‘The most genuine caricaturist who has ever lived in England’ (Joseph Pennell, Modern Illustration, London: George Bell & Sons, 1895, page 103)
The master of a confident and beautiful line, William Giles Baxter is considered a seminal figure in the history of cartooning. Though he did not create the figure of ‘Ally Sloper’, he developed him into his definitive form and so established him as ‘Europe’s first really enduring … cartoon character’ (David Kunzle, The History of the Comic Strip. The Nineteenth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, page 316).
William Giles Baxter was born of English parents in Ireland, where his father failed to establish a factory for making starch from potatoes. During childhood, he travelled with them to America and then back to Britain, to settle in Buxton, Derbyshire. There his father died leaving his mother in poverty.
In 1876, he contributed comic drawings to The Buxton Journal and Looker-On, which reappeared a year or two later in Pen & Ink Sketches of Scenes & Incidents in Buxton, a volume published in Manchester.
Baxter moved to Manchester to take up an apprenticeship with Alfred Darbyshire, an architect best known for building theatres, who was also active as an actor-manager. In 1879, Darbyshire organised performances of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, in memory of the actor-manager, Charles Calvert, Baxter taking the small role of Jacques de Boys.
Though Baxter completed his indentures as an architect, he decided to become an illustrator. The publisher, John Andrew Christie, hired him in 1877 to draw all the cartoons for Comus, a new satirical weekly. And when that failed a year later, he and its editor, F M Hyman, founded its successor, Momus, with Baxter’s Aunt Calvert as proprietor. His contributions included the creation of the character, ‘Silas E Choodle’, and the series, ‘Studies from Charles Dickens’. During his time on Momus, he became involved in the cultural and social life of Manchester, becoming a member of both its Literary Club and Arts Clubs in 1880 (and acting as a founding committee member of the latter), and contributing illustrations to Anglers’ Evenings: Papers by Members of the Manchester Anglers’ Association (1882).
In 1882, Baxter left Manchester for London (his departure leading to the demise of Momus). During the following year, he joined Harry Furniss in working for the cartoonist, illustrator and lithographer, Alfred Gray, of 86 Albert Street, Regent’s Park, on designs for humorous greeting cards. It was possibly through Gray that Baxter made the acquaintance of the magazine proprietor and cartoonist, Charles Ross. What is indisputable is that Baxter used his meticulous draughtsmanship to vitalise Ross’s creation, ‘Ally Sloper’ in the pages of Judy. And his large front-page cartoons for Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, published by the Dalziels from July 1884, turned the periodical into a success to rival Punch. In the same period, in 1885, the Manchester publisher, Cartwright & Rattray, published a volume of his earlier studies from Shakespeare and Dickens.
Sacked from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday for unpunctuality in 1887, Baxter revived his character, Choodle, for a few numbers of a new periodical, C H Ross’s Variety Paper (1887-88), and also contributed to The Graphic. However, he died of consumption in St Pancras, London, on 2 June 1888, in only his 32nd year.