Anson Dyer


Ernest John Anson Dyer was born in Brighton on 18 July 1876, fifth of ten children. They were not a wealthy family: his father, James Dyer pulled a Bath chair (a Victorian invalid carriage available for hire at seaside resorts) and his mother, Elizabeth, supplemented the family income as a charlady.

James died in 1890 at the age of 56. His wife turned to taking in washing (her first job as a girl had been assisting her aunt as a laundress) and Ernest left school at fourteen to work as an errand boy. He had a talent for art, and attended Brighton School of Art, probably in the evenings. He was subsequently hired by C E Kempe, an artist who lived just outside Brighton and ran a studio in Marylebone, London, designing and manufacturing stained-glass windows for churches.

Charles Eamer Kempe had been inspired by the Oxford Movement while at university and considered becoming a clergyman. Hampered by a stammer he turned instead to ecclesiastical architecture, training under George Bodley and learning from William Morris.

Kempe had added the e to his family name Kemp to make it more distinctive. It may have been this that inspired Ernest Dyer to hyphenate his surname as Anson-Dyer. He used this as his signature, but his surname remained Dyer on all official documents. The only exception I am aware of is in the entries on Electoral Rolls in the 1950s, which would have been submitted by Dyer's son-in-law.

In 1898 Dyer married Ethel Cook, the daughter of a Brighton builder, and they settled in Chelsea. A daughter, Audrey, was born in 1900. They bought a house in West Ealing in 1907 and a second daughter, Ethel, was born in 1909.

When war broke out in 1914 Dyer was 38, a married man with two children, and not particularly fit. The call to arms was on a voluntary basis only, and Dyer was not an obvious candidate for the forces. He did, however, feel that the time had come for a change of career.

Dicky Dee's Cartoons

Stained glass design had been a steady job but it had not satisfied his aspirations. It would seem from his later work that he was a frustrated performer and lover of the music hall. His aptitude for humerous drawing suggests it was already an accomplishment — perhaps just for his own amusement but it is possible he had submitted cartoon work for publication. If he had done so it would presumably have been under another name — it is tempting to think this could have been "Dicky Dyer" or "Dicky Dee" but there is no evidence to support such speculation.

It appears that Dyer approached film companies in the hope of becoming a screen actor. He was, it seems, turned down on the grounds he was too tall, but producer J B McDowell of the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company was interested in his drawing ability. Several production companies were making 'lightning artist' films as a format to present propganda cartoons. These were proving very popular and may have had government sponsorship. McDowell was keen to produce such a series and hired Dyer to create the films, to be titled Dicky Dee's Cartoons.

Many 'lightning artist' propaganda films were just static cartoons being created onscreen by the artist, but for Neptune Films Lancelot Speed pioneered cut-out animation in his Bully Boy series, which started in October 1914. This was the technique that Anson Dyer would adopt. In an article published in World Film News magazine, 1937, He gave a brief history of animation technique that began as follows:

In 1915 the hand of the cartoonist always appeared on the screen. It merely drew lightning caricatures of politicians and well-known people or comic animals.

Most of these drawings were outlined first of all in a faint blue, which did not register on the film. This gave accuracy and speed to the cartoonist during the actual shooting. The speed worked out at about ⅛ inch per frame.

From this method a new technique evolved, called "ghost drawing." The cartoonist's hand disappeared, and the pictures evolved on their own. This was the simple technique of one-turn one picture, ⅛ inch being added to the drawing between shots.

This effect was improved by showing a hand drawing on one side of the screen, while another figure evolved all by itself on the other side. Meanwhile, exact replicas of the characters had been made, so that when the cartoonist's hand passed across the screen, his original drawing was removed, and the replica was placed there instead. The replica figures could now be animated and carry on the plot.

In this way the public was nursed into accepting an animated cartoon without seeing the artist's hand at work.

The animated figures just mentioned were "cut-outs" — that is, they were flat profiles cut out and elaborately jointed. It took about eight hours to walk a figure across the screen, and one slip would ruin an entire shot.

The extreme sensitivity of photography to blue light (and relative insensitivity to red light) was well-known and the blue pencil had been in use for writing instructions and drawing guidelines on artwork for reproduction in print for over sixty years.

An eighth of an inch per frame equals two inches a second, a realistic (almost leisurely) speed more often used when several lines were drawing on at one time. Single lines were usually drawn on faster at a quarter of an inch or even half an inch a frame, depending on the size of the drawing, which could be between two to three feet wide.

The jointing of cut-outs, often with cotton thread, was widely adopted — it made repositioning a figure quicker and simpler, without loose pieces sliding about. But Lancelot Speed seems to have prefered keeping the pieces loose, as it allowed for greater flexibility in action — the apparent rotation of shoulder and hip joints, for example, and in general a greater degree of elasticity.

Besides Speed's Bully Boy films Anson Dyer would also have seen the first handful of films in the John Bull's Animated Sketch Book series that debuted in April 1915. Made by Dudley Buxton for the Cartoon Film Company, they played more to low comedy than Speed's work and it was probably these that influenced Dyer's approach.

