BENGOUGH John Wilson


BENGOUGH J                                The Hecklers: 40

Considered by Peter Desbarats to be Canada’s first great political cartoonist, Bengough was also an author, journalist, editor, publisher, entertainer and politician. His career paralleled that of John A Macdonald, and as Diefenbaker was the necessary catalyst for Duncan Macpherson so Macdonald was the inspiration for Bengough’s greatest work. “The cartoons that Bengough produced on the subject of Macdonald and his political activities are regarded today as a document of that turbulent era. What he lacked in technical skill he made up for with clout.” [228-229]

He was born in Toronto April 7 1851 but grew up in Whitby. He began as a compositor at the Whitby Gazette but was soon writing articles for the paper. One effort was a serial called “The Murder’s Scalp, or the Shrieking Ghost of the Bloody Den”. Even at this time he was practicing his skills as a caricaturist. Regularly he purchased Harper’s Weekly to study the cartoons of the great American cartoonist Thomas Nast. Bengough later remarked “Nast had the field of political cartooning to himself for years and must have inspired thousands of boys as he did me.”

Bengough moved to Toronto where he became a junior reporter at George Brown’s Globe in 1871 or 1872. He took evening classes organized by the Ontario Society of Artists but he left before the end of the first term, “the copying of placid countenances of Greek Deities in plaster casts proved too much for me.”

Bengough found the countenance of Senator James Beattie proprietor of the conservative The Leader “an irresistible subject … and on a memorable day, I produced a pencilled portrait.” The day was memorable for Bengough because it introduced him to lithography. Sam Beattie the Senator’s nephew and business manager for The Leader took the drawing to a lithographer who had it reproduced. “The ease and accuracy with which the reproduction was done struck me with amazement but further it gave me an idea.” The idea was Grip.

At age 22, Bengough published the first issue of the satirical weekly Grip on May 24, 1873. Fortunately the Pacific Scandal involving John A. Macdonald erupted at the same time and the magazine’s future was secured. The name Grip was borrowed from the raven who regularly accompanied the central feeble-minded character of Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge. The bird itself often appeared in Bengough’s cartoons. The magazine was probably modelled on Punch Magazine in Britain. Bengough greatly admired its cartoonist John Tenniel.

During Grip’s 21 year existence (it ceased publication in 1894) Bengough was its editor and virtually its only illustrator. To create the illusion there was more than one cartoonist he sometimes altered his style and used the name L. Côté. Was he attempting to make his readers think these were done by the notorious cartoonist Jean-Baptiste Côté ? This deception was so successful that a visitor once commented “L. Côté, that fellow can draw; no offence, you know but you really ought to model yourself on his style.”

About a year after Grip appeared Bengough made his debut as a public speaker in Toronto’s Music Hall at the corner of Church and Adelaide Streets. His main purpose was cartooning for the audience. The speech provided a framework for his drawings. He produced 15 to 20 sketches on the easel on stage, using black crayons on white newsprint, the caricatures were auctioned off at the end of the speech. Leo Bachle of “Johnny Canuck” fame would adapt this process into a successful performance of his own on cruise ships in the Caribbean. With the success of the first Chalk Talk Bengough embarked on a nine week tour of Canada from Rat Portage Ontario to Victoria B.C. with 34 stops in between. He continued his public speaking for more than thirty years in all parts of Canada as well as Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand and the United States.

As time progressed he often used the sketches as a vehicle to help express political or moral values. His values were those absorbed from contemporary moral reformers. [DB] He was a proponent of women’s suffrage, prohibition, tax reform, proportional representation and free trade.

He also held opinions that reflected the views dominant in the English Canada of the time. He supported Anglo-Saxon nationalism, English as the only official language of Canada. Although he deplored the social and economic conditions of the aboriginals he had only scorn for Louis Riel and strongly supported the death penalty for him.

