For 40 years John Ryan’s inimitable style has graced
the pages of The Catholic Herald. Luke Coppen joins
a phalanx of former editors and friends in an affectionate tribute to the creator of the immortal Cardinal Grotti
I HOPE the Pope will forgive Cardinal Grotti if he turns up a little late for work on Monday morning. And if he’s in a generous mood, perhaps he’ll also overlook the missing bottles from the Vatican wine cellar and the disappearance of those cigars that sat around the Apostolic Palace after the papal visit to Cuba. For this weekend Cardinal Grotti has a genuine reason to celebrate: his creator has spent exactly 40 years working for The Catholic Herald.
Back in 1964, Grotti was just a twinkle in John Ryan’s eye. The lax cardinal would have stood out beside the rather prim Pew family, who made their first appearance in the Herald in October 1964. That first edition, with its quaint advertisements for Beecham’s Powders and Crisco hair nets, is filled with breathless reports on the unfolding Second Vatican Council. Readers could scarcely have imagined then that their new cartoonist (“an old Ampleforth boy”) would become the foremost visual chronicler of post-Vatican II Catholicism.
The Pews did not adapt well to post-Conciliar life. Dismayed, perhaps, by the introduction of the vernacular liturgy, one week they simply vanished. But John Ryan remained, and has produced a weekly cartoon for the Herald ever since.
How has he managed to keep the wells of inspiration full over the past four decades? Creativity is ultimately a mystery, but there are four obvious reasons why John has contributed to the Herald for longer than any one else in the paper’s history.
Firstly (and most obviously), he can draw. His cartoons show a great mastery of pen and ink and an outstanding talent for caricature. But what distinguishes John from other cartoonists is not his steady hand, but his overflowing mind and warmth of heart. He has an endlessly playful imagination and a sense of humour that remains forever fresh and untainted by cynicism.
The second quality that has kept him on these pages is his determination. I am impressed week after week by his sheer dedication in producing his cartoon. Nothing — not even a near fatal illness — has distracted him from this weekly task. To prove the point, he drew the specially commissioned 40th anniversary cartoon (see right) through the blur of a cataract.
The third reason for his incredible run is his beloved wife, Priscilla. Anyone who has visited the couple at their delightful home in Rye, East Sussex, will know that Priscilla is an unfailing source of strength and inspiration for John. A talented artist in her own right, she has supported and encouraged him throughout his distinguished career. Without Priscilla, it is certain that John could never have produced the cartoon all these years. The fourth reason for John’s success is his innate understanding of the Catholic mind. This explains why we are outraged when the BBC prepares to screen a programme featuring “mysteriously wealthy cardinals”, but are merely amused when John draws a cartoon featuring Grotti’s schemes to profit from Vatican funds.
This is not hypocrisy. It is rather a recognition that, as Peter Stanford notes, John is on our side. He is not mocking Catholicism per se, but rather the human foibles of those who run the Church. He has an instinctive sense of where the boundaries of comedy lie. Whenever I suggest an idea that would cross the boundary, John pauses at the end of the line and says, gently but firmly, “I think we ought to stay off that subject.” And he is always right.
With the readers and staff of The Catholic Herald, and with Cardinal Grotti in Rome, I raise a glass to John on his 40 outstanding years with this newspaper.
William Oddie Editor
JOHN RYAN’S weekly cartoon for The Catholic Herald, and especially his unforgettable creation, Cardinal Grotti, was nearly always a classic example of that old English phenomenon, the running joke based on a particular character.
If he wasn’t so very Italian (Italian, at least, as the English understand it) Cardinal Grotti could have been a character in Itma or Round the Horn, complete with his own catchphrase.
The big joke about Cardinal Grotti is his inexhaustible, always amiable (but definitely corrupt) quest for filthy lucre. When the BBC was looking for new Catholic contributors for Thought for the Day, John Ryan had Cardinal Grotti (standing, as always, in St Peter’s square) saying “Hmmm. Yes... English lessons, transport, speaker’s fee... should be worth my while”. How did he – how did we – for so many years get away with this running implication that Vatican cardinals had a tendency to fiscal corruption?
Several readers wrote in to point out that there seemed to be something inconsistent about the Herald’s campaign against the threatened cartoon series Popetown, with its rich and corrupt Vatican cardinals, and the fact that nearly every week we ourselves published a cartoon featuring one such.
But Ryan’s cartoons were never an attack on the Vatican; they were always a joke about a certain kind of English anti-Catholic anticlerical stereotype, understood as such; Popetown, by contrast, we assumed (almost certainly correctly) to be yet another example of the BBC’s anti-Catholic bias.
Ryan’s running gag, in other words, was always more subtle than it was thought to be: it is a mark of the great cartoonists in the English tradition that they dig much deeper than at first appears.
Deborah Jones Editor
I SHOULD LIKE to congratulate John Ryan on his 40th anniversary of drawing the pocket cartoon for The Catholic Herald.