There is some controversy as to whether the correct title is Dicky Dee's Cartoons or just Dicky Dee Cartoons, but the press advertisement promoting the first film, besides being headed DICKY DEE'S CARTOONS, has an illustration based on the films' title card where a rather distorted apostrophy-S can be seen following the name Dicky Dee on the bird's beak.

In his book The B&C Kinematograph Company and British Cinema Gerry Turvey Describes Dicky Dee's Cartoons as follows:

The suject matter was patriotic and hostile to Germany, and had its parallels in the ridicule offered in the wartime comic papers. In the first release, a bather whose clothes are stolen is given a uniform as replacement by a recruiting sergeant, whilst in the second, a Zeppelin raid is dramatised and the Kaiser satirized.

The first film was released on 18 October 1915. The Kinematograph Weekly's preview (21 October) of the second film gives more details:

No. 2 of the series includes:— (a) the peace monger, (b) the Zeppelin raid, (c) a puzzle portrait. The Zeppelin raid is a little drama in itself enacted on the tiles at midnight, while the puzzle portrait is a very cleverly executed sketch of Charles Chaplin, which after a few deft strokes of the pen resolves itself into a speaking likeness of Mr Lloyd George. Released Nov. 25th, length 578 ft.

There do not appear to be any surviving prints of the first two films, but the BFI holds a copy of Dicky Dee's Cartoons No. 3 [click to watch]. Released on 6 January 1916, it consists of only two elements: the animated nightmare of a boy who dreams a huge German chef forces him to eat an entire Christmas pudding, then tells him it was really a bomb that is due to explode; and a straight forward patriotic 'lightning artist' item in which a drawing of the sphinx is transformed into portraits of Lord Kitchener and Admiral Jellicoe.

John Bull's Animated Sketch Book

The compatibility of Dyer's work with John Bull's Animated Sketch Book was not missed by Dudley Buxton and his producer J A Clozenberg. Buxton was turning out footage at a rate that enabled the company to release a film a month. With a second animator working on the series they might be able to reach the distributors' preference of a new release every two weeks. They approached Dyer who gladly signed up with the Cartoon Film Company.

Dyer's first entry, John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No. 8, was released on 27 December 1915. The Dundee Courier (28 December 1915) wrote:

No. 8 of John Bull's Animated Sketch Book is a series of lightning cartoons from the pen of Anson Dyer, and contain[sic] a host of good things. "Bill and His All-lies" is well thought out, while "Relations" makes a fine picture. The animated cartoons are always popular.

Anson Dyer continued to alternate episodes with Dudley Buxton, providing the even numbers to Buxton's odd. He was not as sophisticated a draughtsman or animator as Buxton (during pauses Dyer tends to just waggle things for the sake of motion whereas Buxton's minor actions are deliberate and observational), but these are distinctions that would not have been apparent to cinema audiences: both artists were providing skillful and entertaining films. Clozenberg started to promote the series with full-column advertisements in the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly a month ahead of each release, featuring the name of the animator and an illustration from the film, and stressing the popularity of the series.

The Kinematograph Weekly (24 August 1916) said of John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No. 18:

It is even better than its predecessors, more amusing, and certainly more clever. The disgusted German and his dog, Fritz (over the battle of Jutland), the dog eating the the bread ticket, leads up naturally to the "eight shies a penny" pitch, with the crowned heads of the Central Powers instead of cocoa-nuts. They are, of course, soon bowled over by the sailor boys, who spend their pennies freely. One clever sketch depicts the adventures of "The box that took the wrong turning," a clever parody of the Melville play. The matches all fall out of the box, wander about as if hoping to get back home, and then form up into a portrait of "Bill," followed by one of "his only rival," Mephistopheles. A really attractive Anson Dyer cartoon, its length is 600 ft., and it will be released on October 2nd.

Click this link to watch John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.18 on BFI Player. The "crowned heads of the Central Powers" are, from left to right, Sultan Mehmed of the Ottoman Empire, Prince "Little Willie" Wilhelm of Germany, Kaiser "Bill" Wilhelm of Grmany, Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austro-Hungary and Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria. The matchbox skit is actually titled "Why Matched were Taxed" or the Box that took the "Wrong Turning". In 1871 Robert Lowe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Gladstone's Liberal Government, proposed a tax on matches, an idea he got from America, and being fond of Latin tags and rather poor jokes he had ex luce lucellum (out of light, a little profit) printed on the stamps prepared in readiness for attaching to matchboxes on the passing of the Bill. The East End match manufacturers Bryant & Mays organised a march of protest by its workers, many of whom were women, and argued that the tax would be an unfair burden on the poor. The police clashed with the marchers in a heavy-handed manner that provided satirical opportunities for the cartoonists of the day. Queen Victoria wrote to Gladstone condemning the proposal and the Tax Bill was withdrawn. Lowe's match tax remained a subject for humorous mockery for many years. Matches were, of course, known as "lucifers" and that is Dyer's idea in using them for the porttaits. As the reviewer notes, the subtitle references The Girl who took the Wrong Turning, a 1906 play by Walter Melville, one of a series of melodramas written and staged by the Melville brothers featuring strong, emancipated female characters. They reflected the rise of feminism, but were more about popular exploitation than social issues.

