Party caricaturists are a minority group of entertainers whose popularity is increasing at those two-yearly manifestations of goodwill to employees known as the company party.
Their services can be obtained by contacting one of the more than 4,500 corporate entertainment agencies in the UK which are involved in more than 200,000 events a year. There are more than enough bands, singers, comedians and magicians to cope with this work flow but the popularity of caricaturists is increasing to such an amount that many are having to turn away offers every week.
On-the-spot or party caricaturing has released many cartoonists from their traditionally secular lifestyles. Their artform has always been an entertainment but they have never before been able to witness the reactions of an audience to their work. Now they can have the satisfaction of turning out a quick, amusing likeness and basking in the subtle hilarity that ensues. Quite distinct from their streetwise, pavement counterparts, who are mostly portraitists struggling to draw in a 'cartoony' way, corporate caricaturists are often broadly-published professional cartoonists who have discovered this extra, lucrative outlet for their talents.
There is a hard core of about thirty party caricaturists in this country who are all well-known to each other. While a little friendly rivalry is enjoyed by all, so is a constant exchange of advice, ideas and, indeed, overflow work; passed on with no demand for a commission, but on the understanding that the favor will be repaid.
The range of venues playing host to our caricaturing talents is remarkable. Parties are held on board jet airliners, the EuroStar trains, the QE2 and other ships, barges, Madame Tussaud's Waxworks, The Natural History Museum, The London Dungeon, The Tate Gallery, Elstree Film Studios, Tower Bridge, The Greenwich Observatory, The Belfry and Wentworth golf courses … the list goes on. Anywhere, as Terry Christien, the Secretary of The Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain, put it: "From cramped village halls to Palace Gardens, zoos and groovy clubs!"
As well as this, there is an exhausting variety of parties on offer. I am just as likely to be asked to draw eight people at a dinner table in a private house in Hendon as to be flown to a huge hotel in Cannes hosting an international management consultancy event of some two to three hundred guests.
These parties are thrown by the entire spectrum of organizations. Corporate Entertainment is par for the course with financial and media-related companies, of course, but less obvious clients such as plumbing organizations, kitchenware and bathroom manufacturers and a variety of medical organizations are also now jumping on the bandwagon. Indeed, it is a shock to the system when you turn up at a big swish event at The Dorchester to find it is attended by urologists and gynecologists from around the world who have been at a conference on 'The Overactive Bladder and its Treatment' which was helped emblazoned on the guests' lapel badges. I mean, who better to take the piss out of? Drawing doctors giving prostate examinations or enemas is a common request at such functions. Is it too much to expect sophistication and wit amongst the more educated members of our society?
So, how do we translate the art of drawing drawing to the handheld clipboard amidst a sea of tables, waiters and mystified guests?
Some caricaturists remain aloof, relying on the impact of the finished drawing to elicit the required response. Some become virtual comedians by developing the standard patter which is common at all functions. "Do not make the nose too big," is a common request which can be rejoined with, "Thanks for pointing it out – I'll have to turn the paper sideways to fit it in!"
"Do not do too many wrinkles," is often met by "Of course not, madam.
However, there is one physical feature which a cartoonist can freely exaggerate with the full approval of onlookers AND victim. Astonishingly, women fall rapturously in love with the caricaturist who simply adds two huge circles as a graphic representation of breasts. Women from a wide cross-section of parties, from The Dorchester to small suburban church halls, all react in the same way: hilariously guided. There's definitely a psychologist's paper in this somewhere.
Somehow, in most situations, the caricaturist can get away with being largely rude. The tall, blonde-ringed, red-beret'd Simon Barber often hands over the finished masterpiece with a large envelope, saying "Here you are – a bag to put over your head!"
The humor employed has to be this basic in order to hit home with maximum impact in noisy surroundings. Anything more adventurous is doomed. One of my extemporaneous jokes that went down like a lead balloon was addressed to a young lady who demanded "Make me beautiful. The reply, to amazed silence was, "Ah, but even the Mona Lisa was no oil-painting, madam!"
