Times obituary: Cartoonist Hector Breeze

Prolific Fleet Street cartoonist who worked mainly for the Daily Express and Punch but also made two forays into television

TOP DRAWERS: Hector Breeze, left, with his fellow cartoonists Charles Griffin and Bill Caldwell at the Daily Express Blackfriars office in 1997

From The Times, 5 April, 2019

Of Fleet Street’s many journalistic watering-holes, the Old Bell retained its newspaper connections the longest. In the 1960s and 1970s the old public bar at the back was the preserve of the print union barons, from which they would issue their commands to stop the presses, but later the London pub became a favourite meeting place for newspaper and magazine cartoonists, foremost among them Tony Holland of The Daily Telegraph and Hector Breeze of the Daily Express.

As the Daily Mirror’s Clive Collins recalled: “Hector would quietly mention some news item he had read, to which Tony would add a rejoinder. Someone else would chip in and before long a full-on hilarious news analysis would have formed.”

Breeze was witty and widely knowledgeable, but he was naturally reticent, and it was always extraordinary to watch the slow transformation from silence to full-on performance. His drawings were visual expressions of this: from his mundane, well-meaning, chunkily drawn characters came wonderfully sharp and wry comments.

He dealt in fly-blown Beckettian tramps, army chaplains, well-meaning but seedy monarchs and down-at-heel aristocrats, all with receding chins and pin-prick eyes, looking in the words of his fellow cartoonist Bill Hewison “as if they have been standing too close to the fire and have melted a little’’. For Ralph Steadman, “Breeze’s clumsily bewildered characters restore my faith in the seriously daft”.

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Hector Louis Breeze was born of Huguenot stock in Leytonstone, east London, in 1928, the elder son of Louis Breeze, a Fleet Street compositor, and Winifred. Entertainment, like the name Louis, ran in the Breeze family; his grandfather was a tenor with the D’Oyly Carte Company and a friend of George Grossmith, co-author of The Diary of a Nobody, one of Hector’s favourite books. 

The family moved south of the river to Welling, and, having failed the 11-plus exam, Hector was educated at Dartford Technical College. The young Breeze was not evacuated, and his boyhood was shaped by the Blitz. 

He vividly recalled being in the street as a doodlebug flew over, the distinctive puttering of the engine cutting out after it had passed, watching it dip and fall, and debris flying up into the air from whatever building it had destroyed. Moments later came the thud and the ground wobbled like jelly. He had a recurring dream of the experience for the rest of his life.

After school he became an apprentice draughtsman at Woolwich Arsenal, moving on to a post as technical draughtsman in the Ministry of Supply Drawing Office at Fort Halstead in Orpington, then the main British rocket research establishment.

He did not find the work fulfilling, and attended evening art classes. At the same time, inspired by New Yorker and Punch artists, he began to draw cartoons. He sold his first, to Melody Maker, in 1957, and gave up the day job. He met his future wife, Johanna, when they were both working for a food industry magazine.

He was late for his wedding at Marylebone register office, eventually turning up, like one of his characters, in a shabby raincoat with a rolled-up Evening Standard in the pocket. They had two sons, who survive him: Alex, a biophysicist who is professor of biomolecular NMR at the University of Leeds, and Jules, an art collections registrar.

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Like many cartoonists, Breeze was left-handed, and when he had made a drawing he would look at it through a reducing lens to see how it would appear in print — and then burst out in happy laughter as if it could only be funny in the published size. 

He was fiercely protective of the tools of his trade. Despite such provocations as the future scientist setting fire to the outside lavatory in an experiment, or the parental bed being filled with itching powder, he only lost his temper with the boys when they failed to return pens or pencils.

The family moved to Winchelsea in Sussex in 1962 and Hastings two years later. There he and Johanna became members of the Hastings Old Town Singers, and Hector, who had learnt with the jazz trombonist Don Lusher, played with local bands. Always passionately devoted to beer, he made his own, but most of the soupy, fuggy liquids would be drunk well before the sediment had cleared.

He made two forays into television, The Hector Breeze Show on Yorkshire Television in 1969, and in 1974 Thames Television’s Quick on the Draw, which featured Bob Monkhouse, Spike Milligan and Leslie Crowther. 

Private Eye published a collection of his work in 1973, and in 1981 he illustrated Terry Wogan’s The Day Job. In 2007, taken by the beauty of the Eden Valley, he and Johanna decided to leave Hastings and convert a disused barn at Waitby near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria. Later he may have regretted cutting himself off from southern friends, especially after Johanna’s death in 2014.

Thereafter he lived with Fergus, his white Norwegian Forest cat, surrounded, as Johanna had prophesied, by piles of newspapers. He continued to draw for The Spectator, The Oldie and The Society of Authors’ quarterly journal, in which his last cartoon appeared days before his death.

As Robert Besley has written for the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation: “ ‘Gentle humour’ is a damning phrase, usually code for ‘not funny’. Hector Breeze cartoons were never savage or angry, but they were funny. Damned funny.”

Hector Breeze, cartoonist, was born on November 17, 1928. He died of bowel cancer on December 19, 2018, aged 90


© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre