From 13 October 2015 to 31 January 2016, the Fitzwilliam Museum hosted two exhibitions on caricaturists and visual satire - Ronald Searle: ‘Obsessed with drawing’ and Cradled in Caricature: Visual humour in satirical prints and drawings.
The exhibitions followed a recent gift of Ronald Searle’s work, generously presented to the Museum by his children in 2014.
Ronald Searle (1920-2011) is among Britain's most popular and celebrated graphic satirists. Born in Cambridge, Searle had a long and productive career across a range of different genres. Searle worked as a war artist, but also made drawings for book and magazine illustration, travel reportage, theatre, film, medals and political caricature.
Fuelled by visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum during his formative years, he had keen sense of his own place in the history of caricature - a selection of work by the caricaturists he most admired featured in the complementary exhibition Cradled in Caricature.
In response to the exhibition and Searle’s place in the history of caricature, three celebrated illustrators and visual satirists today gave their responses to the exhibition and their memories of Searle.
Quentin Blake – Memories of Searle
Quentin Blake is one of the most celebrated illustrators in the UK. He has always made his living as an illustrator, as well as teaching for over twenty years at the Royal College of Art, where he was head of the Illustration department from 1978 to 1986. His first drawings were published in Punch while he was 16 and still at school. He continued to draw for Punch, The Spectator and other magazines over many years. He is best known for his collaboration with writers such as Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen, John Yeoman and, most famously, Roald Dahl.
Gerald Scarfe - Memories of Searle
Gerald Scarfe has been a political cartoonist for the London Sunday Times for 44 years, and for The New Yorker magazine for 21 years. His work regularly appears in many periodicals in the UK and worldwide. He has also worked as a set designer and has designed theatrical costumes.
Adrian Teal – A history of caricature, A Caterpillar on the Green Leaf of Reputation
Adrian Teal became a full-time cartoonist since 1996, and focussed on political caricature around 2001, working for publications including The Sunday Telegraph, The Sun, The Times Educational Supplement, Time Out, and The Daily Mail. Since 2012 he has produced the Gin Lane Gazette, a compendium of illustrated 'best bits' from a fictional newspaper of the late 1700s (published by Unbound). Website: www.adrianteal.com
It is a privilege to be able to take part in an occasion which honours Ronald Searle not only in his own country but in his own city. Some of us enthusiastic about his achievement may feel that there wasn’t enough honour paid to him here during his lifetime – the major retrospective of 1970 took place not at the Victoria and Albert Museum or Tate Britain but at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Searle may perhaps have made it difficult for the general public here in England to get beyond the fascination of St Trinian’s because in the sixties he left to become a resident of France, and from there, with his new wife, he travelled the world for American, German and French magazines, before settling finally and permanently in Provence.
I met Searle only once, sixty years ago, as part of a series organised by BBC radio in which a beginner was brought to meet and question an established professional in their craft. I was a very young man; Searle still a young man but already hugely successful. My BBC guide had important questions ready for me to ask, and consequently I failed to ask what was to me the most important: What kind of pen nibs do you use? (I discovered later that, at any rate at that time, it was a fountain pen filled with free-running purple furniture stain). At the time Searle used to appear in Punch each week with a theatre caricature. As I was lucky enough to stand in for him on a few occasions I had a first-hand sense of what was involved: you found yourself at the first night with Eric Keown, Punch theatre critic, and during the performance made small drawings of the characters in a notebook as unobtrusively as possible. Then you went home and did the drawing – sometimes overnight with delivery the next morning. The experience made me all the more aware of Searle’s wonderful assurance – somehow his drawings managed to be both exaggerated and authentically observed at the same time. I am convinced that each time Searle drew Gielgud his nose got bigger, but each time it was even more the likeness of Gielgud.
For over half a century the extraordinary talent that had showed itself so strikingly in the four years when Searle was a prisoner of the Japanese extended and flourished - from immediate reportage of refugee camps at one extreme to the frantic acerbic fantasies of his political drawings for Le Monde at the other. Here in Cambridge we can now come close to the artist’s hand at work, and not simply on its own but in the company of his great forebears, Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank, as well as the visual tributes of his great contemporaries.
Searle was deeply convinced of the beneficent effects of the bubbles in Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé. Let us raise a glass to him.
