blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2

Phil May’s Beginnings at St. Stephen's Review: An Editor’s Rememberance

The following selection is from William Allison’s My Kingdom for a Horse!: Yorkshire, Rugby, Balliol, The Bar Bloodstock, and Journalistic Recollections. (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1917). Allison recalls here his editorship of St. Stephen's Review and his introduction to the young illustrator, Phil May.

[Eaton Edeveain], an elderly barrister, who undertook the business management of the paper . . . was a muddler at best, and yet it was through him I discovered a treasure indeed. He happened to show me one or two line sketches of Lionel Brough, Toole and Irving, and by some strange intuition I was convinced at once that I had never seen work which showed such genius.

We were nearly approaching the day when the first Christmas Number of the paper had to be published, and the artist who had been commissioned to do the big double-page picture had failed so miserably that the idea of having his effort reproduced seemed out of the question. But what were we to do? I looked at the two or three sketches mentioned above, and said to Edeveain: “Who did these? He could get us out of the trouble, if there is time.”

He replied that they were done by a boy about nineteen years old named PHIL MAY; only, of course, he did not accentuate the name at that time.

I asked him to go at once and ascertain if this “boy” could do a cartoon very quickly representing all the principal characters of the moment. In no long time I had the answer in the affirmative, and met Phil May for the first time. He was a lean, cadaverous-looking youth, with close-cropped, very dark hair, and eyes that looked through you like gimlets. If ever there was the fire of genius in any eyes, it was there in Phil May's, and whatever mistakes I have made in my life I made none that time, for I knew right off that I had found something quite abnormally excellent.

Well, he produced the original of the cartoon within forty-eight hours of that moment when I first saw him, and it was published in our Christmas Number of 1883. That, with black and white sketches in the same number, is the first work of Phil May's ever published by a London paper; and I think I have some reason to regard myself as a world's benefactor in having discovered him and given him that start.

He was at a low ebb at the time I mention, and might not have lived to prove the power that was in him.

Poor Phil! He has been greatly misunderstood, in a personal sense. Most people will tell you he was a drunkard, but I, who knew him very well indeed, can declare with truth that he was nothing of the sort. He was a convivial soul, liable to exceed when in congenial company, but never drinking for drink's sake, and there is a great distinction here.

Phil May did four full-page drawings and a half-page one for that Christmas Number, besides the big cartoon, so the speed of his work can be imagined. I have one of the originals now, and it is doubtless valuable. For three years from that time Phil May worked for St. Stephen's Review, and it was amazing to me that his work was not better appreciated by the public. I can truly say I never dreamed of doubting its pre-eminence; and, strangely enough, this was understood in Australia sooner than in London, though they had nothing but exported copies of our paper to judge from. . . .

. . . Phil May told me in October, 1885, that he had received an offer of 30 a week for three years to go out to New South Wales to work on The Sydney Bulletin. He was making about 10 a week out of us, and we could afford no more, for at that time the British public did not fully appreciate Phil May. I told him that, in my judgment, if he went to Australia he might be forgotten, and that there was no place like London to get good work appreciated; but there were other reasons besides the pecuniary inducement which caused him to go; and so much did I think of him that we gave up all the ground floor of the office three rooms to a view of his original drawings, during two days, and invited all the Press.  end of text

return to top