Described as the ‘Grandfather of British illustration’ his economy of line was said to have modernised his trade and certainly influenced the next generation of cartoonists from Frank Reynolds to David Low. My monk is a perfect example of his simple draughtsmanship and pared down humour.
May was born at Wortley, near Leeds, the son of an engineer, who died when May was nine years old. His mother was the daughter of Eugene Macarthy, one time manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. She was left in very poor circumstances and the family had a great struggle to exist.
May's grandfather, a country gentleman, had some talent as a draughtsman and liked drawing caricatures. At the age of twelve, in Leeds, May became friendly with Fred Fox, whose father was the scenic artist at the recently opened Grand Theatre. That gave him a free run of the theatre, where he used to sketch sections of other people's designs for costumes, as well as sketching actors' portraits, for which he received one shilling, later rising to five shillings.
May had begun to earn his living in a solicitor's office, but before he was fifteen he had acted as time-keeper at a foundry, had tried to become a jockey and had been on the stage at Scarborough and Leeds. He had drawings accepted for the Yorkshire Gossip at only fourteen. Arriving in London with a sovereign in his pocket, he suffered extreme want, sleeping out in the parks and streets, until finally obtaining employment as designer to a theatrical costumier. He also drew posters and cartoons, and for about two years worked for the St Stephens Review, until he was advised to go to Australia for his health.
From 1886 to 1889 he lived in Sydney working on the staff of the Sydney Bulletin and producing some of his best work. Returning north he travelled to Paris via Rome where he worked until arriving back in London in 1892. He resumed his interrupted connection with the St Stephens Review where his studies of the London guttersnipe and the coster-girl rapidly made him famous. His overflowing sense of fun, his genuine sympathy with his subjects, and his kindly wit were on a par with his artistic ability.
He became a regular member of the staff of Punch in 1896, and in his later years his services were retained exclusively for Punch and The Graphic. In 1898, he was a founder member of the London Sketch Club. He died from tuberculosis in 1903 at his home in St John's Wood, London.