Part one of a two-part look at cartoonist Jimmie Frise's life and work.
Jimmie Frise was perhaps the most important Canadian cartoonist in the first half of the twentieth century. His immensely popular Birdseye Center, which gently sent up the rural life and rustic villages of his youth from a metropolitan perch, struck a nerve in a rapidly modernizing and urbanizing country, and he became one of the country’s most recognizable celebrities for his adventures with Greg Clark—around town, or out hunting and fishing—were published weekly, with Clark providing the words, and Frise, the comical illustration.
Before it all, however, Frise was a country boy looking for his big break in the city.
James Llewellyn Frise was born on Scugog Island in 1891, the only child of John and Hannah Barker Frise. His father was a farmer, and his mother had immigrated with her family from England to the Port Perry area at the age of two. (The family name was pronounced “Fries” not “Freeze,” although Clark also once said the accepted pronunciation in Port Perry was “Frice.”) Growing up in Seagrave and Myrtle as a child, Frise attended school in Port Perry. He was “such an awfully poor speller” that he later admitted he regularly muddled the spelling of his own middle name. But he’d discovered he had a gift for art and drawing early in life and continued to refine his skills.
(Left: photo of Jim Frise from the Toronto Star; May 7, 1917.)
“His schoolbooks were littered with sketches,” Clark recalled in the introduction to a 1965 retrospective of Frise’s work. “In town, he could not see a dusty window pane, or a frosted one in winter, without inscribing some quick sketch of a local character.” These were the earliest incarnations of characters like Eli and Ruby Doolittle, Pigskin Peters, and Old Archie that would populate his fictional village in Birdseye Center.
Throughout his cartooning life, he was served by his penetrating skill at observing small details of human nature. With the slow pace of life in the countryside and villages along the shores of Lake Scugog and a number of eccentric locals, the district provided Frise a store of background material for his future comic strip.
But, as Clark notes, sketching and doodling seemed a luxury of youth. And, after high school, it seemed self-evident that he would take on adult responsibilities on the family farm he assumed he would eventually inherit.
But throughout his teens, Clark writes, teachers and friends had encouraged Frise: “Jimmie, you are a natural-born artist. Why don’t you go to the city and study art?” The advice stuck.
In 1910, at the age of 19, Frise came to Toronto—not to study art, but to find work. “When Jim came to Toronto he had no definite [artistic] ambition,” his future employer at the Star Weekly, J. Herbert Cranston, recalled in Ink On My Fingers (Ryerson Press, 1953).
Frise found a job at an engraver and printer (Rolph, Clark, Stone), drawing tiny squares indicating lots available and already sold on a map of Saskatchewan. When the firm’s contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway to produce these immigrant settlement maps expired six months later, Frise was let go. Living at a Shuter Street rooming house, Frise scoured the want ads but, finding nothing art-related, figured that his Toronto sojourn would soon end with a return to the family farm.
He was amused by an ongoing, heated debate in the pages of the Toronto Star, where an editor extolled the virtues of the rural life over city life in a series of articles only to be rebutted again and again in letters from a farm-hand. When the debate ended in a suggestion that the editor and farmhand trade jobs, Frise was inspired to wield his pen, imagining a lighthearted scene with the editor milking a cow with great difficulty, and the farmhand bent over an office desk with equal consternation.
Pleased with the result, Frise submitted the work to the Star, hoping that a job might result. Buying the newspaper day after day, he waited patiently to see if the cartoon would appear among its pages. He heard nothing, and with each passing day the family farm loomed larger in his mind.
Then, on November 12, 1910, Frise’s rough cartoon appeared—not on the front page, as Clark would later claim, but buried within Saturday’s Star Weekly supplement. Early on Monday morning, the artist marched into the Star‘s dingy four-storey headquarters at 18-20 King Street West with his newspaper clipping in hand. He asked the doorman to direct him to the editor, according to Clark’s version of the story in Birdseye Center by Frise (McClelland & Stewart, 1965):
“Well, well,” said the Editor-in-Chief. “So you are Mr. Jas. Frise! We have been hunting all over town for you for the past ten days. All the art schools, the publishing houses, everywhere….”
“I…uh…” said Jimmie.
“You forgot,” said the Editor-in-Chief, “to give us your address with your letter and drawing.”
Without having received a single formal art lesson in his life, Frise was hired on the spot. Although Frise’s father continued to farm until his death in 1922—at which point his mother moved into town until her own death in 1933—Frise never had to return home to work on the family farm.
In the art department of the Daily Star, Frise’s artistic output was limited to creating photo collages, hand-lettering titles, and touching up or adding diagrammatic details to photos. But he filled every spare moment drawing humorous characters and situations. Cranston, the Star Weekly editor, noticed, and soon borrowed the artist to supply illustrations to the fledgling Saturday supplement that had been struggling to find its audience since its founding in April 1910.
Frise’s work soon appeared in the daily paper as well. He supplied “everything from political cartoons, to spot illustrations of news events, and even nature drawings for the children’s feature The Old Mother Nature Club,” as radio raconteur Stuart McLean put it in a speech to mark Frise’s induction into the Canadian Cartoonist’s Hall of Fame. At this early stage, McLean adds, Frise’s artistic ability “was certainly competent, but uninspired,” and featured “rather bland” characters.