He was active in politics. He was a prominent member of the Public Ownership League and the Canadian Peace and Arbitration Society. He was President of the Single Tax Society and served as a Toronto alderman. Peter Desbarats has commented, “In some respects, he was the Victoria predecessor of the politically aware journalists and cartoonists who appeared in Canada in the 1960’s.” [47]

Like Macpherson with Diefenbaker, Bengough found in Macdonald a subject that inspired his greatest cartoons. “Bengough … developed Macdonald’s frizzy hair, long nose and large mouth into national symbols. No other political figure came to life so vividly beneath Bengough’s pen; … . The Prime Minister still seems to live, breathe and hiccough in Bengough’s cartoons.” [49] “Bengough’s cartoons of Macdonald contain not only an element of good humour but something approaching grudging admiration, despite the overt political intent.” [50] “Other politicians in Bengough’s drawings usually play stock characters and assume symbolic postures. He was never able to breathe life into Alexander Mackenzie … who succeeded Macdonald …. Bengough supported Mackenzie politically but it was Macdonald who supported Bengough as a cartoonist.”

In 1892, Bengough gave up the editorship of Grip when new management appointed T. Phillips Thompson to the post. A year later Bengough returned to the post to try to save the magazine but it ceased publication in 1894.

Following the demise of Grip Bengough’s cartoons were published in the Toronto Globe, the Toronto Daily Star, The Montreal Star and Saturday Night Magazine. His work appeared in specialty publications like the Public in Chicago and the Square Deal in Toronto. He continued with his chalk talks but his most productive years were behind him.

He died in Toronto 2 October 2 1923.




Content editorial cartoon

A Caricature history of Canadian politics. Ed., Douglas Featherington. Peter Martin Assoc. Ltd. 1974. Reprinted in an abridged version from A Caricature history of Canadian politics. 2 volumes, Toronto: 1886.

A Caricature history of Canadian politics, v. 1. The Grip Printing & Publishing Co. 1886.

A Caricature history of Canadian politics, v. 2. The Grip Printing & Publishing Co. 1886.

Cartoons Of The Campaign 1900, Contributed To The Daily Globe By J.W. Bengough. Poole Publishing Co., 1900.

The Grip Cartoons vols. I & II, May 1873 to May 1874, Rogers & Larminie, 1875.

Grip, v. 29: Magazines July 2, 1887 to December 17, 1887 bound together. The Grip Printing & Publishing Co.



Content humour:

The decline and fall of Keewatin: or, the free-trade redskins; a satire,1876.

Flapdoodle: A Political Encyclopaedia and Manuel for Public Men. Ed., “An Ex-Minister”. Publisher unidentified. 1881.

Bengough’s popular readings: original and select, Toronto: 1882.

The prohibition Aesop: a book of fables, Royal Templar Book & Publishing Co. No date. (sometime between 1889 and 1897).

Motley: verses grave and gay, 1895.

The Up-to-date primer,1896. Reprinted with introduction by Douglas Feathering. 1975.

The gin mill primer, 1898.

A book of verse, 1902. The whole hog book: being George’s thoro’ going work “Protection or free-trade?” rendered into words of one syllable and illustrated with pictures; or, a dry subject made juicy, 1908.

Chalk talks, Toronto: 1922.

Content portrait:

Grip’s Almanac For 1891: “1890, or John A. Napoleon in the Zenith of His Glory.”.



Content poem & sketch:

The Sunset of Bon Echo, 1-6, April/May 1920: “A Welcome to Horace Traubel”: 2-3.



*Grip’s Comic Almanac For 1891.



All-Spice: Crayon and Comedy. Sketching and Entertainments at Chautauqua, July 17 and 19, 1888.


Article book:

The Canadian Encyclopedia v. 1, Hurtig Publishers, 1985: “Bengough John Wilson.” Writ., Doug Fetherling: 162.

The Hecklers. Writ. & Ed.., Peter Desbarats & Terry Mosher. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1979: 31, 44-52, 228-229, 234.

Article periodical:

Maclean’s Magazine, Mar. 1914: “The Cartoonmen of Canada.” Writ., John Edgecumbe Staley: 43-46.


“Bengough John Wilson.” Writ., Ramsay Cook. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2000: DB.


J.W. Bengough

Library and Archives Canada/C-78604).