Of John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No. 20 the Kinematograph Weekly (19 October 1916) wrote:

The cartoon by Anson Dyer is very cleverly done, and depicts among other scenes at the Front an impression of what the "Tanks" are like. What the artist has conceived about these indomitable ironsides is very laughable, especially his idea of their steam-navvy jaws eating up the sides of the trenches, and the gun nozzles out of the eye sockets. There is also a skit on a Boche who goes mushrooming, only to find that the coveted vegetables are the heads of entrenched "tommies" wearing their new helmets. The cartoon, which is 600 feet in length will be released on November 6th. It had a fine reception at the trade show.

The first "landship" was tested in September 1915. It was not a great success. Improvements had already been planned and a new version was ready by December. This had the big "boxy" shape that inspired those who worked on it to refer to it as a tank. The project was shrouded in secrecy and "water tank" was used as the codename. Tanks were first put to use nine months later, during the Battle of the Somme, on the 15th of September 1916. Photographs were not permitted, so newspapers had to make up their own artist's impressions. Cartoonists had fun speculating on the appearance of these new monsters. The "new helmets" were the Brodie steel helmets, designed in response to the danger from shrapnel and distributed to all troops from the summer of 1916. Previously the rank and file had worn cloth caps.

The trade showing of Dyer's final entry in the series, John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No. 20, was described by the Kinematograph Weekly (14 December 1916) as:

being greeted with much applause. It deals with the recent Zeppelin raids, which are depicted in a manner that caused hearty applause. We were shown the Zeppelins in full flight, their overhauling by our airmen, and total wreckage, and several really amusing situations, including the trial and condemnation of Kaiser Bill. The clever subject concludes with animated pictures of Lieutenants Sowrey and Brandon encircled with the D.S.O.

2nd Lieutenants Frederick Sowrey and Alfred de Bath Brandon were both pilots who had fought and shot down Zeppelins. They were awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 4 October 1916.

Kine Komedy Kartoons

In the summer of 1916 Anson Dyer and Dudley Buxton were approached by Frank Zeitlin to join his proposed animation studio Kine Komedy Kartoons. It would seem that Zeitlin's aim was to build a studio not just to produce wartime propaganda but to compete with the US imported cartoons after the war was over. Apparently Clozenberg was unable or unwilling to match Zeitlin's offer, and Dyer and Buxton agreed to join Zeitlin when their contract with Clozenberg expired at the end of the year. In the mean time Zeitlin hired artist-entertainer Ernest H Mills to make dramatic propaganda 'lightning artist' films.



Dicky Dee's Cartoons No.1(British & Colonial 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Dicky Dee's Cartoons No.2(British & Colonial 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
Dicky Dee's Cartoons No.3(British & Colonial 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.8(Cartoon Film Co 1915) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.10(Cartoon Film Co 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.12(Cartoon Film Co 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.14(Cartoon Film Co 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.16(Cartoon Film Co 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.18(Cartoon Film Co 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.20(Cartoon Film Co 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.22(Cartoon Film Co 1916) Director, Designer, Animator
Peter's Picture Poems (titled segment)(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1917, not released?) Director, Designer Animator
The Kaiser's Record(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1917) Director, Designer, Animator
Food for Reflection(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1917) Director, Designer, Animator
Old King Coal(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1918) Director, Designer, Animator
Agitated Adverts(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1918) Director, Designer, Animator
The British Through German Eyes(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1918) Director, Designer, Animator
More Agitated Adverts(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1918) Director, Designer, Animator
Foch the Man(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1918) Director, Designer, Animator
A Child's Dream of Peace(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1918) Director, Designer, Animator
Uncle Remus No.1(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1919) Director, Designer, Animator
Uncle Remus No.2(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1919) Director, Designer, Animator
Uncle Remus No.3(Kine Komedy Kartoons 1919) Director, Designer, Animator

Links to Other Sites

BFI Player - Dicky Dee's Cartoons No. 3: video of the last of Dicky Dee's Cartoons, released 13 December 1915.

BFI Player - "BILL" and his All-lies: extract from John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No. 8, released 28 December 1915, Anson Dyer's first film in the series. Near the end of the clip the image of the Kaiser is replaced by an articulated cut-out in preparation for future animation, but the clip ends before the animation takes place. The image of "Sister" and "Brothers" that opens the clip is presumably the end of the 'lightning artist' sketch entitled "Relations".

BFI Player - John Bull's Animated Sketch Book No.18: video of Anson Dyer's sixth film in the series, released 2 October 1916.

BFI Player - Peter's Picture Poems: video of a segment from an Anson Dyer film for Kine Komedy Kartoons, c. 1917, possibly not released.

BFI Player - Agitated Adverts: video of Anson Dyer's film for Kine Komedy Kartoons, released (perhaps late February) 1918.

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Peter Hale
Last updated 2015