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A Canadian Pioneer in Cartooning

For the week of Monday April 2, 2001

On April 7, 1851, John Wilson Bengough was born in Toronto. During his lifetime this famous cartoonist, journalist, author and lecturer shaped Canadian political opinion.

John W. Bengough

John W. Bengough
© LAC / C-100407

Raised in Whitby, Ontario, Bengough began his career in journalism at the local newspaper, the Whitby Gazette. In 1872, Bengough moved to Toronto to work for the Globe, Canada's most influential newspaper at the time. Bengough, however, soon felt constrained by Globe politics. Upon his introduction to lithography (the art of reproducing drawings in print), Bengough realized the opportunity this quick and inexpensive technology offered — the chance to create his own newspaper of political cartoons!

Thus, at 22, Bengough, with his brother Tom, established Grip, a weekly Toronto newspaper, with only $18! Accordingly, Grip's first issue, launched on May 24, 1873, was very rough. It was well received, however, especially after the Pacific Scandal. The corruption and downfall of John A. Macdonald's government provided ideal material for a political cartoonist making his debut.

Over the next two decades, Grip became an influential force on Canadian public opinion, addressing key issues such as nationalism, corruption, women's suffrage, senate reform, provincial rights, free trade and prohibition with a progressive and anti-Tory perspective. Readers respected Bengough's honesty and principles.

Editor of Grip until 1892, Bengough did most articles and illustrations himself. Then a disagreement with Grip's new owners resulted in Bengough's resignation. Without Bengough, Grip collapsed by 1893. Bengough tried to revive Grip with a new company, but without success.

'Whither are we drifting?' by John W. Bengough

"Whither are we drifting?"
by John W. Bengough

© LAC / C-78599

Following Grip, Bengough worked for several Toronto and Montréal newspapers, as well as four London (England) newspapers. One British editor called Bengough "one of the ablest cartoonists in the world."

Bengough also excelled at lectures. From 1874, Bengough gave "Chalk Talks." These humourous lectures, accompanied by rapid sketches of important figures, brought Bengough fame in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Bengough was also an author. In addition to publishing cartoons in Grip's Cartoons (1875) and Caricature History of Canadian Politics (1886), Bengough published poetry, political works, his Chalk Talks and even children's books, such as The Up-to-Date Primer: A first book of lessons for little political economists.

Bengough died in Toronto in 1923. John Wilson Bengough was recognized as a person of national historic significance in 1938. Bengough's cartoons remain valuable today for their depiction of early Confederation and the timelessness of the issues Bengough addressed.

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