Buying only the things that make us smile is good advice that we should all remember to follow from time to time. Yet for John and Felicity who own the Rae-Smith Gallery, it’s an approach that has become a successful business plan as much as a mantra. Dealing in quality vintage cartoons and illustrations, I had the pleasure of meeting them recently at the BADA fair in London. “People buy cartoons if they are funny and they apply to their lives,” explained Felicity when we spoke “and that’s how we buy also. A good joke that remains funny and pertinent to this day, even after 50 or 60 years, will always remain so”.
The Rae-Smiths warm and engaging style is what drew me to their stand initially. Amid the respectful monoliths of more traditional antiques, their pictures lulled me in with a sense of nostalgia and playfulness. Within seconds I was staring eye to eye with some original and iconic drawings of Noddy and his friends, before chuckling to myself at the timeless whit of Melville Calman and other cartooning legends. As someone who loves the story that objects can tell, cartoons have always appealed to me because of the power and pathos they can portray through just a few well-chosen lines. Yet observing how other fine art dealers and visitors were likewise happy to display and engage with these artworks reminded me also that I’m not alone. The illustrations felt current, approachable, and in our austere uncertain times- a relief to be allowed to have a good laugh at ourselves as well.
An illustrious start
John and Felicity both got into dealing in cartoons after John bought a house in Primrose Hill many years ago that (unbeknownst to him initially) turned out to have been the Press Art School. Though the school had closed in 1956, in its day the building had been an important training ground for aspiring illustrators and had seen many of the great English cartoonists of the early to mid 20th Century pass through its doors. After a bit of research by John, this twist of fate sparked a lifelong interest in the genre and both he and his wife have never looked back.
The cartoon market
To my mind good quality published cartoons and illustrations are an area that feels extremely current. Fusing humour and nostalgia with our love for vintage informality, cartoons can be a great and affordable way to bring art into our modern more relaxed homes. “We take a lot of care with the mounting and the framing because these are such wonderful visual pieces which need to fit into today’s interiors. We want people to hang them in their drawing rooms as well as their loos”, explained Felicity with an infectious laugh.
For those of us looking to bring a few pieces into our home (or even start a collection), then it is thankfully a very wide field that offers subjects, styles and budgets to suit absolutely everyone. Indeed unlike other areas of the art world, decent original pieces by well-known artists can still be found and enjoyed for very little money. At the same time, inspirational names from the world of cartooning such as Pont, Bateman and Heath Robinson continue to draw in fresh interest and healthy prices. Then at the far end of the scale for serious investors, the global branding of certain children’s characters (such as Winnie the Poo by Disney) has sent the prices for select icons of illustration soaring. Today an original illustration of Winnie the Poo by E.H.Shepard will set you back several hundreds of thousands of pounds, and recently John spotted a page from Tin-tin offered in France for nearly a million Euros. As the characters that these illustrators portrayed become our global nostalgic heritage, then the prices for their original artworks will surely continue to rise in recognition.
Interestingly herein also lies the balance. Humour, collective memories and styles will always remain very culturally and linguistically specific so an iconic piece from one country or during one specific era may not translate properly to anyone else’s country later in time. It’s a point to remember when choosing cartoons for investment rather than personal reasons. “Even if the artwork is good but the humour has been lost in time, then we tend to be careful” remarked Felicity with caution.
Whatever the geographic boundaries of humour one thing is for sure, Cartoons and illustrations remain an excellent way to laugh at the silly side of who we are no matter how serious the topic really is. And if the simple act of placing these vintage drawings on our walls brings a grin to your face every time you view it, then in troubled times that’s surely the best kind of investment we can make!
The Rae-Smith Gallery exhibit regularly at BADA and LAPADA amongst other quality fairs. They can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via tel: 020-3091-8573
Images: Copyright of the Rae-Smith Gallery