John Ryan

Photograph of John Ryan

The son of a diplomat, John Ryan was born in Edinburgh but educated in the north of England. His lifelong fascination with pirates and the sea—eventually begetting his character Captain Pugwash—began in infancy when his family moved to the dynamic port of Rabat in Morocco. At the Catholic boarding school Ampleforth College, where he co-founded a scurrilous “alternative” school magazine, Ryan’s witty drawings were encouraged by the art master, an ex-Fleet Street cartoonist. The Second World War intervened, and John fought in Burma. Away from the front line, wicked caricatures of his superior army officers got him into hot water.

In 1950 he married fellow artist Priscilla Blomfield, whom he had met at art school in London. Turning down a secure job as art master at Harrow School, (to the horror of his in-laws) he struck out as a freelance commercial artist. As John later explained, he created Pugwash and other characters out of financial necessity; his strip cartoons appeared in Eagle, Girl, and Swift magazines and the Radio Times. His painted murals, TV set designs and light-hearted illustrations were also in demand.

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, John transferred the Captain Pugwash stories from page to screen for BBC TV, and other animations followed: The Adventures of Sir Prancelot, Mary, Mungo and Midge, The Hunting of the Snark and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

In 1964, John’s elder brother, Fr Columba Ryan OP, introduced John to the Catholic Herald’s managing director, Otto Herschan, who—spotting a balanced man able to view an issue from all angles—invited him to be the newspaper’s cartoonist. They little realized that a cartoon, encapsulating John’s funny or poignant comment on the state of the Christian world and beyond, would become his weekly task for the next forty-three years. Initially titled Drawing it Fine, weekly instalments often featured “our man in the Vatican”, Cardinal Grotti. Readers grew to love this corpulent priest with his puns, sunglasses and eye for the main chance. 

John and Priscilla moved from London to Rye in the 1980s, but neither “retired”. Recreating his attic studio, he wrote and drew more storybooks, happily donating his time and drawings to local charities to raise funds. His colourful and popular Ark book series for children came next, alongside a succession of humorously retold Bible stories, typically championing resourceful youngsters surrounded by foolish adults.

In an interview late in his life Ryan reflected “I’m a lucky man: I’ve managed to earn a living by doing what I love: drawing and painting every day, supported by my wonderful wife and family.”

This is a condensed version of the biography that appears in Sink or Swim. Copyright © Isabel Ryan and Alana Harris.

Never miss a beat.

Be the first to know when we publish new books! Join our mailing list for exclusive discounts, author interviews, and more...