Cartoonist Chelsea Renton’s caricatures of modern British types

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 February 2020

Artist Chelsea Renton at here Lewes studio (c) Jim Holden

Artist Chelsea Renton at here Lewes studio (c) Jim Holden

© Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036

What sort of Brit are you? For people-watchers everywhere, Lewes-based cartoonist Chelsea Renton has produced the definitive guide to the “strangest people in existence” – the British

A Field Guide to the Peoples of the British Isles by Chelsea RentonA Field Guide to the Peoples of the British Isles by Chelsea Renton

We're all guilty of it. We've all killed time at the supermarket checkout idly eyeing up the person next to us, musing on their foibles and eccentricities.

And why is it that we British all conform to a type? Whether it's the hipster with his artfully tousled man bun; the yoga-loving yummy mummy checking out her Instagram feed in the downward dog position; or the Joules-clad DFLs (that's the Down From Londoners, in case you didn't know), who are destined never to fit in, with their right-on townie ways and designer wellies.

We may live in an age which champions individualism, but we're instinctively herd creatures at heart who, consciously or otherwise, adopt the dress and characteristics of the tribe we aspire to join.

None of this is lost on the shrewdly observant Lewes-based cartoonist Chelsea Renton, who has produced an achingly funny book celebrating the weird, loveable and inexplicable variety of beings that populate these isles, each with their own delightful quirks and oddities.

Artist Chelsea Renton at her Lewes studio  (c) Jim HoldenArtist Chelsea Renton at her Lewes studio (c) Jim Holden

"I had an 'a-ha!' moment while walking in the Hebrides with a bird-spotting book two summers ago," grins Chelsea. "And I thought, 'Why not do one about people?'"

The idea was eagerly snapped up by The Oldie, which offered her a regular cartoon slot. This, in turn, attracted the interest of the book-publishing world. But Chelsea is well aware that as a white, middle-class female from 
a privileged background (she's 
the daughter of the former Mid Sussex MP and Conservative chief whip Tim Renton), she's treading a fine line.

Given her place in the social whirl, does she worry that she might come across as, well, a bit snobbish?

"Yes, perfectly good point. I live in the south east. I come from a posh background and I've had to be very careful. I hope I've got the balance right. As a southerner who occasionally goes to Scotland via 'the north', I'm not really in a position to poke fun at an assembly worker in Ellesmere Port, but I'm happy to send up people drinking activated charcoal smoothies.

"There are many more characters that I could have done, but I tried to concentrate on behaviour and occupation 
rather than politics, ethnicity or sexual orientation because, if you stick to those, everyone gets it. It's why Channel 4's Gogglebox, which everybody watches, works so well."

But what about class? It's often said we're more class-conscious than we've ever been. Is she guilty of feeding our prejudices?

"Well, the Brits have a long tradition of sending each other up, and it's something that seems to interest female cartoonists in particular. I'm thinking of Sue Macartney Snape, who satirised posh people in the Telegraph Magazine; Annie Tempest, who does the same for posh country people in her Tottering-by-Gently strip for Country Life; and Posy Simmonds, who turned her sights on Hampstead's left-wing liberal elite for the The Guardian's women's page.

"As for class, we've had this horrid system for years, which breaks down to an extent, but also doesn't. All I can say is, I've depicted some people, like the gentry, who do their wine shopping at Aldi and live in estate houses because they've sold the big house to a pop star. I have an understanding about that world, so I feel I can send it up."

And how would she categorise herself?

"Oh, the hairstylist section depicts me. I'm the person having my hair cut. Having always had short, thin, blonde hair, I've spent my entire life saying, 'I wonder if I'll go for a gamine, feathered or layered look this time,' and it always ends up the same!" She also identifies with her affectionate take on the single mum - a weary, bedraggled creature who has turned self-neglect into an art form.

Where does she seek inspiration? "I live in Lewes, so I spotted quite a lot of the characters there. Some of the types are also based on people I know. My best friend is 'the cougar'. One of my brothers is 'the foodie'. The 'yoofs' are my son and his mates. They've all seen the book, and they've said, 'That reminds me of so and so.' We're not very good at recognising ourselves."

When she's beginning a drawing, Chelsea always starts with the nose. She has a mirror in her studio and stands in front of it, adopting the posture she wants, and then draws it out of her head.

"As you get older, you learn how people hold themselves and the head tilt that types do," she says. "Quite often I'll see someone in the street and it will generate a spark, but I have no idea what the character will look like until I 
start drawing."

Chelsea has always been fascinated by people. Even as a teenager, she'd spend hours studying acquaintances and doodling them. She was encouraged by her creative family. "I was pigeonholed as the artist because when you come from a big family you get identified early on."

To the outside world, however, she must have been marked out as the local MP's daughter. Far from being scarred by the experience, she makes it sound like a great romp.

"We had to brush our hair when we drove through the constituency and had a lot of fun with the loudspeaker on the top of Dad's Land Rover during election campaigns, shouting 'Vote Renton'," she laughs.

"I'm very proud of my father. Whenever I've met politicians of any party, they've always said, 'Tim Renton... gosh, what a nice man.' He has never taken himself too seriously. And in a rather unpolitical manner, he has always listened to alternative points of view, changed his mind, and resigned, on occasions."

Chelsea, a former Green councillor in Lewes, has single-mindedly forged her own path. Her only formal training was at Brighton School of Art where, as a fun-loving student, she remembers completing just one piece during her foundation year - a picture of baked beans actually made from baked beans. She then pitched herself at the freelance market, working as a cartoonist for The European and The Independent, before illustrating the early Boden mail-order catalogues "in the days when the owner couldn't afford models".

Easily distracted, as she puts it, she also worked with Bosnian refugees and as a war monitor and humanitarian advisor for the Foreign Office, before becoming a political advisor in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars. Since returning to Britain, she has forged a new career as an artist, illustrator and sculptor, working with a group of like-minded creatives from a leaking cow shed outside Lewes. She has even found time to raise a family and campaign for green issues and affordable housing.

"I've gone backwards and forwards my whole life, yo-yoing between purely artistic pursuits and political or social campaigning," she says. "The reason why I love cartooning is because it brings together both sides of my brain. Besides, it's fun doodling away and sniggering at my own jokes."

Armed with Chelsea's book, you, too, could have fun identifying tribes. I plan to take my copy to Lewes and treat it like an I Spy book, ticking off my finds as I spot them. There's a section on the screen addict and I'm certain I've seen that subject before. It couldn't possibly be me, of course...

A Field Guide to the Peoples of the British Isles by Chelsea Renton is published by Oneworld Publications at £12.99.

To find out more about Chelsea's work, visit chelsearenton.com

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