The Art Of Donald Mcgill Essay

In 1941 George Orwell published an essay on Donald McGill, which was published in the literary journal Horizon ( this has been republished by Greaves & Thomas and is available from the museum shop or the via this website. Whilst Orwell is regarded as one of Britain’s great 20th century novelists, he clearly was not as apt at being a journalist, as he makes numerous mistakes, in particular presuming that Donald Mcgill was a trade name with numerous artists contributing.

Clearly George Orwell had not considered it necessary to interview Donald McGill or Constance Publishers. This is surprising as the journal would have made contact so that copyright consent could be sought from Constance to reproduce some of Donald’s cards in the publication. Orwell’s comments later led to Donald writing to the Times newspaper to clarify the mistakes. Nevertheless despite this lapse in Orwells output, the article helped to secure greater acclaim for Donald and his work.

It is also interesting to note that in 1948 when George Orwell wrote his classic 1984, he decided to switch the order of 4 and 8 to make 84 instead of 48.

Orwell who had fought against fascists and no doubt saw the flaws of Stalin’s Russia, deemed that 1984 could well be a fitting time in the future for a Big Brother State watching and controlling your every move. In many ways 1954 might have been a more fitting title for Orwell’s classic, as Donald and his publishers found themselves running foul of the law for using the subtle art of the ‘Double Entendre’ or ‘hidden meaning’.

The beautiful thing about the Double Entendre is that it is designed to pass over the head of those who cannot see the alternative meaning, consequently Donalds cards appear to depict perfectly innocent situations, and also the text that accompanies them is equally innocent. However there are hidden meanings to be found if you already know to what is being alluded.

Consequently in 1954 when Donald and Constance were prosecuted under the 1857 Obscenity Act, they were not being prosecuted for written words or an obscene image. Instead they were being prosecuted for a potential thought. Clearly the Big Brother State had well and truly arrived and the controlling of free thought would now be on the agenda with harsh reprisals for those who dared step out of line.

Interesting to note that when George Orwell wrote his essay on Donald, he was under surveillance by MI5 as a suspected communist.



Donald McgillGeorge OrwellThe Copywright

Donald Fraser Gould McGill (28 January1875 – 13 October1962) was an English artist, known as the "King of the Saucy Postcard". His medium was the highly-coloured and risqué cartoon postcard, of the kind that was sold in 20th century British seaside resorts.


  • Can't see my little Willy.
    • Arthur Calder-MarshallWish You Were Here: The Art of Donald McGill (1966) p. 44.
    • The drawing shows a small child on a beach, hidden under the bulging stomach of his father.
  • "Do you like Kipling?"
    "I don't know, you naughty boy, I've never kippled."
    • The Guinness Book of World Records 1988 p. 203. [1]
    • Holds the record as the world's most successful postcard, with a sale of about 6,000,000.
    • Several earlier versions of the gag exist dating to the 19th century, according to the Quote Investigator blog.[2]
  • For Heaven's sake, send help! There's a man trying to get into my room and the door's locked!
    • The Independent, September 8, 2006. [3].
  • I want to back the favourite, please. My sweetheart gave me a pound to do it both ways!
  • "'Isaiah' – what a funny name for a teddy bear!"
    "Well, you see one eye's 'igher than the other."
    • Exhibited as part of the Michael Winner collection of McGill designs at the Chris Beetles Gallery, March 14 to April 8, 2006. [5]

George Orwell "The Art of Donald McGill"[edit]

First published in Horizon magazine, and reprinted in Orwell's Critical Essays (1946)

  • Could you exchange this lucky charm for a baby's feeding-bottle?
  • "I like seeing experienced girls home."
    "But I'm not experienced!"
    "You're not home yet!"
  • "I've been struggling for years to get a fur coat. How did you get yours?"
    "I left off struggling."
  • Judge: "You are prevaricating, sir. Did you or did you not sleep with this woman?"
    Co-respondent: "Not a wink, my lord!"
  • She didn't ask me to the christening, so I'm not going to the wedding.


  • In the past the mood of the comic postcard could enter into the central stream of literature, and jokes barely different from McGill's could casually be uttered between the murders in Shakespeare's tragedies. That is no longer possible, and a whole category of humour, integral to our literature till 1800 or thereabouts, has dwindled down to these ill-drawn postcards, leading a barely legal existence in cheap stationers' windows. The corner of the human heart that they speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish.
    • George Orwell "The Art of Donald McGill", in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1984) Vol. 2, pp. 194-5.

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