News of Yore: McKee Barclay, Cartoonist

The Inland Printer
May 1906
By Strickland W. Gillian

Every citizen of Baltimore who in the afternoon rides on a street-car or stands on a corner waiting for one, who has an idle moment in his shop, or in some one else’s shop, waiting to be waited on — every mother’s son and daughter and every aunt’s nephew and niece of them — is possessed of a copy of the Baltimore News, or is rubbering over the shoulder of some one who has a copy of that sheet. And the first thing any of those proud possessors or humble rubberers does is to see “what’s Barclay got to-day?”

The last page of the Baltimore News contains every day a cartoon, with the signature of that gentleman, and in nine cases out of nine the cartoon contains an idea portrayed with the odd combination of subtlety and clearness — subtlety to please the keenest and clearness to strike the most obtuse between the eyes. The idea is usually unique in its conception, yet so palpable when once it is exploited in Barclay’s bold, yet artistic lines, that the beholder involuntarily exclaims to himself: “Well, I’ll be dogged! Why couldn’t I have thought of that?” And the paragraph, poem or picture that so impresses humanity is the ideal in its specific line. It has hit the universal, and that means success.

The peculiar geographical position of Baltimore makes her newspaper men labor under such restriction as no other city of Baltimore’s size anywhere has known. The men who work in this field must do so with a constant knowledge that their work is for the local field primarily and that only extraordinary brilliancy or a particularly universal hit can ever hope to reach the garish day of wider publicity. Under this handicap, Mr. Barclay works with zeal, filling his niche to overflowing and giving to the people of Baltimore a service second to none in the entire country. His cartoons do, in the most satisfactory manner, everything a cartoon was ever intended to do. His pictures are editorials with the weight of the leader and the pungency of the paragraph. They speak for themselves, and so great is their merit that they are copied far and wide throughout the country.

Like all good cartoonists, Barclay, has a personality that has even the best of his published work beaten many many city blocks. And to know the best and most delightful of him one has to know him, with his quaintness and his keenness. Every sentence is a cartoon visible as well as audible. He is a humorist of the finest, truest type, and can write as cleverly as he draws.

Here is a Bordenized ante-mortem obituary of him: He was bred in old Kentucky. First endowed with his services the Princeton (Ky.) Weekly Banner, in whose office he up-ended the elusive types occasionally making a woodcut on white pine. None of these first cuts is in the Congressional Library collection, so it’s no use to look there for them. Being entirely impartial, he amputated himself gently but firmly from the Banner and tackled his first daily job on the Paducah Standard, as solicitor, making free-hand drawings of the names of people who wanted to subscribe or advertise. Occasionally when some one hadn’t treated him right he would have revenge by making alleged likenesses of the offender — he having then fallen upon the Hoke chalk-plate method. After the publication of one of these the offender either suicided or reformed.

Went to the Louisville Times and Courier-Journal in ’87 and in ’88 to the Montgomery Dispatch, where he made chalk-plate pictures again—couldn’t stop him—and stereotyped them himself in a casting-box of a special pattern, made for himself by himself. Sawing them out with a cross-cut saw without the aid of a vise (Mr. Barclay is even yet free from vices), he guessed the width and sometimes came within an em or so of a column or two-column size when he was lucky or “had his eye with him.”

The paper got into financial difficulties and Barclay, though the paper could stand for the cuts he had made, couldn’t stand for the ones they made in his salary. The paper failed to square up any better than the engraver’s eye-measured cuts. Then the artist borrowed enough money to take him for a visit to his nearest relatives, at Bowling Green, Kentucky, with whom he stood a good prospect of making an extended visit. To his surprise an enterprising man with a daily paper—Col. John B. Gaines, of the Park City Times—gave him a place the very next day after he had landed, and before he had had a chance to spend even half of the $1.75 with which he had lit. Later he ran an illustrated weekly with Euclid C. Cooksey, at Bowling Green. The weekly caricatured and roasted with all the zeal of the tyro proprietor everywhere, until it became distinctly visible that the sheet could support but one person. Then Barclay sold out his interest to Cooksey, having a balance of $19.75 after paying all debts—“the record for all time for all men who ever ran a weekly,” says Barclay seriously.

Next he went to North Carolina, where he was draftsman in an architect’s office, running an engraving plant at his nooning hour, making all chalk-plate work and farming out the rest of it to a Philadelphia firm. In April, 1891, he went to Baltimore and worked one year for the World as an artist, reporter and telegraph editor. Tiring of this life of leisure, he went to the Herald of the same city, as reporter, until a self-illustrated Sunday story attracted the attention of the then managing editor, A. B. Cunningham, when he was put on Sunday specials. Then like Mr. Finney’s turnip, he grew and he grew. The Baltimore News made him an offer to do general illustrating, but that paper was in the midst of its Gorman-Rasin fight, so nothing was more natural than that Barclay’s cleverness should enlist itself in the form of effective, straight-from-the-shoulder cartoons. And didn’t he enjoy it—the work for which he was made! He calls it drifting, as we all do when the inevitable current of our life sweeps us into something. Since that time most of his work has been for the News. Once he went to New York, with his News job held open for him. He soon decided that distance lent enchantment to the Gotham field, and put himself a whole lot more than “forty-five minutes from Broadway.” In 1900 he went to St. Louis and stayed a busy year as editor of the comic supplement and manager of art and engraving departments for the Star. He persuaded this paper to syndicate its supplement on a large scale and made it possible profitably to do so, by means of a labor-saving color device of Barclays’s own. In 1901 he came back to the Baltimore News, in response to an offer, and, as he says, “I am on the third floor with a good north light, still.”

He does a great deal of book illustrating, etc., outside of his regular cartoon work, for he is an indefatigable plugger, never hurrying, but turning out an incredible amount of excellent work. Cartoonists can not be compared, but there are no better than McKee Barclay.

Like most of the other really successful fellows, he has a wife and family that any sane man would be proud of, and Barclay is sane to the thirty-third degree. His brother Tom 9art signature, “Tom Bee”) does excellent cartoon work and comics in a decidedly individual line, also doing legitimate illustrating and caricatures of high standard.

McKee is struggling beneath the advanced age of thirty-six years, and his best work is yet in his rosy-hued future.

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