I won’t talk about my long lost collection of enamel signs, or my 1920’s Guinness beer label. I won’t even talk about the time two young children called Sarah and Emma removed my very rare set of Wills Cigarette,1907, ‘Merchant Ships of the World’ cards from the cube case where they were displayed and, in a panic when they couldn’t put them back neatly, decided to glue them back inside instead.
‘Skegness is SO Bracing’ was one of the posters on the stairwell of my college. It struck me at the time as a great piece of advertising, not so much because it almost single-handedly put Skegness on the British seaside resort map, but because of the whimsical nature of the ‘Jolly Fisherman’, as the figure in the poster is called.
It was drawn by John Hassall in 1908 as a commission by the Great Northern Railway Company for which he received twelve guineas. He based the fisherman on a shopkeeper, William Judge, who lived in Deal, the town where he was born. William Judge owned the tobacconists where the young John Hassal used to buy his pipe tobacco. Hassal had tried twice, without success, to join the Army and in frustration he left Deal and went off to
I could at this point bemoan my own lot, and his chanced-upon success, but I won’t. Unfortunately for Hassall he didn’t bother to mention to William Judge that he had used him as the inspiration for his ‘Jolly Fisherman’ poster and when it began to come to the public’s popular attention Judge, outraged, decided to sue for defamation of character claiming that he wasn’t at all jolly and that he never, ever, skipped.
How ridiculous you might think, but at the hearing Judge brought forward character witnesses including his wife and the preacher at the Deal Baptist church where Judge was a lay preacher. Both testified that he was not at all jolly and went on to say that not only was he not jolly but that he was a very sober character who hardly ever smiled and certainly never laughed. When his wife was asked if she’d ever seen her husband skipping she replied that he would no more hold his arms out and skip along the beach than sell a ploughman a cracked clay pipe.
That did it. Judge won his case and was awarded a very large amount of damages which Hassall had to pay along with all the court costs, hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s terms which is a lot of twelve guinea commissions. It broke Hassal financially and he never recovered. He died in 1948, eighty years old and penniless.
There’s a moral here somewhere but I’ve always struggled to determine what it is. Don’t take up drawing as it can only lead to disaster? Never portray a miserable tobacconist as anything but miserable and a tobacconist? Steer clear of skipping sailors? Whichever way I look at it I always find that the court got it wrong. Hassall was using his artistic gifts to create a character that the public would relate to, in doing this he gave the character the appearance of a tobacconist who lived in Deal, there was no malice, no offence intended. Surely he was doing Judge a favour by portraying him as something more likeable and entertaining than he actually was, immortalising him in the hearts and minds of the British people for ever?
I still collect the occasional bit of ephemera. Here’s a favourite paper bag that my daughter Cloe gave me a present in. Wait a minute that chap with the pamphlets… it looks a bit like an eighteen year old me. Perhaps I should sue the artist.