Every summer my wife, Jane, and I used to lunch with the great artist and his lovely wife, Monica, in the same small restaurant in the hills of Provence. We always sat at the same table and always began with a bottle of his “engine oil” – his name for his favourite Billecart champagne. On our place mats he would have taken immense trouble to hand draw two cards; mine showing a frustrated artist cat with wild eyes, desperately searching for the next idea amidst a forest of blots; for Jane, a theatrical cat tripping behind the footlights. As I sat opposite him I thought: how can this slight man have survived the horrors of Japanese Prisoner of War Camps and yet remain so bright and vigorous? I think it was his inner burning spirit, his mission to observe and record, and although he was a deeply serious man, to see the funny side of things through his humour and wit, sharing it with the millions who have loved and enjoyed his brilliant drawings for more than 70 years.
Ronald Searle first became my hero when I was about 14 years old. My grandmother took the News Chronicle and I very soon became aware of this outstanding and different artist, an artist who could really draw. He had a huge effect on me. I wanted to draw like him. His pen was always searching, exploring every nook and cranny of his subject. His exciting, electric style fascinated me. I still have memories of a wonderfully detailed drawing of Shepherd’s Market, showing the cafés and fruit stalls, with the added frisson for a 16 year old boy of prostitutes waiting on corners for trade. I also remember the stunning immediacy of his huge Lemon Hart rum billboard. I discovered St Trinian’s in Lilliput and his Rake’s Progress in Punch. His accurate theatre caricatures – a drawing of a Gerund, Molesworth with Fothering Thomas, “he are a weed”, and many, many more – all brilliant.
I admired him so much I found out where he lived – 32 Newton Road, Bayswater, and I cycled there from my home in Hampstead on many occasions. On the journey I would rehearse all the many things I wanted to ask him. His house was set back from the road behind a high brick wall and in the wall was an arched doorway with a brass doorbell. I would park my bike and approach the door. But my finger would not, could not, press that doorbell. I always lost courage and after cycling in circles in the road for some time I went home, mission unaccomplished. Fifty years later my wife took me to a surprise birthday lunch in Provence. In an otherwise empty restaurant, sitting at a table were Ronald and Monica, and on my place setting was a beautifully wrapped parcel, about 4 inches square. I opened it and found a brass doorbell, with a note saying “Please ring any time”. That doorbell now always sits in my studio as inspiration while I work.
For many summers following that memorable day Jane and I would go back to that same restaurant to lunch with Ronald and Monica. The walls of the room in which we dined are peppered with drawings he gave to the owner every year, and one could see that, although in his 90s, the quality of his draughtsmanship and ideas had never dipped. After our lunches we always returned to his house and talk and talk, lubricated by more engine oil, about art and this and that. His house was a labyrinth of small passages and short staircases leading to many rooms stocked with books, prints, drawings, painting, sculptures, all in very orderly chaos. His knowledge of art was extensive. He had a valuable collection of prints and books, collected over the years which he had donated to the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover. His enthusiasm burned bright, and like many artists he would often agitate about where the next commission would come from. His ideas kept flowing. He talked frankly and freely about other artists, praising some and others not. He talked occasionally about his extraordinary experiences in Burma. There was no bridge over the River Kwai, he told me. Purely invented for the film apparently. The railway ran alongside the River Kwai and never crossed it.
What did one of Britain’s great artists do in the evenings? I once asked him. “Oh”, he said, “we have an early supper then watch something on television we don’t like, and then go to bed”.
A Caterpillar on the Green Leaf of Reputation
In an image-starved age, before TV news, the web, and colour magazines, the Georgian caricaturist James Gillray gave celebrities, politicians, and royalty the faces by which they became known to the public. Delighted Londoners clamoured in droves to press their noses up against Mrs. Humprey’s print-shop window and ogle the latest etchings. Gillray’s coruscating satires, in particular, became a sensation.
There’s a misconception that cartoonists fix very quickly upon how best to portray a public figure. There is actually a great deal of testing of ideas in the public forum, before a winning formula is hit upon. Just as Steve Bell of The Guardian played around with many portrayals of John Major before he struck gold with the Y-fronts outside the trousers, or with various characterisations of George W. Bush before drawing him as a chimp, Gillray was constantly searching for visual shorthand that resonated with his patrons. This included the swarthy Whig Charles James Fox’s trademark five-o’clock shadow, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s bulbous boozer’s nose, or the now iconic characterisation of the Prince of Wales as an engorged voluptuary suffering the horrors of digestion.
Satire was an unashamedly commercial venture in the Georgian age, and Gillray’s huge popularity helped the print shops shift a great deal of units. He also had to deal with the ceaseless pressure of reacting quickly to topical events, and churned out a couple of powerful and highly accomplished engravings every week. (The stress of maintaining an extraordinarily high output surely contributed to both his eyesight and his mind giving way at the end of his life.)
