Dudley Dexter Watkins, cartoonist and illustrator died on the 20th of August, 1969.
With a name like Dudley Dexter Watkins, you’d be forgiven for thinking such a man would hardly be Scottish, and you’re right. Dudley was an Englishman, but he earned the right to be an honorary Scotsman. You see, Our Dudley was the man who drew the comic strips featuring a’body’s favourites, ‘Oor Wullie’ and ‘The Broons’. How could Scotland fail to honour the man who helped to create the timeless characters that have adorned the fun section of ‘The Sunday Post’ since 1936? Along with writer and editor, Robert Duncan Low, Dudley Dexter Watkins gave to Scotland and the World yet another nine years old boy who never grows up – Oor Wullie of the spiky hair and dungarees, with his ever present, upturned bucket and his friends, Fat Bob and Soapy Soutar. It’s to Low that we maun gie credit for the Scots vernacular of the strips, set in the fictional town of Auchenshoogle, but Oor Wullie’s timeless exclamations of “Jings!” “Crivvens!” and “Help ma Boab!” were undoubtedly brought to glorious immortality by Dudley Dexter Watkins.
Dudley D. Watkins is rightly regarded as one of the handful of truly great comic strip artists. His brilliance, from the days when nobody gave a hoot about political correctness, gave us characters such as ‘Desperate Dan’ (scoffing cow pie), ‘Lord Snooty’, ‘Korky the Cat’, ‘Biffo the Bear’, ‘Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks’, ‘Peter Pye’ (a humorous Medieval strip), and ‘Ginger’ (his final comic creation), from the ‘Beano’, ‘Dandy’, ‘Topper’ and ‘Beezer’. Watkins also created a host of other characters in finely drawn adventure strips, including ‘Lone Wolf’ (a masked avenger along the lines of the Lone Ranger), ‘Morgyn the Mighty’ and ‘Jimmy and His Magic Patch’ (a blend of reality and legend). An extract from the ‘Dictionary of Scottish Art and Architecture’ hardly does him justice in stating, “Beneath [Watkins’] simplification lay a confident draughtsmanship, a capacity for effective compositions and a profound instinct for well-selected detail.”
It has been suggested that Dudley Watkins was the only D. C. Thomson artist permitted to sign his work, however, that appears to be a bit of a myth. Watkins’ name or initials began to appear on ‘The Broons’ and ‘Oor Wullie’ in June of 1946, reputedly after he was approached by a rival publisher. Permission to sign his work was one of the conditions Watkins negotiated in staying loyal to the Dundee publisher and he continued to sign most of his work for the rest of his life. In fact, Watkins was one of only two D. C. Thomson cartoonists who signed their work; the other being Allan Morley and it was Morley, apparently, who was the first to do so.
Dudley Dexter Watkins was born in Manchester on the 27th of February, 1907, although the family moved to Nottingham while he was still a baby. Young Dudley’s artistic talent was noticed at an early stage as by the age of ten, he had been described by the local education authority as, “an artistic genius for his age.” The young genius then went on to study at the Nottingham School of Art. Later on, when he worked for Boots the Chemist, Watkins’ first published artwork, a drawing entitled ‘Our Gymnasium Class’, appeared in their staff magazine, ‘The Beacon’, in 1923. A year later, Watkins and his family moved to Scotland, where Dudley attended more art classes, as a student at the Glasgow School of Art, where we can claim (“Yeah?”) that he refined his talents and began to develop his unique style.
In 1925, Watkins arrived in Dundee, the home of D. C. Thomson, after the Principle of the school in Glasgow recommended him to a representative of the then thriving Scottish publishing firm. Watkins was first offered a mere six-months employment, but ended up with a full time career, working with D. C. Thomson for the rest of his life. For the first ten years, Watkins worked as a draughtsman and illustrator, supplementing his modest wage by teaching life drawing at the School of Art in Dundee. However, his cartoonist talents were ultimately recognised and, from 1933, Watkins turned his hand to comic strip work and began providing illustrations for Thomson’s ‘Big Five’ story papers for boys; namely, ‘Adventure’, ‘Rover’, ‘Wizard’, ‘Skipper’ and ‘Hotspur’.
Watkins spent the Second World War with the Fife-based Dad’s Army of the Home Guard. During that time, he produced a huge amount of cartoon strips, which were specifically designed to bolster morale on the Home front. The themes of digging for victory and such like, included vivid strips full of bomb shelters, Spitfires, ‘Conchies’ and patriotic bashing of the ‘Krauts’.
Watkins never made a great deal of money from his talent, having effectively signed away a fortune in potential syndication rights to his employers, but he was paid well enough to be able to build a substantial house in Broughty Ferry. Much of his life was lived in modest privacy at that house in Reres Road, which he named ‘Winsterley’. In later years, Watkins himself became modest to the point of almost being a recluse. Neighbours and colleagues rarely caught sight of him as he began to work exclusively from home. Scripts and drawings were exchanged and delivered by the Editor of ‘The Dandy’ visiting late at night on many an occasion. Apart from being a private man, Watkins, who had been brought up in a strict Baptist household, was also deeply religious. He and his wife Doris, whom he met as a member of the Church of Christ in Dundee, used to make trips to the Holy Land where Watkins could discuss the Gospels, on which he could reputedly discourse for hours.
Dudley Dexter Watkins died of a heart attack on the 20th of August, 1969. Appropriately enough, he was found dead at his beloved drawing board and it is a testament to Watkins’ work that D. C. Thomson continued to reprint 'Oor Wullie' and 'The Broons' strips in The Sunday Post for seven years before a replacement was found. Interestingly, Watkins is said to have produced his best black and white cartoons at breakneck speed, but reportedly spent ages lingering over his watercolour easel paintings, which were “persistently awful.” Norman Wright and David Ashford penned a tribute to Watkins that appeared in issue number 211 of 'Book and Magazine Collector', in which they wrote, “In the forty four years [Watkins] had worked for D.C.Thomson he had created some of their most memorable characters. His output was prodigious, yet the quality of his work was always impeccable.”