Douglas Lionel Mays by Alison Bailey
These vintage travel posters, Dawlish and Teignmouth from the 1950s were commissioned by British Railways and painted by artist Douglas Lionel Mays who lived at High & Over from 1953 until 1962.
D L Mays (as he was usually known) was a Punch cartoonist and an illustrator of children’s books, particularly Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series and Noel Streatfield’s Tennis Shoes. However, his successful career included illustrations for a wide range of magazine, posters, and advertising designs.
He was born in 1900 in Kingston-upon-Thames and was educated there at Tiffin School before serving as a rifleman in the Army of Occupation of the Rhineland. He was discharged in 1920 but his experience led to him being a pacifist in WWII. After his return to London, he studied illustration at Goldsmiths College. He then initially found work for comics such as The Dandy and The Beano before achieving a long-held ambition of having a cartoon accepted by Punch in 1933. He worked for the magazine for over 20 years, initially specialising in jokes about children or fashionable women, following in the tradition of George du Maurier. Later he illustrated the weekly feature articles and continued to work as a book illustrator. This in turn led to regular advertising commissions, lucrative work which was extremely important as he now had a growing family to support.
In 1928 he had married Janet Walker Duff from Birkenhead. The daughter of a Scottish Engineer, she was a graduate in French from Liverpool University. After studying in Strasburg, she became the Superintendent of the Birkenhead Unemployment Centre. For the first years of their marriage, they worked in Canada where Mays was chief artist for an engraving firm and Janet, the assistant editor of a technical trade journal. Their first daughter, Madeline, was born in Canada, followed by a second, Janet, upon their return to London.
By 1938 the family had settled in Stannings in Cokes Lane, Chalfont St Giles and two more daughters, Anna and Elizabeth (known as Ziba) followed. The four girls were all musical and theatrical, regularly appearing in the local press giving singing recitals or playing the pianoforte.
At Stannings Mays established a small herd of cows during the war and created the first of his country house studios. He also continued to maintain a London studio in Holborn. According to his obituary, published in The Times in May 1991, “He was an immensely hard worker, preferring his house and garden to all distractions, and firmly turning his back on every kind of social ritual.” Luckily for the neighbourhood “his wife, Janet, was as sociable as he was taciturn.”
In the late 1940s the family moved to the Manor House at Buckingham, where their garden was used for village fetes and church fundraisers. Janet served as a Labour councillor on Bucks County Council for three years. She was also a Justice of the Peace and it was perhaps this commitment, when she became Chairman of the Bench at Amersham Court, that prompted the move to High & Over in 1953. The house could not have been more different from their timber framed, steeply gabled, Tudor house in Buckingham. In Amersham Janet established a branch of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and continued with her work as a magistrate.
Mays caused some consternation in the local press in 1957 when he wrote in to complain;
“Dear Sir, I am indeed distressed to hear bell ringing in Old Amersham. Were I to broadcast Beethoven from a tower I should be brought before the Bench as a public nuisance; but the fact that this miserable and monotonous noise comes from a church tower evidently excuses it.”
The following week the paper published this reply from Gilbert Benthall, Vice Chairman of the Amersham Society:
“In these summer days, when hundreds of radio and television sets are wont to make the air hideous with a discordant medley, Mr D L Mays, from his own particular tower, need have little fear of the legal consequences of adding Beethoven to the general cacophony.
The ringing of church bells has been heard in Amersham for many centuries, with some regrettable intervals, and it is to be hoped that their melodious notes will long continue to be wafted over our hills and valleys. It is indeed a small price, which lovers of the beautiful are well content to pay, for the delight of living in surroundings of great historic charm, even though it is marred by some modern monstrosities.”
Mr Benthall was clearly no fan of High & Over!
The marriage between Douglas and Janet, which lasted for more than 50 years, was evidently a happy one, “based on the reconciliation of complete opposites”. One common interest, however, was the theatre and the family rarely missed an Amersham Rep production becoming good friends with Jenny and Barrie Gosney when Barrie was the theatre director there in the 1950s.
Mays found inspiration in family life and often used his wife and daughter as models, turning the girls “into schoolboys with deft strokes of the pen when the situation required it.” These humorous drawings of family life were used on many book covers and appeared in popular magazines like John Bull, The Girl’s Own Paper and The Bystander. The witty Christmas cards he designed for Royles are particularly charming and collectable as evidenced by The Temptress currently (January 2021) for sale at the Chris Beetles Gallery
However, Mays’ last years where devoted to oil painting and he was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. After leaving High & Over, the family moved to Epsom before returning to Kingston-upon-Thames, close to Mays’ childhood home. Douglas died in May 1991, six years after his beloved Janet.
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The Times May 27, 1991, obituary D L Mays
The British Newspaper Archive