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Stabbed in the Front - James Gillray
August 16, 2002

Until recently graphic satire, whether historical caricatures or modern newspaper cartoons, has occupied a place in the margins between art and history, unable to convince experts on either side of its intrinsic value or potential to reflect and influence public opinion. Art experts were reluctant to concede that anything so ephemeral might have artistic merit or permanent importance. The cartoonist was seen as a journeyman working for a printer or publisher, rather than a creative artist: an outsider, just as Gillray was to the art establishment of his day. Historians rarely considered cartoons as anything more than attractive illustrations for an otherwise unrelated text; the idea that they might represent contemporary social comment or propaganda was rarely explored.

Happily attitudes are changing. The Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature was established in 1973 to encourage the preservation of images and research in "a neglected branch of creative art". This has resulted in a growing archive, accessible through the web, research and publications. Political and art historians now increasingly use graphic satire to trace significant themes and issues, discovering important primary evidence for new research areas - images of Britannia and John Bull are central as evidence of emerging Britishness. Diana Donald has brought history and art together in her seminal study of Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III , and Gillray, the leading exponent, came of age as an artist of international importance in Tate Britain's 2001 exhibition "James Gillray: The Art of Caricature".

Richard Godfrey's magisterial volume, with his illuminating biographical introduction, was published as the catalogue for the Gillray exhibition and is undoubtedly the finest and largest collection of Gillray images in print. The reproductions, mostly in full colour, are of impeccable quality and fully illustrate the artist's many-sided genius. They reveal his skill in reducing complex political issues and passing social fads into appealing comic images. The vagaries of fashion and taste are depicted alongside the eternal themes of self-delusion, pretension and desire with equal brilliance. Above all there is an astute grasp of personality and physique. Images such as that of Little Boney and The Gout are unforgettable.

The inclusion of preliminary drawings as well as portraits, busts and works by other artists, such as Fuseli and Rowlandson, which inspired Gillray's compositions, or like Goya and David, who were influenced by him, allows an in-depth survey of the artist's techniques and ideas. A thoughtful introductory essay by Mark Hallett invites us also to consider Gillray's place in the history of graphic satire, in the urban geography of 18th-century London, and his relationship with the art and political establishments of his day.

The themed sections do not cover Gillray's complete output. But all major characteristics are here, and smaller areas of interest - his serious engravings, the naval drawings of 1794 and his late drawings - are represented. The "Early works" section is a little thin - the many caricatures attacking the Fox-North coalition in 1783 are poorly represented - while the "Royal" section curiously omits the infamous Regency crisis of 1788-89. But these are minor quibbles. This is a volume that entertains and informs at all levels - a browser's delight and an invaluable source of information.

Gillray's influence on modern British satire has long been recognised. David Low called him "the father of the modern cartoon", and the Tate exhibition explored this through the work of Steve Bell, Martin Rowson and Gerald Scarfe. So Alan Mumford's Stabbed in the Front invites comparison. This is a survey of the 15 general elections between 1945 and 1997 through the eyes of the newspaper cartoonist. These were rich years for political cartooning, and the volume is copiously illustrated with the work of Low, "Vicky", Cummings, "Jak", "Trog", Emmwood, Illingworth and others to jog the memory and raise a smile. Included is Rowson's tribute: "What if... Gillray were alive to cover the 1992 general election".

Less serious than the Gillray catalogue, Stabbed in the Front is nevertheless entertaining and informative. The vivid images capture the mood of the moment and the standing of individual politicians. There are some surprises too. The first featured political cartoon, on the return to party politics in 1945, is by Winnie the Pooh artist E. H. Shepard. But Mumford is not concerned with detailed analysis, artistic merit or style. There is little sense of the changing atmosphere from the 1960s that produced the satirical revolution not only in newspaper cartoons but also in publications such as Private Eye and the development of TV satire.

A separate chapter covers each election campaign, providing a basic historical narrative, mini-biographies of the main political figures, "the cartoonist of the election", and reminiscences from a leading politician. Many interesting facts and amusing anecdotes emerge, but the cartoons remain largely illustrative and unconnected to the text.

It was probably not a good idea to focus entirely on general elections. Most campaigns were dominated by past performance and future promises, avoiding major issues. Many were plain dull, as the author admits. The memorable cartoon images often belong to specific circumstances, and are therefore missing - there is no SuperMac, no John Major's underpants (except for their final ceremonial Viking burning); no Suez or Falklands; no Common Market or Rhodesia; no "night of the long knives" or Thatcher's resignation; and no winter of discontent or poll tax.

Even the title Stabbed in the Front seems misconceived, for cartoonists comment from the sidelines, away from the action, able only to influence those involved. They may be in the pay of party or government, reflect the views of editors or proprietors, or sound a lone voice. In 1808 Cobbett said that caricatures were things to laugh at; "they break no bones; they are nothing more than figures of rhetoric proceeding from the pencil". Modern cartoonists also play down their influence. The Guardian 's Les Gibbard thought he was preaching to the converted: "Cabinet ministers may read The Guardian but not many Tory voters do." Cartoonists identify popular prejudices and push at an open door.

Politicians sometimes see it differently. Charles James Fox blamed the prints for swinging public opinion against him and causing his government's downfall in 1783. Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini all objected strongly to their treatment in the British prints. Anthony Eden complained about it daily, yet Margaret Thatcher never even bothered to look. Some are flattered by their attention, and the character of SuperMac actually enhanced Macmillan's reputation. Many keep collections of "their" cartoons. Yet cartoonists could hurt, as Daily Express editor Derek Jameson, who saw Cummings as "slightly to the right of Attila the Hun", admitted. It is often a love-hate relationship, in which politicians and cartoonists need each other.

Yet Stabbed in the Front consistently makes you smile. Who can forget Churchill's cigar, Harold Wilson's pipe or Edward Heath's teeth? And did you know that Mary Wilson was the first prime minister's wife to appear in a cartoon? Great stuff.

David Johnson is senior lecturer in history, University of Leicester.

Stabbed in the Front: Post-war General Elections through Political Cartoons

Author - Alan Mumford
ISBN - 1 902671 20 1
Publisher - Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature University of Kent at Canterbury
Price - £14.95
Pages - 148

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