Drawings by Speybrouck about the Ascension.

Jozef Speybrouck, nicknamed "Jos", was an early-20th century Flemish graphic artist and illustrator. He was part of the art deco movement and notable for his sober and highly stylized linework. The majority of his oeuvre were assignments in function of Flemish-nationalistic and/or Catholic organisations. He published in Flemish comics magazines like Zonneland and made hundreds of biblical-themed text comics between 1923 and 1938. This series, later bundled as 'Het Kerkelijk Jaar in Beeld' ('The Church Year in Images', 1931-1932), makes him a pioneer in the field of Belgian Christian comics.

Early life
Jozef Speybrouck was born in 1891 in Kortrijk (Courtray) as the son of a shoemaker who painted in his spare time. Like many Flemish children of his time, he was raised Catholic. Speybrouck showed an early talent for drawing and was therefore signed up at the art academy of Kortrijk, despite being only ten years old at the time. To trick the school principals Speybrouck's parents used the name of his older brother. Between 1905 and 1911 Speybrouck studied and graduated at St. Lucas in Ghent. Among his graphic influences were Ancient Egyptian art, Pre-Raphaelite painters, Art Deco, the Beuron Art School and the work of Walter Crane and Joe English.

Early career
In 1910 Speybrouck illustrated six poems by Flemish poet Albrecht Rodenbach, which were distributed as postcards during the World Exhibition of Brussels that year. He sent several copies to famous Flemish novelists, poets and activists like Stijn Streuvels, Lodewijk Dosfel, Hugo Verriest, Emiel Lauwers and Cyriel Verschaeve, but received no replies. The same year he also made a painting romanticizing Flemish-nationalistic heroes, fittingly titled: 'De Verheerlijking van Vlaanderen' ('The Glorification of Flanders', 1910), which was exhibited at Kortrijk's local city hall. In 1912 Speybrouck set up his own art studio. He started developing his own graphic style around the same period. His work has a sober, solemn look. Backgrounds are often kept simple so that they don't distract the spectator's eye from the prominently placed people in the foreground. His imagery is accentuated by wavy and dressy linework. Over the course of his career he would try to capture his characters in as few lines as possible.

During the First World War Belgium was occupied by German troops. In 1916 they evicted Speybrouck from his home in Kortrijk, forcing him to move in with his parents-in-law for a while before spending the rest of the war in Brussels. These events motivated him to make several illustrations with anti-militaristic messages. After the Liberation, in 1918, Speybrouck and his family moved back to their old home and opened an antique and post card store. Speybrouck kept the memory of the victims of World War I alive by making a graphic contribution to the collective exhibition 'Haard voor Oorlogsverminkten' (1922), of which the profits benefited handicapped war veterans.

Picture story by Speybrouck about Corpus Christi.

Flemish-nationalistic artwork
During the 1920s and 1930s the Flemish civil right movement accelerated, with both left-wing as well as right-wing parties campaigning to be heard. In many fields they achieved successes, such as the acceptance of Dutch as the official language at the Ghent university (1930) and new laws establishing the language of the region as its official language (1932). Naturally Speybrouck was very willing to create Flemish-nationalistic propaganda for these purposes. In 1919 he decorated the poster for the festivities commemorating poet Albrecht Rodenbach in his birth town Roeselare. He was a regular contributor to the Flemish-nationalistic magazine Storm and its sister magazine Gudrun, which aimed at a female demographic. He also designed logos for De Blauwvoet - student magazine of the AKVS (Algemeen Katholiek Vlaams Studentenverbond) -, De Volksmacht, the official publication of the Christian labor union, department West-Flanders - and the Catholic magazine Hoger Leven.

In 1924 Speybrouck made his most politically conscious assignment: the 'Depla' album. Dr. Alfons Depla was a Flemish surgeon who had collaborated with the German occupiers during World War I. After the war he fled to the Netherlands, being sentenced to death for treason in absentia. Flemish poet Wies Moens (himself a collaborator during both world wars) wrote a plea against Depla's sentence, which was illustrated by Speybrouck. Despite their efforts Depla died one year later from old age, without ever returning to his home country. In 1932 Speybrouck also designed the official poster for the annual IJzerbedevaart, a pilgrimage traditionally held by Flemish-nationalists to commemorate those who've fallen during the First World War and to advocate Flemish self-government.

Catholic artwork
However, the lion's share of Speybrouck's graphic assignments was commissioned by local Catholic priests and organisations. In the 1920s he became a regular illustrator for publishing company Averbode. He made drawings for their Heilige Hart (Holy Heart) calendar and decorated the pages of their magazines Zonneland, Lenteweelde and Averbode's Weekblad. Many of these illustrations were either directly based on the Bible or moralistic works intended to promote Christian values. Throughout his career Speybrouck designed countless missals, baptism- and "in memoriam" cards. In 1924 he illustrated the Volksmissaal and Vesperale for the Benedictine movement of Affligem, based on original texts by Dutch and Flemish poets like Jan van Ruusbroec, Guido Gezelle and Joost van den Vondel. These particular booklets were republished decades on end, making Speybrouck's art more notable outside his birth province. An oddity in his bibliography are his illustrations for Theo Vandebeek's novel 'De Alvermannekes' (Averbode, 1923), which was a fairy tale about gnomes. In 1934-1935 Speybrouck decorated the church of Waregem with two wall paintings. In 1935 he designed the flag of the K.A. of the O.L. Vrouw van Vlaanderen institute. In 1936 three of his illustrations were included in the annual Noordstar-Boerhavefonds. He received such good response that its next issue, published a year later, was completely devoted to his work.

