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The Review - FEATURE

Fat Uncle by Riddell (© Chris Riddell, The Observer)

Cartoonists Martin Rowson (left) and Steve Bell, curator Anita O’Brien and trustee Lord Baker (right)

Plum Pudding by James Gillray

Laugh your head off, or have it lopped off

Catherine Etoe and Mairi MacDonald talk to the politicians lampooned at the opening of the Cartoon Museum

THE Duke of Edinburgh’s man servant walked out of the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury last week with a freshly framed print under his arm.

It was of a world weary housewife washing up while berating her slovenly husband: “I knew I should have married that Prince Philip.”
The Prince had just officially opened the museum in Little Russell Street and the cartoon, inked by chairman Oliver Preston, was a gift that the Prince – a patron of the museum – loved; not surprising really given the good humoured nature of the skit.
Yet a look at the reactions of both their peers back in the days when cartoons and caricature were emerging as an art form reveals a different picture.
“This royal family get off lightly compared to 200 years ago,” admits Preston.
George Cruikshank was such a thorn in George IV’s side he was given £100 if he pledged to stop caricaturing the King in an “immoral situation”.
While the savage satirist James Gillray whose work appears at the museum was sued for blasphemy over his skit on a drunken Prince of Wales at the birth of his daughter Charlotte – drawn in the style of Breugel’s Adoration of the Maji.
But caricaturists were not the only ones packing a punch at this time; cartoonists were combining humour and satire to damning effect too.
Punch editor Mark Lemon used funny drawings of the state to get his message across in 1843 when he published his own quips alongside images by John Leech, now deemed the first cartoonist of the modern age.
It is a tradition which remains, with modern day Gillrays such as Steve Bell, Martin Rowson and Nick Garland hired by newspapers to comment on the issues of the day.
Guardian cartoonist Bell, who used the Breugel/Gillray idea of the kings bringing gifts to Christ for his witty skit of John Major’s ascension to leader of the Tory Party, says that Britain has a “strong tradition of absorbing dissent”.
He adds: “As Nick (Garland) said, a cartoon doesn’t have to be funny but it does have to disturb.”
It is a combination Bell, Rowson (appointed ‘cartoonist laureate’ by mayor Ken Livingstone in 2001) and Garland, have all used to effect.
Belsize-Park-based Garland’s 1994 portrayals of Tony Blair as Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony and Iago formed part of the Cartoon Museum’s ‘Grin and Blair It’ exhibition in 2004 when it was temporarily housed in the Brunswick Centre near Russell Square.
According to Mirth of Nations author, Professor Christie Davies, Garland captured Blair as a threat to the Conservatives “brilliantly”.
“Garland’s readers will no doubt have known the references but one hopes that they were not too familiar with the intricacies of the plots,” he says.
Thatcherite politicians seemed to understand very well the nuances of the cartoons on display at the opening of the new museum last Wednesday.
Lord Kenneth Baker, who professes an enthusiasm for what he describes as a “disrespectful art form” even admitted he is a fan of Gerald Scarfe’s depiction of him on a sinking ship when he was the chairman of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Adding that censorship of cartoonists in 18th-century France did little to save the monarchy there, he opined: “The moral is, if you laugh at your leaders, you don’t cut off their heads.”
It is a line of thought that former Tory leader Edward Heath appears to have followed – not that it saved him when he fell foul of the kingmaking of Maggie Thatcher in the 1970s.
“When I was doing the covers for Punch we used to have these weekly meetings,” says Dartmouth Park resident Wally ‘Trog’ Fawkes whose cartoon of Heath is a Baker favourite. “Heath came along and he used to sit and shake his shoulders to show he was getting the mirth. He didn’t want to be seen to miss the humour, but he didn’t say a lot.”
Given the wealth of material on show at the new museum there will be plenty of shoulder shaking from visitors there in the coming months.
As Bell says: “It shows everyone there is some value in what we do and it’s great that there is now a place to encompass all kinds of cartoons.”

• THE Cartoon Museum at 35 Little Russell Street, Bloomsbury, WC1, opens Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am-5.30pm.


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