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Whatever happened to the art of
the newspaper cartoon? 

As in the passing of the age of
the comedian, there seem to be far fewer political cartoonists at work than
there used to be.  And those who do
appear regularly in the press are far less influential than their predecessors,
some of whom could, with a ribald image, or a theme that struck a chord with the
reading public, contribute to the fall of a government or a prime minister.  And, frankly, most of the new lot are far
less competent, lacking political wit and skill as draughtsmen. 

The cartoonists who carried most
weight in my lifetime – and I’m going back to the beginning of that lengthening
span – were David Low and ‘Vicky’, real name Victor Weisz.  Low’s war-time cartoons, especially those
done early in the conflict, helped to sustain the country’s morale by
reinforcing its courageous self-image. 
His most famous drawing, at the time Hitler’s armies had overrun most of
continental Europe, was that of a British soldier standing on a wave-swept rock
representing Britain,
shaking a defiant fist at an approaching squadron of Nazi bombers.  The caption was, “Very well, alone!”.

In another of his famous
cartoons, called ‘Rendezvous’, drawn at the time of the non-aggression pact
between Germany and the Soviet Union, Low has the smiling figures of Hitler and
Stalin, bowing to each other and doffing their caps over the prostrate body of
Europe.  The greeting from Hitler is,
“The scum of the earth, I believe”, the response from Stalin, “The bloody
assassin of the workers, I believe”.

Low, a New Zealander by birth,
invented the character of Colonel Blimp, a figure of fun representing the
pompous obliviousness of Britain’s
top military brass during the run-up to war, whose name has become part of the

Vicky, a German-Hungarian Jewish
immigrant, was an altogether different kind of satirist.  Because he worked in peacetime, when the
issues of the day were less clear-cut than they had been during the war, he
could rely more on gentle caricatures of his subjects rather than on the
accompanying ‘message’.  Vicky’s
favourite target was Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, whom he nicknamed ‘Supermac’,
reflecting MacmiIllan’s Edwardian air of effortless superiority, that of a man
out of step with his time.  Macmillan himself
was sufficiently amused to bandy the nickname about.

Whether artists like these have
had more than a passing effect on politics, or history, is debatable.  Lord Baker, a former Conservative cabinet
minister in the 1990s, thinks it was a substantial influence on Britain’s
political stability.  In most of Europe, censorship prevented open satire of monarchs or
political leaders.  In France, such
dissenting heads, or those of the monarchs being lampooned, would have
rolled.  The absence of censorship in Britain, a
political tradition of some force, allowed cartoonists to flourish.  I believe Baker told a BBC interviewer back
then, “that if you can laugh at your rulers, you don’t cut off their heads.  Laughter is an escape for those kinds of
pent-up feelings.  It helps make a
society kinder.”

The observations of raucous and
degrading life in London
by William Hogarth (1697-1764) helped to define his time.  The same could be said of James Gillray
(1756-1815) whose overfed and debauched figures exposed the excess of life
among the upper-classes in eighteenth-century England.

Who are the cartoonists today who
make us laugh and, more importantly, make us think?  I can’t think of many.

Matt, in the Daily Telegraph, sometimes raises a chuckle, but he’s even gentler
than Vicky.  Gerald Scarfe, with his post
Trinian grotesques, has had an impact but in recent years he seems to have
become more and more splenetic and less and less detached from his subjects. 

As for the rest, Richard Brookes
in The Times, does good and sometimes
outstanding work.  (I should mentioned
that he once drew me, as a grasping pin-striped capitalist clutching a bundle
of notes in one hand and an outsized cigar in the other; not an entirely inaccurate
portrait.)  Steve Bell of The Guardian used to amuse me,
especially after he discovered a salient point about Prime Minister John Major.  The salient point was that Mr. Major tucked
his shirt into them, thus demonstrating one of the sadder aspects of his grey,
suburban character.  (Apparently the
beans about Major’s underpants were spilled by Alistair Campbell, Opposition
Leader Tony Blair’s press secretary.)  

The current incumbent of 10 Downing Street
gets off virtually Scott-free.  The
trouble with David Cameron, from a cartoonist’s point of view, is that he displays
very few obvious mannerisms and, other than a high forehead, has no outstandingly
odd physical features.  The same goes for
his deputy, Nick Clegg.  For the purposes
of caricature, they are bland-looking peas in a rather featureless pod.  

But it’s not the present absence
of politicians with funny faces, or silly walks or mannered dress, that’s missing
– it’s the lack of artists to draw them.

I hope Fleet Street discovers a
few before long.


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