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Webster

A sports cartoon from the Daily Mail, 1919

Gilbert Tom Webster was born in Bilston, Staffordshire, on 17 July 1886, the son of Daniel Webster, an ironmonger, and his wife Sarah, a tobacconist. His father died before 1891, and by 1901 Tom was working as a railway clerk. A self-taught artist, he entered cartoon competitions in local newspapers, and by about 1909 he joined the staff of the Birmingham Sports Argus as a sports cartoonist. His contract asked for twelve cartoon a week, but he often drew twice that.

He moved to London in 1912 to join the Daily Citizen, a pro-Labour paper, as a political cartoonist, but his own political views were conservative, and his work seems not to have gone down well with the Labour Party. Party leader Ramsay MacDonald once sent the editor a telegram asking him to "TELL WEBSTER NOT TO BE FUNNY". He switched to sports cartooning, and as photography became more popular he developed a "running comment" style that did not replicate what photographs could do.

The Daily Citizen closed in June 1915, and Webster seems to have spent the next five months working in a bank. In November he enlisted in the army. In 1916, as a lance corporal, he was involved in the Battle of the Somme, and was invalided home in November of that year following a neck wound at St. Eloi. He spent six months in hospital, and was discharged in July 1917. After that he returned to cartooning for London Opinion on a freelance basis, and worked for the Birmingham Film Producing Company on animated films like The History of a German Recruit (1917), Charlie at the Front (1918) and Charlie Joins the Navy (1918). However, work was hard to come by in wartime, and he once spent three nights sleeping on a bench outside the Savoy Hotel.

In 1918 he joined Lord Northcliffe's London Evening News as a sports cartoonist, and the following year Northcliffe was so pleased with his work he transferred him to his national paper, the Daily Mail. He worked quickly, sketching at sports events in the evening and submitting the finished cartoon in time for the morning edition the following day. On one occasion in July 1919 his cartoon of the boxing match between Jimmy Wilde and Pal Moore at Olympia went to press a little over an hour after the end of the fight. The paper provided him with a chauffeur-driven Daimler with a built-in easel so he could start drawing on the way back from the event.

In 1920 he went on a month-long tour of the USA, sending back cartoons of American sports and film stars. That year he also published the first in a series of 20 annuals, entitled Tom Webster of the Daily Mail Among the Sportsmen, which quickly sold out its entire run of 70,000 copies. His cartoons were so popular that the Mail displayed placards reading "Tom Webster is Here!" at sporting events to that spectators would buy the next day's paper. He also drew for the Amalgamated Press' short-lived weekly comic Sports Fun in 1922.

Tishy, a highly-rated racehorse who inexplicably came in last in Newmarket in 1921, provided Webster with a long-running character, drawn permanently cross-legged, and became a byword for sporting failure. Webster and Joe Noble of Napoleon Films produced a series of animated films based on his cartoon, beginning with Tishy in 1922. When the horse died in an accident in 1923, he drew a memorial cartoon, and continued to feature her from time to time.

By 1924 he was reputedly the highest-paid cartoonist in the world. In 1929 his marriage in New York to Mae Flynn of the Ziegfeld Follies was covered by the newsreels. He divorced her in 1933, and in 1935 married American showgirl Ida Michael.

In 1933 he began appearing on British Movietone News, providing humorous commentaries on sporting events, in 1934 he began appearing on television, and in 1936 he was commissioned to decorate the first class gym of the liner Queen Mary with a frieze of sporting caricatures. He is said to have designed Arsenal FC's famous red shirt with white collar and sleeves, based on the red sleeveless sweater worn over a white shirt by his golfing partner, Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Webster began appearing as a cartoonist and comedian in concert parties for the troops in France and Belgium, eventually quitting the Mail to do this full time, also doing some work as a war correspondent. He returned to cartooning in 1944 for the Manchester-based Sunday Empire News. He moved to the News Chronicle in 1953, and retired in 1956. He died at his home in London on 21 June 1962, aged 76, survived by his second wife and their three children.

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