Frise enlisted on May 17, 1916, at the age of 26, joining the 69th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. According to the Star, he transferred and went overseas in September. By November, he was at the front, serving, later sources specify, with the 12th Battery. The field artillery at the time was still predominantly horse-drawn, and Frise’s experience growing up on a farm made him invaluable, using horse teams first to move artillery guns to their emplacements, and then as pack animals carrying ammunition. Wartime experience would provide the keen observer of small details with ample fodder for later lampooning.
On May 7, 1917, the Star carried a notice that its former employee had been wounded in the hand. One night at Vimy Ridge, after delivering a load of shells to the front, Frise was setting off on the return trip to the ammunition dump when an enemy shell exploded nearby. With few scant details available, the newspaper expressed anxiety over whether the injury would cut short the career of “one of Canada’s most promising cartoonists,” as the Star had dubbed him in another article.
Later that month, the paper was relieved to report that while the injury severely damaged his left hand, his drawing hand—the right—remained unscathed. After recuperating in hospital in Chelmsford, England, Frise was invalided back to Canada, among 160 veterans who arrived at North Toronto Station on the morning of December 1, 1917.
Returning to work at the Star, Frise produced stock art for the newspaper and supplement, including portraits of the city’s returning soldiers and sketches of other wartime topics. Within a few months of his return, Greg Clark observed, Frise was moved to the Star Weekly, cartooning and illustrating full-time.
He soon settled back into civilian life, courting an advertising agency employee, Ruth Elizabeth Gate. American-born but Toronto raised, Gate and her father published a monthly magazine in braille as well as one of the first braille bibles. She and Frise married on February 21, 1918, and soon produced four daughters—Jean, Ruth, Edythe, and Betty—as well as a son, John.
In 1919, the Star offices were visited by a veteran with a hazy recollection that during the war the paper had published sketches and cartoons on military themes. He wanted to meet the artist, and was sent to Frise’s desk. Always unhurriedly genial and willing to put aside his pen to chat even with strangers, Frise listened to the visitor, who explained that a committee of former members of the Canadian Field Artillery’s 43rd Battery was publishing a history of the unit. The committee wanted Frise—still a relatively unknown artist—to illustrate their volume, and he happily accepted the commission for a mere pittance in compensation.
“He proved to be a most likeable and unassuming chap and uncomplainingly acquiesced with all our suggestions and requests,” one member of the 43rd later put it. And the artist’s own experience in the artillery was an invaluable asset, allowing him to “see humor in situations which, with others, caused nothing but grousing and vexation of spirit.”
Frise’s work in Hugh R. Kay, George Magee, and F.A. MacLennan’s Battery Action! (Toronto, 1919) reflected his versatility as an artist. There are more serious artistic renderings, like the silhouette of a bombed-out tower in Mont-Saint-Éloi, or painstakingly detailed illustrations of emotionally wrought topics like the arrival of Christmas mail. And there are more sparsely-drawn cartoons of soldiers gambling away their earnings on payday, along with other slices of military life. His expert use of light and shadow recreated a pockmarked battlefield where an artillery driver struggles with stubborn horses. Frequently, Frise mixed art and low comedy, with realistic backgrounds—faithful depictions of artillery pieces, for example—providing the venue for his humorous vignettes.
A handful of the images were reprinted in another history book—F.W. Noyes’ Stretcher Bearers at the Double (Hunter Rose Co., 1936). Nearly fifty years later, when some of the original artwork was discovered buried in an old trunk, all of the Battery Action! sketches were reprinted in The First Great War As Seen By Jimmy Frise (Think Ink, 1972).
Members of the 43rd thought highly of the illustrations, and commented upon their historical accuracy in depicting the realities of the last war to feature the quirks of horse-drawn artillery. Clark agreed: “No photograph, no painting of the history of that old war can equal the truth of the way things were, as seen through the eyes of a humorous man.”
Frise’s wartime cartoon work was essential to his evolution as an artist. Battery Action! was an immediate precursor—chronologically and artistically—to the works for which would gain his nation-wide fame. McLean rightly attests: “Instead of faithfully trying to replicate reality, [after the war, Frise’s drawings] suddenly started bubbling over with personality as he began giving a comic spin on events. The war made Frise much more confident, so he could now use cartooning to openly express his worldview.”
In around 1920, Frise began sharing a cramped, ramshackle office with Greg Clark, a former cub reporter who’d enlisted in the war as an infantry grunt, distinguished himself at Vimy to earn the Military Cross, and returned to Toronto as a Major. By this time, Clark’s mischievous tales of the city and its characters became regular features of the Star Weekly, often accompanied by small Frise illustrations. It was the beginning of a partnership that would see the pair established as Canadian celebrities and household names.
Around the same time, Frise’s idle drawing evolved into a regular weekly comic strip, Birdseye Center, inspired by his rural roots. In 1921, the Star heralded Frise’s evolution and arrival as a cartoonist. “You can see him growing handier and handier with the pencil,” it wrote on May 6, “and cutting deeper and deeper into life with every cartoon.”
Additional sources consulted: Jock Carroll, The Life and Times of Greg Clark (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1981); and articles from the Toronto Star (May 7, 12, & 25, and December 1, 1917; December 16 & 18, 1935; June 14, 1948; and January 16, 1982) and Globe and Mail (June 12, 1975; and October 28, 1978).