Modest artist with an international reputation


Paul McCartney

April 27 2007 By Philip Key, Liverpool Daily Post

PHIL DISLEY is an artist for hire. Mention a name, an idea, or even a recipe and he will illustrate it for you. It is a skill which has made him one of Britain’s most in-demand cartoonist/illustrators. His work can be seen in leading magazines, newspapers and, these days, on internet sites. You name it and he will draw it. But it is a position Disley has had to fight for. Born in the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool, today he works from his home in Aigburth delivering work not only across Britain but to the USA. And once you have seen his work, you will recognise the style. An exhibition of his caricatures, cartoons and illustrations has now gone on show at 3345, Parr Street, and it reveals the sheer range of a man who, at 36, is near the top of his profession. At the private view, Disley – who signs his work simply Phil – is surprisingly modest. He was, he admits, always the average man with average marks at school and average abilities. It was not until he began as an illustrator that he discovered that, in his chosen career, he was not going to be average. His background he describes as working class, mother a housewife who stayed at home to look after the kids, father an insurance salesman. But art was always there. Even his mother can "draw a little bit", he says. "At Dovedale Infants School, we would spend half the day doing art and the other half doing sums." Later, at Quarry Bank School, art became equally important. He left with eight O-levels and two A-levels: "Very average," he says. He did a one-year foundation course at Liverpool Hope University before applying to study graphics at Liverpool University. He was turned down. "I went to my second choice, Newcastle University, and that was a really good course. The lecturer was Terry Dowling, who was one of the founders of radical illustration, part of the underground movement in the 1970s." But art work was not easy to come by. "I had a bum job at a jewellers shop, selling signet rings and the like." But in the holidays he would go down to London with four folio files of his work, dropping them off at art directors. "You don't actually meet them and they probably have something like 50 drops a day. If you are lucky, they will see your work." He spent something over a year like that, working in the shop and making regular trips to London to find someone who might like his work. He finally hit lucky at the London Evening Standard where he was hired to illustrate a regular column by the French chef, Albert Roux. "It was like an agony column, dear Albert, my soufflés won’t rise, what shall I do?" Disley illustrated the replies with his usual sense of humour, "visual gags, really". It was the breakthrough he needed. "It gets a lot easier once your name is in print." He is not a cartoonist who writes gags, he says. "It is more visual puns and mixed metaphors." Caricatures are his thing, but mostly not the cruel ones of his heroes like Scarfe and Steadman. "I tend not to stretch people like them, no big noses. It’s playful rather than savage." He points to his interpretation of Paul McCartney at the exhibition which is indeed quite kindly but definitely a cartoon rather than a portrait. "He’s got these sloppy eyes, like they are melting," he explains. Not all his "victims" are alive. For Classic FM, he has produced a monthly series of portraits of famous composers, Mozart, Handel and the rest, usually in some particular setting. They are light- hearted rather than comic but very recognisable. Disley is not quite sure why he choose the art path. "It was just one of those things. You get praised as a kid for certain things like making models out of Plasticine or drawing and so you enjoy it." His clients today range across a broad spectrum, social and political. He is hired by both the right-wing Spectator magazine (for which he has done several covers) and the left-of-centre Guardian newspaper. Ten years ago, he says, he would not have been able to do that. "They would look down their noses as if you jumped ship but there is no snobbery about it today. Of course, that could always change." Besides, he says, he had never been interested in politics although the research he has done for some illustrations has made him more aware than he was. He was always a people-watcher which made his work on caricatures a bit easier, he suggests. He has had no trouble catching likenesses and can think of only one who gave him a bit of a problem – "Bill Cosby, and I don’t know why". His particular style has evolved but he puts some of it down to an early interest In Japanese woodcuts. He uses strong black lines and colour. Married to GP with two children, Disley is lucky that he can work from home. Everything is done on the internet these days – "I have not been to London for years" – even the cartooning. While he does the original drawing on paper, he scans that into the computer where he fixes the colours, "you can play around with them on a computer". It also helps speed his work to his clients, mostly in London. He is usually set tight deadlines. He has work in US newspapers like the Wall Street Journal although he is only just getting back his US work. "After 9/11, budgets were cut and they tended to cut the tinsel like the work I was doing. But I have a new agent over there and things are getting better." While it sounds like the perfect life, Disley says it can be tough. "As a freelance, I am a one-man band and it is difficult to turn down work. So I don’t have a lot of spare time and what I do have I use for time with the family." PHIL DISLEY’S exhibition runs at 3345 Parr Street until May 25, open daily from 11am.

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