In one of his most celebrated paintings, O the Roast Beef of Old England, William Hogarth appears as himself, sketching the fortifications at Calais at the very moment of being mistakenly arrested as a spy in 1748. It is not what you would call a subtle scene. The raggedy French soldiers are on their last legs, barely sustained by watery soup, while a gaggle of fishwives resemble the flounder they are selling from their tatty basket. There’s a fat, greedy friar trying to get his hands on a sumptuous joint of beef which has just been unloaded and is on its way to one of the many English restaurants that thrive in Calais (only 200 years earlier the town had belonged to Britain). Spying, by implication, is not something that Britons resort to, although the figure of Hogarth busily sketching to one side is a warning not to dismiss John Bull as dense. The “Old England” Hogarth conjures up here is affluent, abundant and free. The French, meanwhile, are reduced to a series of humiliating stereotypes: silly, salacious and in thrall to the absolutist Roman Catholic church (you can just make out some gorgeously attired priests and abasing peasants in the background).
However, Tate Britain’s new exhibition Hogarth and Europe sets out to show that the artist was far from anyone’s idea of a “little Englander”. Rather, he saw himself, and was in turn seen, as a keen citizen of a rapidly globalising marketplace. Not only did Hogarth travel in Europe, but scores of Italian and French painters came to work in his native London.
JUST ABOUT EVERY PAGE in the 226 7×10-inch page Drawing Fire: The Editorial Cartoons of Bill Mauldin (2020 Pritzker Military Museum hardcover, $35) has a Mauldin cartoon on it. Just one. Which means his cartoons are given greater display herein than they ever got in the newspapers that initially published the cartoons. Mauldin drew political cartoons for about 40 years; and he drew cartoons about ordinary foot soldiers (“dogfaces”) in World War II as a 5-year prologue. That was the first war he cartooned about; he would cartoon about four more, ending with the first Gulf War.
He was a sort of man without a country for a while. He was caught between the left, which he saw as apologists for the Soviet Union, and the right, which he saw as [having] a fascist enthusiasm for a catastrophic war with the Soviet Union. He was a lone voice of independent liberalism for a while.
RL: And he soon gained an adversary in J. Edgar Hoover.
It didn’t take long. By late 1945, the FBI opened a file on him, kept him under surveillance, collected his cartoons, kept a record of speeches he gave, and the groups he joined. All of that was used in his 1956 congressional race by his opponent who had access to that raw FBI data.
If Hogarth was the grandfather of the modern cartoon, You were its father…” so wrote the cartoonist David Low in 1943, addressing his 18th century predecessor James Gillray.
Born in 1756, Gillray set the template for the modern political cartoon. He combined the old tradition of the political print with the more modern art of personal caricature, his savage humour and supreme draughtsmanship making him the unrivalled visual satirist of the day. In The Plumb-Pudding in Danger he created arguably the greatest, and certainly the most pastiched, example of the form. For many contemporary political cartoonists he is a direct influence, but all cartoonists are indebted to him.
Gillray is, in my opinion, not simply one of the greatest satirical cartoonists to have lived, but one of Britain’s greatest artists in any genre. His are the footsteps the rest of us walk in, the shoulders we stand on, the metaphors we still steal.
Elsewhere (from six years ago) …
It has been 200 years since the death of James Gillray, the artist widely regarded as the father of the modern political cartoon. It’s an anniversary we ought to celebrate.
In a career that spanned 30 years, from the 1780s to the early 1800s, Gillray produced political cartoons of unprecedented draughtsmanship and satirical verve.
I’ve interviewed many old cartoonists over the years and one thing that ties the humorists together is their admiration for fellow cartoonists who knew how to “sell a gag”. Like a stand-up comic who takes his or her time to build on a story, coming through at the end with an uproarious and unexpected twist, cartoonists of all generations aspire for that perfectly timed, perfectly delivered ending.
Russ Johnson (1893-1995) worked on his Mister Oswald Sunday page-style comic strip for 62 years, in the pages of Hardware Retailing magazine. Throughout those six decades of work, Johnson developed a gag-delivery approach that worked more often than not. And on occasion, it was perfection.
Bill Elder Mad #20 Complete 8-Page Story “Katchandhammer Kids!” Original Art (EC, 1955).
Elder, the maddest of Harvey Kurtzman’s original crew of MAD-men, delivers a parody of the classic Katzenjammer Kids comic strip – so note-perfect in the drawing style, that it might be casually mistaken for Rudolph Dirks’ original 19th-century conception. Except that Dirks never had meta-humorist Kurtzman around to handle the writing.
More typically, a parody will impose comedy upon a source-story that takes itself seriously; Kurtzman’s masterstroke was to find an inspiration, like the authentic Katzenjammers, that was already goofy – and make it ever more so by exaggerating the basic concept and adding a darker edge.
By the time this MAD spoof came along, veteran King Features workhorse Doc Winner had been drawing the official Katzenjammers feature since 1949, and Elder made it a point to channel the styles of Winner, Harold Knerr (Dirks’ successor), and Dirks himself. Elder, of course, could not resist adding those incidental sight-gags that make his panels so compulsively readable: The cartoonist would hide a joke in almost every background.