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Anthony Earnshaw:

The Imp of Surrealism

As a gawping public would shout on spotting Superman soaring overhead, “Is it a bird?” Perhaps, but only partly. Wokker is a wingless, earth-bound creature, who perambulates around on wooden legs and detachable wheels, his upper beak cracked, his eyes zigzagged as if with shark’s teeth, like some creepy, uncuddly toy which only the strangest child would ever warm to.

Wokker was conceived in 1966 by Eric Thacker, a Methodist Minister near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, jazz critic and poet. Thacker dervied the name from the sound effect ‘Wok’ which he had coined for an early poem to convey the sound of rim-shots made by a drummer. Thacker refined and defined the concept through correpondence and collaboration with his kindred spirit, postwar English Surrealist artist and auto-didact Anthony Earnshaw, who replaced Wokker’s original spoked metal wheels with wooden ones and added a pair of ears. Their composite Frankenstein cartoon soon acquired a curmugeonly personality, as Earnshaw recalled, “His demeanour… pompous and pontificatory, his speech verbose and finger wagging (Ha, Ha, no fingers to wag).”

Nightwork: Wokker watercolour painting from 1974

Using the joint pen-name ‘Wok’, Thacker and Earnshaw’s private fantasies eventually started finding a public, when a succession of Wokker strips were pinned to the walls of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in AAARGH! A Celebration of Comics, which ran from 31 December 1970 to 7 February 1971. This exposure led to more being published in The Times Education Supplement from October 1971, but only for a year.

Letters from Earnshaw’s Secret Alphabet Series, 1971

In this era of psychedelic experimentation in underground comix and magazines, Wokker nevertheless proved too weirdly hermetic for even highbrow popularity. So Thacker moved on, leaving Earnshaw to devise further episodes on his own and morph Wokker into his cranky talismanic outlet, in Jeff Nuttall’s Knuckleduster Funnies, Steve Caplin’s The Truth and the Chelsea Arts Club Journal, The Whistler. Equally playful with language, Earnshaw would turn Wokker into a substitute for ‘worker’, or adopt ‘Wok’ as an expletive, or a catch-all term not unlike ‘Smurf’.

To mark Earnshaw’s death ten years ago in 2001, his work is currently on show at Flowers East in London, and in a monograph The Imp of Surrealism from RGAP (Research Group for Artists Publications), reviewed below, ahead of a four-month retrospective at Cartwright Hall, Bradford in March to July, 2012. Twentieth century comics, from Herbert Crowley’s The Wigglemuch and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, to Peter Blegvad’s Leviathan and Tony Millionaires Sock Monkey, have been home to some distinctly odd critters, but these previously unpublished examples below from the late Eighties prove that Wokker has lost none of his essentially Northern English absurdist delirium.


Anthony Earnshaw: The Imp of Surrealism
Edited by Les Coleman

“Surrealism for me was home. I was among friends at last, having been away in a foreign land all my life. The spell it then cast remains a frisky imp haunting my life to this day.” Anthony Earnshaw, 1987

“All over the country, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the seeds of Surrealism took root in the minds of young men and women, especially in the North, where they were unaware that metropolitan smarty-boots were rejecting the movement as old hat. Tony invented several surreal strategies; he would board a train, descend at will and mount another, and continue this practice for several hours, sometimes in the company of his best friend Eric Thacker. He was unaware that the original Parisian group had played the same game with cinemas, which they entered and left at random. They were also obsessed with arcades, and, like Paris, Leeds is rich in these mysterious 19th-century invitations to linger. Earnshaw hated capitalism, bullies, exploiters and rule-makers, but described himself, typically, as “an armchair anarchist”. His subversion was through his work.” George Melly, The Guardian, 2001

As this beautifully designed and produced 192-page hardback monograph clearly demonstrates, there is much, much more to Anthony Earnshaw (1924-2001) than his idiosyncratic ‘Wokker’ strips highlighted above. His friend, cohort and de facto archivist Les Coleman has assembled ten insightful essays covering every facet of Earnshaw’s considerable, varied output - from Dawn Ades, Professor of Art History and Theory, on his Surrealist paintings, and acclaimed graphic designer George Hardie on his exuberant, playful letterforms, to Earnshaw’s wife Gail revealing ‘The Boy in the Man’ she knew so well. Comics academic Roger Sabin provides an in-depth analysis of the ‘Wokker’ strip, illustrated by, amongst others, six more previously unpublished examples, and Coleman himself examines the artist’s often biting satirical cartoons. Each essay is handsomely illustrated with many pin-sharp reproductions, including many of his paintings and boxed assemblages, as well as rare drawings, publications and ephemera.

The book is rounded off with a miscellany of ‘Earnshaviana’ comprising anecdotes and commentaries by Patrick Hughes, John Hyatt, Glen Baxter and other admirers. A closing chapter gathers some of Earnshaw’s delightful and delirious writings, eight pages of his witty aphorisms, and a transcript of a 1987 radio interview, concluding with a useful chronology and bibliography. A life as creatively liberated and free-wheeling as Earnshaw’s was never going to be wholly containable and explainable in any single book, no matter how comprehensive, but this is a brilliantly informative overview of one of Britain’s most inspiring postwar nonconformists. May he continue to inspire generations to come.

The book will be launched on Saturday October 1st, 2-4pm, at Flowers East, London, with artist and friend Patrick Hughes, art historian Dawn Ades amd Gail Earnshaw as guest speakers. All are welcome.

Posted: August 28, 2011

This article first appeared in Art Review magazine.


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Anthony Earnshaw
The Imp of Surrealism

edited by Les Coleman