Exhibition looks at the art of satire
PUBLISHED: 12:45 03 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:57 22 October 2010
Three centuries of satire, sex and scandal are now depicted in a Museum of London display of caricature ranging from lurid cartoons to latex models. Ian Collins is much amused.
Major moves are afoot to encourage ethnic minorities to visit museums and galleries - very few currently do so. Even in our most multi-cultural treasure houses, the Victoria & Albert and British museums, apart from school parties most of the black people present on almost any day will be wearing staff uniforms.
Cost can no longer be counted a factor, for entry to all our national collections is now free. Neither are the best of the permanent or passing displays exclusive or elitist - they are for everyone (all ages, classes, colours).
Just now I am particularly eager for British Muslims to visit an exhibition at the Museum of London. Lampooning London: Three Centuries of Satire, Sex and Scandal charts the mocking, knocking, shocking - and wholly wonderful - history of English caricature.
It offers huge and hilarious insights into the majority culture of the country to which Muslims have chosen to migrate, or the society into which they, like me, are fortunate enough to have been born.
For the show currently rocking the foundations of the Barbican museum - with peals of laughter pouring from the basement - demonstrates exactly why, given the sad, mad and bad nature of most of the world today, a British passport is the most enormous privilege for those lucky enough to hold one.
Send-ups and put-downs have got us through the worst of times. Caricature has shaped our laugh-and-make-the-most-of-it character.
Whereas we like to pull the powerful off their pedestals in prose and pictures - the generally more respectful French, for instance, have been more likely to chop off heads in times of trouble. Satire has also helped to promote democracy, for ridicule does not only puncture pomposity. It also deflates deference and destroys despotism.
Given our happy heritage as the satirical capital of the world, it was wholly shameful in my view that no British publication cared (or, actually, dared) to reprint any of the Mohamed cartoons which recently sent Islamic radicals into riot and uproar.
How ironic that such fury should have focused on the Scandinavian countries which have been among Europe's staunchest champions of Palestine, sponsoring the Oslo peace accords. Humour is a virtue and very often a pointer to other honours.
There's also further irony in the fact that the most savage cartoons since the 18th century in the Museum of London display, many of which would now fall foul of our modern-day libel laws, add up to a kind of affection. Rough, tough love indeed.
There are scathing and scurrilous attacks on princes, politicians, priests and prostitutes, aristocrats, businessmen, pick-pockets and peasants. If there is a general sympathy for the underdog, there are sideswipes too.
But actually, for all the Englishness of satire, our love of lampooning grew out of the Italian art of caricature which so amused well-heeled tourists on the Grand Tour. Extended back in England into realms unthinkable on the continent, it was refined into a fine and ferocious art in London most of all.
The show includes examples of William Hogarth's powerful and mightily popular prints dissecting the social mores and manners of the Georgian capital. His iconic Gin Lane and Beer Street images have been adapted down the ages - with Martin Rowson showing a trip down Cocaine Lane as recently as 2001.
There's a re-creation of Mrs Humphrey's print shop in St James's Street - famed for its window displays taking potshots at the rich, powerful and (in)famous. Her main protégé was James Gillray, whose sour engravings scorned the art establishment which failed to admit him as a member.
But sometimes with good reason these dens of democracy also gained a reputation for under-the-counter sales of pornography and sheltering London's less salubrious hawkers and hookers. The saucy phrase “Come up and see my etchings” dates from this era.
Images by Thomas Rowlandson, that giant among Georgian cartoonists, now seem especially brutal, while the Victorian passion for Punch - a jaunty journal founded in 1841 and selling 40,000 copies a week by 1870 - now seems rather tame and cerebral.
But some of the Punch cartoonists still seem splendid draughtsman - and Charles Keene most of all. Working in Dunwich and Southwold as well as in London, having been raised partly in Suffolk, he was the English artist most prized by the French Impressionists.
Illustrators such as George Cruickshank, William M'Connell and John Leech found lasting fame through literary collaboration, as their work was chosen to illustrate timeless texts by the likes of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and William Thackeray.
Looking at all these relics - with props such as inscribed chamberpots, totemic teapots, and Charles and Diana slippers, as well as priceless pictures - what hits home is the transience of most of the jokes.
What remains indelible is the image, and sometimes the signature. A Gerald Scarfe cartoon, for instance, stands out a mile with its creepy outline from a horror story.
And what has been brought home to me, once again, is the sheer genius of Fluck and Law and the latex puppets created for Spitting Image.
I will never forget the gory dummy of architect Richard Rogers with all his internal organs stuck on the outside of his body - vast intestines echoing the ventilation pipes on his much-mocked Lloyds Building in the City.
Some political careers were finished off by Fluck and Law. David Steel, for instance, never quite recovered from his portrayal as a midget mascot in David Owen's pocket.
The model of the Queen Mum as a Cockney char added to the gaiety of the nation, and Margaret Thatcher's head of 1986 - with a nose like a Cruise missile and a man mimicking the voice in one of its deeper phases - still looms marvellously large in my memory.
Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, says: “London was an extraordinary city and it has an extraordinary amount of what satirists thrive on: 'vice, folly and humbug'.
“Moreover, because of its size and its variety it was a visual feast - all those busy streets, and pubs and offices and fairs and parks and gatherings to capture on paper. All that wealth and poverty and glamour and dirt.
“And this of course creates one of the ironies of so much satiric art about London. While it is ostensibly criticising the failings of the Big City, it does it with a vitality and exuberance that can seem more like a celebration.”
Exactly. For all its fierceness, satire shows how we love to go for what's funny. It demonstrates why, given the scepticism enshrined in our sense of humour, we don't do fundamentalism.
t Lampooning London is at the Museum of London, on London Wall EC2 (recorded information 0870 444 3851; www.museumoflondon.org.uk) until September 3. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5.50pm, Sunday, noon to 5.50pm. Admission free. Tube: Barbican (but it's only a 10-minute walk from Liverpool Street).
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