As an artist the shortcomings of Bernhard Gillam were many, but he was a brilliant cartoonist nevertheless, and, despite his artistic failings, he hit the nail on the head, when driving home a cartoon idea, more often than many of his technically clever brothers in the work.
Gillam knew of his failings and he was extremely sensitive to criticism. He resented being told that any of his work was out of drawing. He was once mortally offended by one of his fellow artists on the staff of Puck, who, being a new arrival and unaware of Gillam’s feeling on the subject, remarked to the cartoonist, “Gillam, if your salary ever gets as much out of drawing as some of your pictures do, even with the assistance of the cashier, you will never be able to gain anything like a fair idea of how your account stands with Puck.”
No hatter in the world would ever be able to secure designs for new models from the hats that Gillam drew, for the pictured hats were impossible, and never appeared to fit the wearer, and very often conveyed the idea that the owner had made the purchase of his headpiece in a place where they sold liquid refreshment and as much as one cared to carry away.
But with Gillam it was not so much the perfect drawing as it was the idea, and he was gifted when it came to selecting the telling picture that would convey a lesson on the subject to be exploited in a cartoon. His pictures were always the drawings of original ideas and his admirers always waited to see how Gillam would handle the next big question.
His “Puck’s Dime Museum” might be cited as an instance. In the boom days of the dime museum period one of the greatest of the freak attractions was the “Tattooed Greek.” In the tattooed man Gillam found the inspiration for one of his best ideas.
President Arthur’s term was drawing to an end and the Republican party was discussing its presidential possibilities. There were many statesmen in the party ready to step forward and accept the nomination. Lightning rods designed to attract the convention’s bolt were being insulated in all political camps and the presidential bee buzzed merrily.
John A. Logan, Roscoe Conklin, and James G. Blaine were the leading candidates for the nomination, and, turning the entire collection into a dime museum list of attractions, Gillam turned them into bearded ladies, ossified men, jugglers, and other freaks. He scored his triumph when he hit upon Blaine as the tattooed man.
The “Tattooed Man” cartoon scored with its first appearance and became one of the features of the campaign.
Gillam was born in England in 1858. His parents brought him to New York ten years later. He studied for three years in the schools of New York and Brooklyn, and then, though still a child, he decided that he would become a lawyer, and took up the study of Blackstone.
He became interested in drawing about this time and found that art work appealed to him far more than did the study of law, and, as he improved in his art work, he finally decided to abandon the law books and turn to an illustrator’s work.
He began by taking up the study of wood engraving, and in a short time was able to secure employment as an illustrator of some of the serial stories being printed in many of the weekly story papers. This work alone did not bring him enough for his support, so he filled in the spare time by making crayon and oil portraits, designing show cards, and doing whatever wood engraving jobs that he was able to pick up.
He found that he was meeting with remarkable success in his portrait work, although his pictures were bringing him but little, and he decided to make the work worth while by devoting his entire attention to it. He sought out an instructor and his improvement soon became marked. A painting of the Rev. Dr. Ward Beecher, the famous Brooklyn minister, brought him local fame as a painter and orders for pictures poured in.
Gillam, however, soon tired of the color tubes and brushes and again turned his attention to newspaper illustrating. He secured a position on the art staff of Leslie’s Pictorial, a paper owned by one of Frank Leslie’s sons, and here he did general illustrating work. Later he was put to doing caricature and comic work.
His caricatures and his apt illustrations of the humorous stories attracted the attention of other editors and he was offered a position on the Graphic. The inducement was enough to win him from Leslie’s Pictorial and he made the change, but he had not been on the Graphic long before Frank Leslie saw a promising cartoonist in young Gillam and secured him for Leslie’s Weekly.
On Leslie’s Weekly his work steadily improved and his cartoons compelled attention. Nast was the cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly at this time, and there was considerable rivalry between the followers of the two men. Gillam’s friends always insisted that he was doing work as attractive and effective as that of Nast.
Gillam’s work on Leslie’s Weekly did not escape the attention of Joseph Keppler, the editor of Puck, who was constantly reaching out and securing new talent for his comic weekly, and overtures were made to Gillam by the publisher of Puck. Gillam finally accepted a flattering offer and in 1881 went from Leslie’s to Puck.
On Puck Gillam worked but a few months before he had made a national reputation. He became known as one of the most forcible and, at the same time, mirthful political cartoonists of the country, but at the crest of his success Joseph Keppler died and Gillam’s work fell off. Keppler had been his good friend and confidant, and the cartoonist was deeply affected by his death.
About this time James A. Wales and several others organized a company for the purpose of beginning the publication of another comic weekly—Judge—and Gillam was asked to become a member of the company. With Keppler dead, he found nothing to bind him to Puck, so he accepted the invitation and cast his lot with the new publication.
Bernhard Gillam was a gifted man in many ways. He was a great student of Shakespeare and, blessed with a remarkable memory, he was able to read whole plays of the immortal bard.
Gillam died in 1896.