Duncan Macpherson is considered a giant of Canadian editorial cartooning. His witty cartoons challenged authority and tapped into public sentiment on domestic and world events while Macpherson himself helped reshape the trade for a generation of cartoonists.
Among several firsts throughout his career, Macpherson was the first editorial cartoonist to be invested into the Order of Canada, in 1988. “With a flick of his pen he can draw a general truth from a seemingly trivial incident, bringing laughter or groans, but never indifference,” observed the Office of the Governor General.
When Macpherson joined the Toronto Daily Star in 1958, after illustrating for The Standard in Montréal and Maclean’s, he became the first Canadian cartoonist to hire an agent to negotiate his salary. Other cartoonists at the time followed his lead. At the Star, he also pushed for editorial independence that changed the role of the profession in Canada – from illustrators to editorial commentators. Sometimes, Macpherson’s drawings opposed the position of his own newspaper.
With his bold and distinctive brushwork, Macpherson sought to represent the opinions of everyday Canadians, tackling important issues like war, international affairs and the ups and downs of Canadian political leaders. He targeted his criticism at those in positions of power, speaking for the underdog while pointing out hypocrisy and, as he would say, “pomposity.”
“Macpherson drew as well, if not better, than any other Canadian artist who comes to mind. He combined that talent with a diamond-drill wit,” writes Terry Mosher, the celebrated editorial cartoonist who draws under the name Aislin, in his book Professional Heckler: The Life and Art of Duncan Macpherson. “He inspired me and a generation (or two) of others working in the same field.”
Macpherson’s passion for art developed during the Second World War. After joining the Royal Canadian Air Force, hearing issues prevented him from becoming a pilot. He packed bombs in England while taking art classes in his spare time. Drawing came to him as naturally as humour.
“I think that’s where he really got the idea of being the underdog,” says his son, Ian Macpherson. “He was always drawing cartoons then, like really good cartoons of authority figures in the Air Force, [and] all of his superiors wanted his cartoons. They enjoyed them. He was a born cartoonist… He was interested in other kinds of art, but just like a musician who chooses a certain kind of sound, he fell in love with humour.”
Following the war, using his veteran’s pension, Macpherson studied at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Toronto’s Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), and worked as an illustrator before joining the Star. His career with the newspaper spanned more than three decades.
“I’m the audience when it comes right down to it. I hope I’m not alienated from the mainstream, sort of beverage-room thinking,” Macpherson said in the National Film Board of Canada’s 1975 film, The Hecklers. The job required him to be apolitical, he said, and while he never intended his cartoons to be vicious, “if the only way to make the point is a pretty tough delivery, well, that’s the way the point’s going to be made.”
Macpherson received six National Newspaper Awards, the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts medal and the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize. In retirement he turned to painting and portraits and lived with his wife Dorothy in Beaverton, Ontario. He died in 1993 at age 68.
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