The unappreciated world of cartoonists

2014-01-14 00:00

THE political cartoonist occupies a rather strange and anomalous position in the editorial newsroom. Surrounded almost entirely by writers who, for the most part, tend to think verbally rather than visually, he is often made to feel like the poor country cousin, never quite sure where he fits in or how seriously his work is taken.

A quick scan through history will show that cartoonists have, indeed, not always got the respect they deserve (even amongst fine artists there is a certain stigma attached to the job. It’s generally thought of as being a very minor art form).

Back in the 19th century at Punch, for example, the editorial cartoonists were, on the whole, not considered sufficiently intelligent to be able to determine either the subject matter of the main weekly cartoon or its treatment. Instead this was decided by all the members of the Punch editorial table — in what we would today call “a think-tank”.

Although an exceptionally gifted artist, John Leech is said to have suggested only 11 out of the 700 cartoons he contributed to the magazine while his successor, the equally talented Sir John Tenniel (who produced maybe the most famous cartoon of all time, Dropping the Pilot about Bismarck) had a very similar record.

The only real power the cartoonist possessed was that of veto; if his colleagues enthused over an idea he considered unworkable Tenniel (who is perhaps better remembered today for his Alice in Wonderland illustrations) would simply hold up his hand and say “Impossible!”

As such, the role of the cartoonist was often little more than that of an editorial illustrator who was not expected to think, just obey. The cartoons they were obliged to produce tended to reflect their collective origin

— not only were the captions often excessively wordy (what else would you expect when a writer has the final say?) but they generally lacked any real individuality or political bite.

This slightly patronising attitude continued way into the next century. The world famous British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe — who along with Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman was one of the progenitors of a ferocious new wave of British visual satire — has described how the arts editor at Punch used to send his drawings back to him with comments like “this nose is too big” and a line showing where he thought it should end.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, when the new satirical magazine Private Eye was launched, Scarfe jumped ship. Surrounded by mavericks like himself, he found the new editorial set-up much more to his liking. Recognising his exceptional talent, his bosses gave him complete carte blanche, leaving him free to draw from whatever perspective he felt most comfortable with.

Their faith in his abilities paid off; liberated from the petty conventions and restrictions which had so frustrated him, Scarfe’s artwork underwent a startling metamorphosis. Forms billowed, bulged and exploded, lines stabbed and splattered. Not only did his cartoons become a whole lot nastier but they also became much funnier too.

While, even today, some cartoonists will, simply as a survival mechanism, adopt the colours of their newspaper for better or worse, most are now — like their columnist counterparts — given a similar amount of leeway to pursue their own ideas and express their own opinions. I think this is probably as it should be.

For my part, I know my best cartoons are invariably the ones where I feel most passionately about the subject or have been genuinely angered by something I have witnessed. Conversely, there is nothing more difficult then being forced to produce a cartoon when your heart is not in it; the lack of conviction will almost always show through.

In the end, I think, all a cartoonist can do is be truthful to his own thoughts and feelings, draw what is inside him and hope the message he is trying to convey will spark a responsive chord in his audience.

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