Between 1923 and 1938 Speybrouck accepted the longest and most productive assignment of his career. The abbey of Loppem asked him to make illustrations intended for Sunday- and Christian holiday masses. They were used during religious ceremonies, schools and published in magazines like Bulletin and La Croisade Liturgique à l'École. He also made maps and didactical illustrations which pupils could cut out and attach to the works. The manual 'Pour Comprendre La Messe' ('To Understand Mass') was a supplementary publication which explained each ritual through the use of text and drawings, once again provided by Speybrouck. This monumental project is easily the artist's magnum opus. He made nearly 800 (!) colour illustrations over a period of 15 (!) years. They visualize several key moments from the Old and New Testament in text comics, with the narrative written beneath each image. The comics were later published in book form by Gaspard Lefevbre, abbot of Loppegem, as 'Le Cycle Liturgie en Images' in French and in Dutch as 'Het Kerkelijk Jaar in Beeld' (1931-1932). Catholic educators considered them so useful that they were not only distributed all over Flanders, but were also translated over the Belgian borders.  Despite the success Speybrouck himself felt increasingly frustrated by this project as time went by. Working on the same topic for more than a decade was tiring in itself, but the Catholic censors left him with little creative freedom too.

Speybrouck made several other religious picture-stories, such as the 'Missiereeks' ('Mission series', 1925), for the Redemptorist movement. These six illustrations symbolized and glorified the actions of Catholic missionaries abroad. 'Via Crucis' (1928) is a text comic adaptation of Jesus' Calvary, while 'De Zeven Weeën van Maria' (1928), depicts the Virgin Mary's labor pains. '15 Heilige Geheimenissen' (1929) visualizes glorious Christian mysteries and their emotional impact through one and the same character. 'Sterrenbeelden' (1929) is a graphic interpretation of all animals and symbols of the Zodiac. 'Levensgang' (1929) has a more philosophical tone, illustrating the heights and lows of one person's life until the inevitability of death, while 'De Zeven Werken van Barmhartigheid' (1929) depicts the Seven Virtues. In 1932 the artist also illustrated biblical history in 'Bijbelse Geschiedenis' by Dr. J. Keulers.

Levenslijnen by Jos Speybrouck

One of Speybrouck's most beautiful projects was 'Levenslijnen' ('Lifelines', 1928), where he brought his graphic style to its most minimal essence. The illustrations depict an angelic woman praying to God. She is stylized into a horizontal, almost rectangular character. The background consists of just a huge circle, while the drawings themselves are an interesting display of circles, rectangles and triangles all put in a geometrical balance. 'Levenslijnen' is the closest Speybrouck ever came to making a comic strip with speech balloons, seeing that the monologues are written within the images rather than below them.

Teaching career
Speybrouck was also active as an educator. He always wanted to become a teacher at the Academy of Kortrijk, but was never admitted because of his Flemish-nationalistic activism. In 1923 the artist did receive a position as teacher at the O.L. Vrouw-Bijstand Instituut in Kortrijk, which had just changed their entire lesson program from French to Dutch. Four years later he received the same job at the École Polytechnique in Mons, Belgium and in 1930 at the St. Lucas School in Doornik too. Speybrouck also made his teaching methods available to the general public. He published a book about drawing human anatomy named 'Proporties - Ontleedkunde en Uitdrukking' (1935). Later in life he was preoccupied with the organisation of various processions, such as the Eucharistic Congress of Kortrijk (1930), the Vredesstoet in Roeselare (1945), the Guldensporen festivities in Kortrijk (1952) and the St. Godelieve procession in Gistel (1952), for which he all designed posters, stages, sets and costumes. Between 1940 and 1941 Speybrouck was briefly creative advisor of the Kortrijk city council and their architectural commission, but quit after only a year because he didn't like all the political gameplay.

Final years and death
In 1956 Speybrouck underwent an operation. He passed away one day before he was allowed to return home. He was 65 years old. While Jozef Speybrouck isn't as well known today as some of his contemporaries, he still holds historical significance as one of the pioneers in Christian comics. In fact, when Jozef Peeters published a small book about this comics genre in Flanders, 'De Christelijke Strip in Vlaanderen' (2011), Speybrouck was not only included in this retrospective: one of his works actually graced the book cover!

Jos Speybrouck

Series and books by Jos Speybrouck in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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