Frank Hampson was born in a small terraced house in Audenshaw, near Manchester, on 21 December 1918, just after the end of the Great War. When he was three months old the family moved to Southport, and it was here that he spent his early life. As a child, he loved to draw, and while still a pupil at George V Grammar school, he entered a drawing competition run by Meccano magazine. Not only did he win a prize for this entry, but the editor was sufficiently amused by his cartoon to ask for more. Thus, at the age of thirteen, he received his first commission, and for the next two years his work appeared regularly in the journal.
With his School Certificate under his belt, he left school at the age of fourteen and found a job delivering telegrams for the Post Office. The irregular hours left him with plenty of time to pursue his passion for drawing, and the official G.P.O magazine, The Post, soon became a regular outlet for his work. His father, a policeman, proud of his son’s talent, gathered a few of his drawings together one day and showed them to the principal of the local art school. Between them they decided that – when he wasn’t delivering telegrams – Hampson would attend the life-drawing classes there.
But it was to be another two years before he took the final plunge and abandoned his safe ‘job with prospects’ at the G.P.O. to become a full-time art student at the Victoria College of Arts and Science, Southport. He was nineteen years old and the year was 1938. The following year, shortly after the College had presented him with his National Diploma of Design (Intermediate), war broke out. Hampson immediately volunteered for service and during the next six years, he saw action in France and Belgium, and lived through those experiences which would inform and influence much of his future creativity. It was wasn’t until 1946 that he was finally discharged from the army and free to return to art college. By then, he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant, and had married Dorothy Jackson, the daughter of a surveying engineer he’d met when taking officer training course in Wales.
The birth of a son, Peter, in 1947, meant that Hampson had to find freelance work to supplement his grant. One of the jobs he took was to provide illustrations for Anvil, a Church of England magazine which had been turned from a ‘Parish Mag’ into a national publication through the entrepreneurial talents of a local parson, the Reverend Marcus Morris.
The idea to produce a new sort of comic for boys was the brainchild of the Oxford educated Morris. Morris deplored the influx of cheaply produced American ‘horror comics’ with their crude and senseless violence, and he wanted to combat their influence with a high quality strip cartoon publication, promoting wholesome, Christian values.
With Hampson’s superbly drawn, brightly coloured dummy – full to the brim with imaginative adventures – in his hands, Morris had something to show to potential publishers, and he began the long slog, up and down Fleet Street. Undeterred by numerous refusals, he persisted, and in September, 1949 received a telegram from Hulton Press, publishers of Picture Post. It said, “Definitely interested – do not approach any other publisher.” And so, early in 1950 the Eagle was born. Originally both writer and illustrator of the comic’s signature strip Dan Dare, Hampson continued to illustrate it until 1959. The Eagle, and the Dan Dare strip, went on to be a tremendous success and the team involved in its production grew steadily.
At first the studio was spread around different locations, but it eventually came together in Bayford Lodge, a large white house set in a leafy road near Epsom Downs. This was to become the Hampson family home (on the first floor) as well as the Dan Dare studio (on the ground floor). The contrast with life in Southport must have been remarkable, but everyone soon adapted, and in this spacious new setting the studio flourished. More and more detail was added, and weapons, rocket ships and cities modelled, to ensure continuity in the story. An entire ceiling was removed from one room so that one of the team, Joan Porter, could take photos from the required perspective angles. The work rate became even more intense, and Hampson would often stay on alone in the studio throughout the night, sustained by coffee and ‘Rennies’, in an effort to meet impossible deadlines – and his own impossibly high demands upon himself. Under this pressure, his health began to suffer, but life in the studio went on.
But in 1959, things began to go wrong. Hultons were taken over by their rival publishers, Odhams. While recognising the success of Dan Dare as vital to the Eagle, Odham’s did not understand that such high quality work could only be maintained through the working system evolved by Hampson and his team. They viewed this as hugely expensive and wasteful, and in 1959, amidst great personal turmoil for Hampson, the studio was disbanded. The golden age of Dan Dare was at an end, and powerless without a copyright, Hampson could only disassociate himself from the changes, which he knew would lead to the diminution of his creation. He continued to live and work in Bayford Lodge, and with the assistance of just one remaining helper, Joan Porter, produced his final strip for Eagle, The Road of Courage.
In 1961, after protracted and merciless contractual wrangles, which failed to gain Hampson any financial interest in, or control over, Dan Dare, he finally resigned, bitter and deeply disillusioned. Watching the inevitable, lingering death of his creation caused him much pain, but he had little choice.
In 1964 he began to find regular work with Wills and Hepworth (publishers of Ladybird) following the path of illustrators Martin Aitchison and Robert Ayton who had also worked for the Eagle.
Frank Hampson stayed with Ladybird for the next six years, when they were at the peak of popularity, illustrating amongst other books, The First, Second and Third Books of Nursery Rhymes, Kings and Queens of England, and two books from the hugely popular Key Word Reader scheme, Peter and Jane. Whatever the commission, the same meticulous research was always carried out, and family and friends – even the milkman – dragged in to pose as models for his characters. But then, in 1970, Hampson was diagnosed with throat cancer; a lifelong smoker, he was seldom seen without a pipe clamped between his teeth. Believing himself to be terminally ill, he drew out an insurance policy and fulfilled a long time ambition to travel to Russia. In the event, he recovered, but was no longer fit enough to carry on working for Ladybird. Instead, he took a part-time job as a graphics technician at Ewell Technical College, embarked on an Open University degree, and for a period, taught life drawing at Epsom School of Art.
In 1982 Hampson suffered a stroke and lost his speech and the use of his right hand – his drawing hand. His speech returned, but the use of his hand, did not. Confined to a chair at home, he continued with his Open University studies, hoping to gain an MA, but in 1985 his strength finally gave out and he died of a heart attack. He was 66 years old. His widow moved from Bayford Lodge to a small flat up the road, and the old house, parts of which had already been sold off, piecemeal, over the lean years, was now sold-up completely. Piles of reference photographs were burned and mountains of studio materials piled into a skip and dumped.
But Dan Dare did not die. The name of the character that influenced a whole generation of boys (Professor Steven Hawking, an avid Eagle reader as a child, when asked what influence Dan Dare had had on him, replied, “Why am I in cosmology?”) had entered the English language and Dan Dare been recognised as “One of the great creations of Twentieth Century imaginative literature.”(Terry Jones, Film director, writer and Python).
There is no doubt that Frank Hampson was a genius of the genre. Professor Wolf Mankovitz said of him, “Frank is, without doubt, the creator of a new 21st Century mythology – a great artist in his extraordinary medium.” Prophetically, Mankovitz also said that Frank Hampson had created something “bigger than himself” – which is surely the ultimate measure of an artist’s success.