful book illustrator and advertising artist.

Where it all began

Langdon was born in London on 24 February 1914. He was the son of an antiques dealer who, on the outbreak of the First World War, worked in an armaments factory at Woolwich Arsenal. The family moved to Stepney where he attended the Robert Montefiore School and later, Davenant Foundation Grammar School for Boys (then in Whitechapel High Street).

He began drawing cartoons while at school and credited his uncle, Joe Freeman, for his interest in the art form. During the Great War Freeman had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the Piave sector in Austria and had been wounded in action. As Langdon later recalled, ‘He showed me some sketches he had made of nurses, while in his hospital bed, which so impressed me as a child, that I always blamed my Uncle Joe for setting me on my subsequent career as a cartoonist.’

Offered a scholarship to study architecture at London University, Langdon had to turn it down because of the slump in building work and his parents’ financial straits. Instead he became a trainee in the London County Council Architects’ Department (1931–1939), based at County Hall, Westminster, and in 1935 had his first cartoons published in the LCC’s staff journal, London Town.

In 1936 he sold his first drawing to Time & Tide. The following year he not only began contributing to the new monthly magazine Lilliput (from its first volume), but started producing weekly sports cartoons for the Sunday Referee and sold his first advertising idea to Shell. The same year his first drawing was accepted by Punch. It was bought by the magazine’s new Art Editor ‘Fougasse’ (Kenneth Bird), who was himself a distinguished cartoonist who would later draw the famous ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ series of wartime posters for the Ministry of Information.

With the outbreak of the Second World War Langdon was seconded to the newly formed London Rescue Service (1939–1941). He was then posted to the Rescue & Demolition Depot in Finsbury in the City of London as an Executive Officer. In his spare time he continued to draw cartoons, making good-humoured fun of air-raid wardens, the Home Guard, the police, the army, the navy, the RAF, and wartime life in general. Such was his success that between 1939 and 1941 he had more cartoons published in Punch than any other single contributor.

During the war he also drew advertisements for government agencies such as the Ministry of Food. One of these, promoting wheat meal bread, featured a drawing of the BBC radio newsreader, Alvar Liddell, who began his programme with the phrase, ‘Here is the News – and this is Alvar Liddell reading it.’ In Langdon’s version he said: ‘Here is National Wheatmeal Bread – and this is Alvar Liddell eating it.’

Billy Brown of London Town

However, his most famous wartime creation was ‘Billy Brown of London Town’ (1940-1943), a series of cautionary advertisements for the London Passenger Transport Board (later London Transport), with rhyming couplet verses by fellow Punch contributor Richard Usborne. The series featured a clean-shaven, middle-aged, middle-class City gent who always wore a white shirt, black tie, pinstripe trousers, a black coat, and a bowler hat. Over his shoulder he carried a gas-mask in a white box and in his hand he held a black furled umbrella. Occasionally, Mrs Brown and their daughter Sally also appeared in the drawings.

The advertisements, which appeared on buses, trams, trains, and the Underground, often led to amusing graffiti. In one, Billy Brown wags an admonitory finger at a Tube passenger trying to peel off the netting stuck over the windows to protect the trains from bomb blasts. The caption reads: ‘I trust you’ll pardon my correction, but that stuff is there for your protection.’ As Langdon later recalled, ‘A Cockney wag scrawled his alternative couplet over the poster: “Thank you for your information, but I can’t see the bloody station!”’

Billy Brown soon became a part of popular culture, inspiring the song, Mr Brown of London Town (1941) by Noel Gay, and even appearing as nose-art painted on a wartime RAF bomber, holding a bomb ready to drop on Berlin.

A Brown-like figure also appeared on the cover of Langdon’s first collection of cartoons, Home Front Lines (1941). In his Foreword he wrote: ‘To me it is the British sense of humour which is still the fount of ideas, and in paying my tribute to it and to the marvellous way it has persisted undaunted through the darkest hours, I raise my tin hat to those faintly ridiculous but wonderful people, the men, women and children of the blitzed areas whose sense of humour will carry through to victory.’

RAF Hunsdon

After two years in the London Rescue Service Langdon applied to join the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was accepted in October 1941. He had volunteered for aircrew but failed the medical examination. Thus, after six weeks at an Initial Training Station he joined the RAFVR’s Administrative and Special Duties Branch with the rank of Aircraftsman, Second Class. He was commissioned Pilot Officer in January 1942 (it was a non-flying, ‘war substantive rank’) and was posted as an administrator to RAF Hunsdon in Hertfordshire, a night-fighter station.

