24th Jan, 2018

Rugby cartoonist's Playboy art raises eyebrows at auction

PLAYBOY art inked by a late Rugby cartoonist raised eyebrows after the images fetched thousands at an auction.

Francis Wilford-Smith was born on Church Street in Rugby in 1927, the son of pharmacist and businessman Wilford Smith and Frances Hunt.

He attended Warwick School and became fascinated with the school library’s collection of Punch magazines, whose cartoons he copied avidly.

And following his graduation from a London art school, he began a scholarship at the British satire magazine.

His work soon sparked interest among other titles including Men Only – a soft pornographic magazine – and brand names including Boots and Guinness.

And in 1960, Francis partnered with Playboy magazine to create over 350 full page images for the publication.

Following his success, Francis – who went under the pseudonym ‘Smilby’ – was published by a number of international titles including the New York Times, the New Yorker and Esquire.

His popular postcard-style cartoons were exhibited at the Cartoon Gallery in London and at venues in New York and Los Angeles.

The artist – who was also an avid collector of blues and gospel music – died in 2009 in Hertfordshire after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

And each of his images – sold by Catherine Southon Auctioneers and Valuers in Bromely on behalf of a descendant – carried estimates of between £100 and £200.

Expert valuer and television presenter Catherine said, while most cartoons sold within estimate, some were particularly popular and saw bidding wars erupt between the internet, in the room and on the phones with interest from France and Denmark.

And auctioneers were taken by surprise when the top lot – an illustration of an equal rights rally entitled Women’s Lib, Women’s Unite – went for £320.

Catherine said: “I think what draws people are the colours. The paintings are very Art Deco and stylised with nudges to different eras.

“I find them a bit ‘Carry on Camping’ – some of them are quite racy but very well humoured.”

A collection of 60 Playboy images fetched over £8,000 and an Alberto Vargas pin-up girl watercolour dedicated to Francis – who was close friends with the Peruvian painter – went for £2,200.

Catherine added: “It was such a success and went way over our expectations.

“It was a great privilege to be able to include this collection in the auction. It has been one of the most exciting projects I have come across in recent years – the quality of the drawings are simply stunning. I am pleased that the bidders recognised that and it’s reflected in the prices achieved.”

The auction was also part of Bargain Hunt’s celebrity special for Children in Need and raised a record sum of over £4,000 for the charity.

Part two of the collection will be sold on December 6.

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