Looking at life funny side up

March 10, 2000

Are cartoons worthy of academic study? asks Jennifer Currie

Studies of Andy Capp and saucy seaside postcards are more than just objects of amusement, says Nick Hiley. "They are worthy of serious study. People need to be encouraged to move into this area of academic work."

Hiley is head of the Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature at the University of Kent at Canterbury, which has just been asked to host CartoonHub, a national, electronic archive of cartoons and caricatures.

Internet users will soon be able to browse through a collection of more than 50,000 cartoons, dating from the 18th century to the present, which the research team at Kent is painstakingly scanning into its computer systems.

With more than 85,000 political cartoons dating from the turn of the last century, including work by W. K. Hasleden and Ralph Steadman, the cartoon centre at UKC is one of Britain's largest.

Initially, the centre provided a safe haven for unwanted originals. Over the years, famous cartoonists, such as Austin, have placed sketchbooks in the centre's care, partly to show the lengthy process each cartoon goes through before it is printed.

Hiley is particularly proud of a collection of postwar seaside postcards that were involved in public decency prosecutions in the 1950s. Recorded on the back of each image of fat ladies, hen-pecked husbands and ineffectual vicars are dates and locations that show when and where they were discovered - and their destruction ordered.

"Luckily, the public prosecutor kept a version of each card for his own records," says Hiley. "They are a form of social comment that ought to be studied."

The tradition of the angry political cartoon was revitalised by people such as Steve Bell during the Thatcher years and they are exceptionally cruel. Not one cartoon features in John Major's biography, despite researchers spending time at the centre.

"We want people to see cartoons as more than side panels. They set the news agenda and steer public thinking," Hiley says.

To promote cartoons as worthy of serious academic study, CartoonHub will provide links to archives at the British Library, Manchester University and the National Library of Wales.

Securing funding for a subject that is perceived as being "on the fringes of academia", is never easy.

"A collection of medieval manuscripts will always be more likely to win funding than a collection of cartoons," Hiley says.

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