While at RAF Hunsdon Langdon drew illustrations for The Tizzy Angle, an instructional leaflet for RAF ground controllers showing how to determine the interception course for fighters in the air. It was issued to all Fighter Command Groups and written by Sir Henry Tizard, chairman of the government’s Aeronautical Research Committee. He also illustrated a number of RAF pamphlets, posters, and manuals such as Bombing Sense, Stirling Fighting Tactics and Are These Your Tactics?

By this time Langdon was sufficiently well known to feature in a book. They Make Us Smile (1942) was based on Percy Bradshaw’s series of monthly articles in London Opinion about contemporary humorous artists. As Bradshaw says, ‘though the Air Force doesn’t provide its young officers with a lot of leisure, I fancy that the Mirth Control Department will allow Langdon a few extra coupons’.

In October 1942 he was promoted to Flying Officer and was posted to the Air Ministry in Adastral House, London. Here he joined Air Commodore G O Venn’s Directorate of Personal Services in the Department of the Air Member for Personnel run by Air Marshall Sir Bertine E D Sutton. His commanding officer (and later close friend) was Squadron Leader Rene Raymond, who, under the pseudonym James Hadley Chase, had become famous at the beginning of the war as the author of the thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939).

The Directorate of Personal Services also produced the Royal Air Force Journal. Founded in September 1939 as a small weekly Intelligence Bulletin produced by the novelist Hector Bolitho, it was published monthly with a circulation of 50,000 copies by the end of the war.

Raymond took over as editor in October 1942 and by September 1943 Langdon had become Assistant Editor with the rank of Flight-Lieutenant. As well as drawing general cartoons and cover illustrations (including the special Christmas and Birthday Number for November/December 1943), one of his most popular creations for the Journal was ‘Joe the Erk’ (‘erk’ being RAF slang for Aircraftman).

A close shave

While out walking with Raymond near the Strand one day, a German bomb landed behind them and they were thrown onto the ground. As Langdon later recalled:

Mercifully uninjured, we got up and looked back to see a burning bus lying on top of an EWS [Emergency Water Supply] tank, and the bodies of the unfortunate passengers and passers-by lying around. We helped as best we could and when the Fire Brigade and ambulances arrived, we staggered, shaken and covered in dust into Adastral House. Most of its windows were shattered…’ 

In 1943 Langdon illustrated a book on wartime cookery, Brave New Cooking, by Katalin Frank, and It’s a Piece of Cake: RAF Slang Made Easy (an enlarged edition appeared in 1945) by Squadron Leader C H Ward-Jackson, who worked in the Directorate of Air Force Welfare (which was also part of the Department of the Air Member for Personnel at the Air Ministry).

The following year his second book, All Buttoned Up! A Scrapbook of RAF Cartoons (a collection of his work for Royal Air Force Journal) was published, he contributed to the RAF anthology RAF Parade, and he illustrated Jenny Nicholson’s Kiss the Girls Good-bye, a book about women in the WAAF.

In August 1945 Langdon, by then working in Room 20 of the Air Ministry, featured in The Gen: Voice of the Service, one of a series of 18 short films produced by the Air Ministry’s RAF Film Production Unit. He also drew title cartoons for some of the films including Burma Front, Joe the Erk, and Winnie the WAAF.

By the end of 1945 he had taken over from Raymond as editor of the Royal Air Force Journal and was then himself promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader (he continued to edit the Royal Air Force Journal until 1946).

In 1946 he published a collection of his Punch drawings, Meet Me Inside and jointly edited (with Rene Raymond) a book of stories, articles and photos from the Royal Air Force Journal entitled Slipstream: A Royal Air Force Anthology.

Life after the war

After being demobilised the same year, Langdon became a full-time freelance, contributing, among many other publications, to Aeroplane and RAF Review. He also drew for advertising, illustrated books, and continued to publish collections of his own work (from 1947 to 1960 these became almost an annual event).

In addition he edited two anthologies of Punch cartoons about flying: Punch with Wings: A Cartoon History of the Royal Air Force (1961) – with a Foreword by The Marshal of the Air Force, Sir Dermot Boyle – and Punch in the Air (1983). He also illustrated The Story of W V S (1959) by Virginia Graham, published to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Voluntary Service.

In 1955 he married April Sadler-Philips, whom he had met at the War Office in London. They had a daughter and two sons. His wife’s sister, Primrose, later married Admiral Sir Andrew Lewis, former Second Sea Lord, Commander-in-Chief of Naval Home Command and Flag Aide de Camp to the Queen. Awarded an OBE in 1988, Langdon was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts the same year and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cartoon Art Trust in 2001. He died on 18 November 2011.