It is a remarkable achievement to create such a character as Cardinal Grotti and to sustain, for so long, the running gag of his all-too-human reactions to topical events in the Church.
The Cardinal’s antics are a useful reminder that the Church to which we belong is comprised of sinners as well as the occasional saint. Frequently outrageous and always irreverent, Grotti is an antidote to the inclination we have to be rather pompous about our religious activities.
Because it is a really serious and vital facet of our lives I do not find the core of our faith anything to joke about. But the way we go about translating that into religious activity is another matter.
Cardinal Grotti is avaricious, egotistical, greedy and unscrupulous – just like everyone, only more so.
One person he does not resemble in the slightest is his creator. A Christian gentleman and consummate professional, John Ryan was always a delight to work with. Ad multos annos!
John Ryan How it was
WHEN people ask me why I do the cartoon for the Herald, I say: “Well, it keeps me in gin.” My first contact with the newspaper came 40 years ago when my brother, a Dominican priest, introduced me to the then editor of The Catholic Herald, Desmond Fisher.
I was initially asked to provide drawings to accompany a column by Paul Jennings, a celebrated journalist who wrote the popular “Oddly Enough” column in The Observer. But it didn’t last long. I can’t remember why – either I didn’t like his ideas or he didn’t like my drawings.
In the beginning I used to come to the Catholic Herald offices and sit in on the weekly conferences. Later, I used to go out of my house in Notting Hill and pay for a taxi to take the cartoon to the office. After I moved to Rye, my wife and I would ask friends who commuted to London to take it up on the train. Looking back, it was amazingly chancy, but I never failed to deliver the cartoon on time.
Nowadays I phone the editor on a Tuesday morning for ideas. After I have done the drawing, I take it to Neames, a rather grand arts supplier in the centre of Rye. They very kindly fax it to the Herald for me.
Has it been difficult to produce a cartoon every week for 40 years? Well, one gets into a habit of doing it, of waking up and getting to work on the drawing. Sometimes it was a challenge to do it because of my many other commitments, including my weekly cartoon strip in the Radio Times.
In November 1998, I almost died after an aneurism of the aorta. I was in intensive care for months, but as soon as I was able to I began drawing again. By the time I left I think everyone in the hospital had a picture of Captain Pugwash.
Cardinal Grotti is a relatively recent character. He wasn’t based on anyone in particular. I have actually been to the Vatican and I didn’t see Cardinal Grotti there. He used to whizz around St Peter’s Square on a Vespa, but he is a little old for that kind of thing now.
After all these years, I still enjoy drawing. I take a pen everywhere I go, and if I get bored in a restaurant I begin to doodle on the napkin. The only downside is that my pen sometimes leaks in my pocket, but then I have never been a particular tidy person.
John Ryan was speaking to Luke Coppen
Otto Herschan Managing Director of The Catholic Herald 1953-1998
REMINSCENCES are prone to embroidery, but John Ryan is a forgiving man, and he will write to the editor to put the record straight if I embellish.
As I sit in my office in Dublin I am facing a framed cartoon John drew of me on an occasion when I had received an honour. I often look to him for inspiration.
If memory serves me right, John was the son of an Irish diplomat with a British title, so the Irish connection is appropriate.
I have the honour and pleasure of being responsible for getting John Ryan to become the Catholic Herald cartoonist.
During the time of Vatican II, I was enjoying drinks at the RAC club with a friend with humour equal to that of John – his brother Fr Columba Ryan OP.
I was lamenting the then absence of humour in the Catholic press and was speculating about a possible cartoonist.
Fr Columba told me that his brother had created the strip cartoon Captain Pugwash (one of John’s most memorable creations) and he would have a word with him. That was the start of the Catholic Herald John Ryan cartoons.
The then editor, Desmond Fisher was, I think, doubtful but acquiesced. Soon afterwards Desmond Albrow became editor and the relationship between John and Desmond flourished.
Every Monday a pint or two over lunch and convivial conversation created some of the most memorable cartoons.
At a time when hijacking was fashionable John drew a caricature of Cardinal John Carmel Heenan with the caption “Hi-Jack”. The cardinal was delighted to receive the original drawing. John Ryan was educat ed at Ampleforth, I believe, at the same time as Cardinal Hume, who also became the recipient of an original drawing of himself. He told me that it graced the smallest room in Archbishop’s House.
Two of my favourite cartoons by John were serious, but the equal of any cartoon I have ever seen.
Both were during the Gulf War. The first, with no caption, was simply a drawing of the cenotaph with a petrol pump fitted to it (see below right). The second, showed guns, bombs and a city burning with the caption, “A JUST war or just war?” At office Christmas parties, and occasionally at other times, John would bring his charming wife Priscilla and their devoted dog. Although I knew that Priscilla had resisted becoming a Catholic, I think she knew more about Catholicism than most.
There were also times when they entertained me in their flat, complete with working studio, in Notting Hill Gate. At my age now I would collapse before I reached the height of their flat. So probably would John. But wisely John moved to Gungarden Lodge in Rye.