The political grandee Fox once griped that ‘caricatures had done him more mischief than the debates in parliament or the works of the press’. He even protested about them in the Commons. Later, caricatures of 'Boney' helped galvanise the nation against Napoleon's war-mongering, and suspicions about Johnny Foreigner were expressed eloquently in caricature. Napoleon was of average height, but Gillray’s portrayals of the ‘Corsican Carcase-Butcher’ as a midget martinet have given subsequent generations the impression he was a jumped-up short-arse, which is testimony to the power of satire.
Nothing was sacred to Gillray, and he once found himself with royal lawyers on his case after caricaturing the Prince of Wales and his squeeze Mrs. Fitzherbert being thrown violently from their phaeton, the bare arse of the latter exposed to public scrutiny as her skirts fly up, and the face of the former on the point of burying itself in the lady’s ample rump. Caricatures of royalty were perennially popular, but the Hanoverian sense of humour often suffered failures. This sensitivity was an opportunity for less-than-honest financial dealing, and caricaturists who had consistently hit the raw nerves of their targets had a neat sideline in blackmail. One had only to make the Prince aware, via an intermediary, that one was considering knocking out another salacious engraving of him in an embarrassing sexual scenario to be certain of being bribed to suppress the work altogether.
Sometimes, you can spot the word ‘Suppressed’ at the bottom of a caricature, indicating that this is precisely what has happened.
You had to make a living, after all, but Gillray has frequently been criticised – perhaps justifiably – for selling out to the Tory administration, and accepting a pension in exchange for lampooning Charles James Fox’s Whigs. But he was doing little more than many modern political cartoonists who often have to toe an editorial and political line drawn by newspaper proprietors.
This tension between what you would like to draw and what an editor will let you get away with was something with which I was never comfortable when cartooning for the national press. Once, I was filling in at the Sunday Telegraph, when The Scream by Edvard Munch had been stolen from a museum during the same week that Mark Thatcher was arrested for his alleged role in a military coup. I drew Margaret Thatcher as The Scream’s howling central figure, holding a newspaper with the headline, ‘Mark Thatcher Arrested’. The Comment editor rang me, and chuckled, ‘This is BRILLIANT! Absolutely tremendous. But, er……..we can’t use it, of course.’ When I asked why, he explained that the Telegraph’s readers had such affection for Mrs. Thatcher that they couldn’t risk upsetting them.
Gillray, to his credit, often exasperated his Tory paymasters by having a sly dig at them too, on occasion, or by putting his own spin on the ideas they shoved under his nose for engraving. The very best caricaturists are essentially a little ungovernable, and as uncompromising as their market, circumstances, and prevailing attitudes will allow them to be.
Amongst the formative experiences of my childhood are the trips I used to take to the workshop that produced caricature puppets for the satirical 1980s TV show Spitting Image. When I was ten years old, my father made a tentative call to the workshop’s Docklands address, and with the kind permission of the obscenely talented caricaturists Peter Fluck and Roger Law, and its outstanding producer John Lloyd, I used to poke around excitedly in the huge puppet storage room, and get under the overworked caricaturists’ feet. Without the encouragement and tutelage I received at Spitting Image, I’m not sure I would have pursued a career as a caricaturist, and Lloyd, Fluck and Law changed my life immeasurably with their random act of kindness.
There is no doubt that Fluck and Law were acutely aware of the rich history and heritage of the satirical tradition in which they worked. They once caricatured a carnivorous Margaret Thatcher carving the U.K. as a slice of flesh from a bloodied globe, in an updated version of Gillray’s famous Plumb Pudding in Danger. Even so, like everyone else at the time, I used to think of Spitting Image as a startlingly original concept. But when I embarked on my adult odyssey through caricature’s history, and then began research for my illustrated book The Gin Lane Gazette, I soon came to realise that, as with so much else, the innovative Georgians had already blazed the trail.
Most of today’s cartoonists – myself included – would concede that James Gillray invented the modern political cartoon almost single-handed, and that we haven’t really bettered or developed anything he was producing at the end of the 18th century. His aforementioned Plumb Pudding must be the most recycled, adapted, and ripped-off engraving in cartoon history. He was described in his own time as a ‘caterpillar on the green leaf of reputation’, which is a magnificent epitaph, as far as I’m concerned. Art historians will tell you that his work influenced Goya, and I don’t doubt it. When I look at a Gillray caricature, it reminds me of what Picasso said when he marvelled at cave paintings in south-western France. He lamented that in 17,000 years of art, ‘We have discovered nothing.’