The comic capabilities can be further enhanced by adding little bodies instead of just drawing heads and shoulders. This allows quick approximations of hobbies and the opportunity to encapsulate the subject's character with a few dept symbols and an apt caption. All this information can be gleaned from a little chit-chat with the victim, but more productively, with their colleagues who will be more than willing to dish the dirt in the spirit of the occasion. Thus, the hapless youth who so-called friends reported that he fancied himself as a stud was touchingly delighted with the resultant picture of himself hard at work with an inflatable woman. The poor man's self-image was further deconstructed by the caption, 'Love life's looking up.' An elegant gentleman rather surprisedly requested to be drawn as Jesus Christ. There was only one way of dealing with this. He went away with grudging admiration for the depiction of himself strait-jacketed in a padded cell.
While I, personally, enjoy caricaturing women more than men (perhaps because they are easier on the eye or because they are more diplomatic on seeing the results of my endeavors), some of my colleagues express the opposite view. Ian Parratt makes the point that women have spent a lot of time getting made up and immaculately dressed for these flamboyant events only to have some pasty-faced caricaturist interrupt their meal by showing up their worse features. "Sometimes, the husbands take umbrage, too," he says. "Another reason I do not like drawing women is that their hairstyles use up too much ink, especially if their hair is black." So, bald albinos must be high on Ian's wish list, then.
It is impossible to be a regular on the entertainment circuit without upsetting someone. The discarded, folded or torn caricature on the floor at the end of a evening is the incidental experience of most caricaturists. Tales abound of caricaturists suffering at the hands of the misunderstanding public. There is always a minor contingent who refuse to understand that a caricature is not a flattering portrait. A perversely enviable claim to fame for one prolific party caricaturist was when the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ripped up his graphic offering and had him barred from attending the rest of the conference for which he had been hired by the Conservative Party.
But what does this 'caricaturing as entertainment' mean to the regularly-published professional?
Tony Healey, whose work is regularly seen in The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times and Golf Monthly, is one such who has tried it and has no desire to repeat the experience.
"If you're really worried about the quality of the end-result, you will not be happy working under such conditions. It is a skill that I admire, although most of the results I have seen seem to be more 'cartoony' than anything that could really be called 'a caricature'. "
Gary Smith (Daily Mail, Radio Times, Sunday Times) echoes these sentiments but adds that only a lucky few are employed in the national press. "There are probably a lot of highly-talented caricaturists out there sacrificing their art because they have to earn a living somehow." This is very true. For the struggling artist, there is no choice between £ 150 for a caricature that takes three hours to complete or £ 350 to spend a similar time drawing guests at a party. However, I would argue that the combination of talents, cartoonist and entertainer, is a unique artform in itself. In addition, many party caricaturists have found that they are occasionally expected to do a bit more than just draw funny pictures.
Another well-known caricaturist recalls its attempts to caricature employees of a flooring company while on an assault course in the pouring rain in Leeds. Not only that, he also had to capture their progress on a camcorder at the same time.
One of a growing number of women in the business, Luisa Calvo had the questionable good fortune of having to apply greasepaint and motley to perform in a complicated stage show before the more usual task of drawing members of the audience after the show.
"The elegant guests watched me prance elephant-like across the stage bearing a length of cloth high in the air and unfortunately failing miserably to place it into the hands of an awaiting professional dancer."
Personally, I found myself examining a contract just two hours before the event to find that I was expected to perform a cabaret act after dinner. Fortunately, I was able to dredge up some previously written material to save the evening.
There is one obvious way a party caricaturist scores points over the more ubiquitous magicians, musicians and clowns. Not only are they entertaining, but they are producing an original work of art which will be kept as a unique memento of the event. Astute companies will pre-print the sheets with their logo and appropriate message thus enhancing the caricature as an original marketing tool. Apart from the pecuniary benefits, the most rewarding experience for the caricaturist is to be swept through the doors on a tidal wave of raucous laughter and appreciative applause. Then you know you have delivered the goods.