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Birth of England's pocket cartoon; LOCAL HISTORY Smile awhile through the history of the cartoonist.


After the horoscope, it's probably the first thing you look at in your morning paper.

In a world of bad news - wall-to-wall wars, terrorist attacks, global warming, floods and earthquakes - the pocket cartoon is one sure way to make you smile in a sombre world.

Most cartoonists would happily accept a smile, though a chuckle would be better still. It's not easy to work for people who are only half-awake.

So where did it come from, this little ray of morning light, and why is it an indispensable ingredient of a good newspaper?

The political cartoon is the child of the caricature, and the latter goes back an awful long way. Even further than The Post's Gemini, Bert Hackett, in fact.

The graffiti artists of Roman Pompeii, who drew pictures of their political opponents on the walls of that doomed city, did not have much in the way of wit or clever one-liners, but they stand at the dawn of a long tradition.

The caricature, at least in its early days, was more an instrument of propaganda than of satire, but whatever its aims and targets, the cartoon was always at the mercy of its medium.

When the Protestant Reformers began to ridicule their Catholic counterparts in the 16th century it was in the form of a woodcut, and that had a limited print run. Once the block wore out, the voice fell silent.

Even by the 18th century, when the copper plate had generally replaced wood, a print run of more than 1,500 copies was unusual. Still, the prints could circulate widely and find their mark.

The man usually dubbed the first cartoonist in England was William Hogarth, who deployed detailed and venomous engravings to satirise the society he lived in. Alcohol, marriage and elections were among his targets, but Hogarth's work was social commentary only in a general sense, and it was only mildly political. It is to a contemporary of Hogarth's - George, viscount and later marquess of Townshend - that we can attribute the birth of the political cartoon in England.

The marquess circulated little cards with a verse and a cartoon to poke fun at his rivals, and it certainly did no harm to his political career. Nor did his penchant for drink.

By the 1770s the political cartoon was becoming a powerful instrument, and its greatest exponents - James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson - remain two of the most acerbic and successful masters of the art. What comes over most strongly is how mild, by comparison, are the cartoons of today.

Blame the law for that, if you will, for there was effectively no such thing as libel before the 19th Century.

The prints of Gillray, therefore, were scatological, brutal, offensive and witty all in one and no-one, from the King downward, was spared. It was ironic (and only fair) that both the caricaturist and his chief quarry went mad.

But then, with the print in full sail, the medium changed. The advent of lithography, improved woodcuts and paper manufacture in the early 19th century allowed the cartoon to move from the standalone print to the magazine.

Both processes, boxwood engraving and lithography, had their drawbacks in technique, but the possibility of getting from the cartoonist's head and into print in two or three days greatly increased the immediacy of the comment.

Lithographically, for example, the artist had to master the art of drawing backwards and directly onto the stone, and to exactly the same size as the cartoon would appear.

It was the boxwood cartoon that dominated in Victorian England, championed by the magazine Punch, which appeared on the news stands in 1841.

Punch began by employing ten cartoonists, but by 1850 it was the work of two men - John Leech and Richard Doyle - that dominated the publication.

When Doyle resigned over Punch's anti-Catholic stance, his replacement, John Tenniel, became the magazine's chief artist for the next half-century.

The cartoons of Punch, and of Tenniel in particular, became, year by year, a kind of alternative history of Britain, and a running commentary on our political system, but it was almost always a tool of the editor and proprietor.

As for the cartoonist himself, however, he may secretly have yearned for the era of the 18th-century print and the autonomy it gave. He was expected to tow the line decided at the weekly staff dinner, which determined the subject and the message of the cartoon.

It was in the pages of magazines such as Punch (and in Birmingham in weekly publications like The Owl, The Dart and The Town Crier) that readers looked for their weekly titter, though it was (to be honest) more often a wry and rueful smile.

So it was at least until the 1890s when photoengraving allowed newspapers in on the act. The advent of the daily newspaper came in the 1850s, when the government tax on newsprint and paper was removed and the unit cost came down, but it was photoengraving that allowed the cartoonist to connect directly with his medium (and his public) once more.

The cartoon could be transferred photographically to a plate of any size the editor wished, and if that meant being squeezed into a single column, so it was. The pocket cartoonist was born.


James Gillray's cartoon Metallic Tractors, published in 1801, portrays Benjamin Perkins treating a boil on the nose of an alcoholic John Bull. The tractors had been invented by his father, Elisha Perkins of Connecticut, and were supposed to relieve pain and other symptoms through the agency of animal magnetism' James Gillray satirising Napoleon Bonaparte baking a new batch of kings' John Tenniel's 'Blind Man's Buff' Punch cartoon of 1888, criticising the police's alleged incompetence in tracking down Jack the Ripper' The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcome, with an account of his Campaigns on the Peninsula and in Pall Mall: with Sketches by Thomas Rowlandson (1816) Pictured here Johnny learns "to smoke and drink grog"
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 21, 2006
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