With the disappearance of the certainty of the Penny Catechism, Church humour has become something of a rarity. So thanks to the Good Lord for John Ryan.We are blessed in having Catholic cartoonists such as John Ryan and Matt of the Daily Telegraph to lighten our dull lives.
Ad multos annos, John. Gerard Noel Editor 1970-1974 I 1980-1982 JOHN Ryan’s association with The Catholic Herald goes back even longer than mine, and that’s saying something. Whereas I did not join the paper (as literary and assistant editor) until 1968, John was already an established institution as creator of his famous cartoons.
One of the most enjoyable weekly interludes of my first period of editorship – in the early 1970s was having a beer and a sandwich with John to discuss the possible subject for that week’s cartoon.
He was not only instantly receptive to all suggestions however unpromising they might seem at first, but always refreshingly ingenious with his own ideas.
He could knock and knead even the most apparently trivial newsitem or headline into a viable cartoon theme.
While we were talking he would often do a series of doodles on bits of paper, which gave us further ideas on which to elaborate. It has brought back happy memories to look at some of the cartoons from this period in the bound copies of The Catholic Herald in my library.
On one occasion I told John that we were going to give prominence to the ordination in the Leeds diocese of the first married deacons for many centuries. He depicted a frustrated lady ironing collars saying to her husband, struggling into clerical grab: “For heaven’s sake Henry, why can’t you wear your ordinary collars back to front?”
Cristina Odone Editor
BACK IN the early 1990s, during my tenure as editor of The Catholic Herald I decided —as all editors always do —that the newspaper needed a redesign.
Bold, clever, elegant ... I was determined to breathe a new liveliness into the pages. I approached a smart, cutting edge publishing and design firm called Forward.
Its founder and director, William Sieghart, unbelievably agreed to redesign our pages for free — his father Paul had been a devout Catholic, and William saw this as a tribute to him.
As I waited for the dummy of the paper to appear, I started worrying: would this fashionable, funky firm force me to ditch John Ryan’s cartoon? Would they see it as child ish, dated, or clumsy? I knew our readers adored the cartoon —but would that cut any ice with Forward?
I needn’t have worried. William’s trendy young designers kept Cardinal Grotti in pride of place, explaining that “we regard this as the signature tune of The Catholic Herald. The paper without John Ryan is as unthinkable as the Archers without their jaunty jingle, or Inspector Morse without Barrington Pheloung’s haunting theme music.” From then on, I saw Cardinal Grotti as the papal seal of approval on our every issue.
Peter Stanford Editor
THE CATHOLIC Church is traditionally an institution that takes itself very seriously. The sound of laughter is not one you readily associate with the corridors of the Vatican. If it disturbs them at all now, you can blame John Ryan.
For over 40 years, through his cartoons in The Catholic Herald, he has taught the Church the importance of having a sense of humour. It has been a task requiring greater diplomacy than any Kissinger mission, but John has pulled it off.
The gentle ribbing provided by Cardinal Grotti our man in the Vatican has put a smile on the face of even the most po-faced cleric. John, they realise, is on their side but that does not stop him being mis chievous. And behind the comedy, John has often deftly added a question mark. They may exude the same childlike innocence that has his most famous creation, the blustering Captain Pugwash, shouting “dollopping doubloons” or “kipper me capstans”, but John’s cartoons in the Herald often have a point to make, however subtly. It can be about Church matters or politics in general.
At the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, for instance, John produced for us a memorable drawing of the Cenotaph, doubling as a petrol pump.
I first met John, like many of my generation, via Captain Pugwash when I was sitting in front of the TV eating my honey sandwiches after a day at primary school in the early 1970s. Years later, I still recall him cheerfully demonstrating for me in his studio how Grotti, Pugwash and another of his creations, Sir Prancelot, were all closely related by drawing the outline of one and then redressing the chubby, almost triangular figure in the garb of the other two.
In the late 1980s when I met him face-to-face, John was at the height of his fame. The Catholic Herald has never been noted for the size of its payments to its contributors, but still John would put aside his acclaimed work on Pugwash, Harris Tweed or Mary, Mungo and Midge each Monday morning to make space for what became for him a kind of religious observance doing the Herald cartoon. After a telephone call to find out what was going to be in the paper that week, he would draw something and send it over.
It became more complicated when he moved down to Rye in Sussex, but he cleverly found a neighbour who commuted up to the City and who would drop John’s drawing in our letter box each Tuesday before it was even light.
The system ran with military precision, for beside the imaginative, witty, freespirited artist side of John, there is a very British sense of order and correctness.
Only once did he show a mild irritation with me as editor. I had introduced another illustrator – an old college friend called Mark Haddon, now the prize-winning author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime – to the Herald’s pages to pep up the political columns we used to have on page four above the letters.
John called. Was I trying to ease him out by using this new chap? he asked directly. Of course not, I replied.
He was, and remains, part of the lifeblood of the Catholic Herald.