How Off the Wall gallery is bringing satire, politics and art to the Piece Hall in Halifax

Off the Wall, Piece Hall, Halifax. Nick Jones pictured at his shop
Off the Wall, Piece Hall, Halifax. Nick Jones pictured at his shop

Nick Jones spends his working day hemmed in by satirical sketches and drawings. Cartoons, you might say, only he no longer does.

The word cartoon means different things to different people, he points out. “People come in expecting Disney,” says Nick, who now favours “pictures with a humorous twist”.

He turns 70 this year and Off The Wall, his gallery and shop in the South Colonnade of The Piece Hall in Halifax, is his ‘‘third-age’’ project. It’s a well of inky wit featuring political cartoons, drawings and satirical artworks from across the centuries.

Nick spent 40 years working as a producer and manager in theatres around the country, including six years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, a spell at Greenwich Theatre, and a closing stint as managing director of the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

It was at the New Vic that he had the idea to head north, as he has family in Leeds.

“We used to co-produce with Northern Broadsides quite a bit, and that’s one of the reasons I knew about Halifax,” Nick says. “I’m on the board of Broadsides now, my last link with the world of theatre.”

He loves the town where he now lives and works. “Halifax, the way I describe it rather glibly, is a proper northern town but with bells and whistles,” he says. “With the bells and whistles being Dean Clough and everything that goes on there, and now the Piece Hall, particularly the Piece Hall.”

Nick’s starting point was his private collection of around 100 pieces of satirical art and cartoons. Most are now sold, although a survivor stares at me from the counter: a bust of politician Jeremy Thorpe cast as a mournful clown.

“The very first thing I collected,” he says. “It’s priced not to sell, to be honest.”

What makes the perfect political cartoon

The head dates from when Thorpe had just lost the Liberal Party leadership amid scandal. “We don’t think the story is quite so funny now as we did in 1976,” says Nick. “It’s of its time.”

Some of the works are newspaper cartoons by the likes of Mel Calman, one of Nick’s favourites. There are drawings by Glen Baxter, the Leeds-born artist whose works are surreal rather than satirical. Alongside Baxter you will find Chris Orr, often likened to a contemporary Hogarth, HM Bateman, Quentin Blake and the Polish-born portrait artist Feliks Topolski (another personal favourite of Nick’s).

A newer discovery is Louis Benoit, the Halifax-based illustrator and cartoonist, whose slightly surreal feel “fits the room”, says Nick. At the other end of history’s long corridor stands James Gillray, father of the political cartoon.

Drawings and cartoons by David Low, considered by many to have been the greatest political cartoonist of the 20th century, sit alongside others by Heath Robinson and Ronald Searle. “Everybody thinks they know Searle from St Trinian’s, but there’s a lot more to him than that,” says Nick.

Some modern cartoonists are just too expensive to sell; Steve Bell is missing for that reason. Earlier newspaper greats Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe are included. A reproduction of a Scarfe cartoon commissioned by the Sunday Times captures the 89-year-old Winston Churchill hunched with age at his last appearance in the Commons. The cartoon wasn’t printed amid fears it might offend Churchill’s wife, although Private Eye later published it.

There are too many sketches, drawings, cartoons and glorious oddities to list in full, but we shouldn’t leave without mentioning Jean Auscher, a largely forgotten French artist from the 1920s.

Nick bought a self-published folio of Auscher’s work, titled The Wildlife of the Dancehalls, over the phone in a Paris auction. Ringing to ask for the portfolio to be sent to him, he received a one-word reply: “Non.”

“I had to go to Paris,” he says. “They were so funny. I quite like that about the French: they can be so arsey when they want to be.”

The Auscher pieces are out of copyright and, in a new venture, Nick is selling reproduction prints from the originals he bought.

Deciding what to sell is mostly a matter of taste. “It’s whether I like something, my sense of humour, it’s about art and humour, in fact it’s more about humour than it is about art,” Nick says.
He is still learning. “One of the great pleasures of running the shop is that people come in and say, ‘Have you got something by so-and-so?’ to which you say, ‘who’s he?’”

Chasing up the French artist and cartoonist Claude Serre, for instance, led Nick into new areas. “When you are looking for one thing, you bump into something else,” he says.

And for Nick, Off The Wall works as a later-life project. “As long as it gives me a bit of a return on my time, I’m happy,” he says. “I tried retirement, but it didn’t suit me.”