“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong…”

3 Feb

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of those prodigious artistic polymaths the last two centuries brought forth. He was the author of 80 books, 200 short stories, over 4000 essays, and several plays; today he is chiefly remembered for his ‘Father Brown’ stories, still widely considered to be some of the greatest detective tales of all time, and his Christian apologetics; his novel The man who was Thursday is a masterpiece of fantasy, hailed by writers ranging from Jorge Luis Borges to Neil Gaiman.


However, his original training was as an artist, at London’s prestigious Slade school; and though he shifted his ambition to writing, Chesterton continued to produce drawings for the rest of his life.

Chesterton was a large, imposing figure in his great overcoat and  floppy hat, a favorite target of caricaturists — the latter  including himself, as the next four drawings show:

His sense of humor often tended to the macabre:

Others also felt his satirical lash, for instance his ideological foe and personal friend George Bernard Shaw:

Where Chesterton was famously portly, Shaw was all but skeletal; which explains this exchange between these two sharp wits:

Chesterton: “To see you, one would think there were a famine in the land.”

Shaw: “And to see you, one would know who caused it.”

His personal drawings show a like playfulness:

“Catching a Train”

“Enraged Gentleman and His Victim”

Chesterton also illustrated the work of others. Below are three illustrations for Biography for Beginners, the 1905 collection of biographical quatrains — or clerihews — by Edmund Clerihew Bently.

The Art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about Maps,
But Biography is about Chaps

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium

What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes;
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy

Chesterton extensively illustrated- in color- a collection of whimsical fables and tales, The Colored Lands.

The wit and whimsy of Chesterton’s writing — as evinced by this article’s title, taken from the opening line of The Napoleon of Notting Hill— is neatly echoed in these entertaining illustrations: he thus earns the title of cartoonist!


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