The Cartoon Century

Kenneth Baker | Published in History Today
The Cartoon Century
Britain Through the Eyes of its Cartoonists
Tim Benson
Random House   256pp   £20
ISBN 1 905 21159 7
 

When you leaf through a photograph album, events come back to you where all too often the names, the faces and the places had been forgotten. Books of cartoons of the twentieth century are also full of forgotten or barely remembered episodes: the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902; the great ‘Mesopotamian campaign of 1930’ to get Britain out of Iraq; the mysterious death of Commander Crabbe during Khrushchev’s visit in 1956; the Grunwick Dispute, and the allegations of Mr Smith about his relationship with Jeremy Thorpe in 1976. It is chastening to recall that these were once all headline news. Dipping into this fascinating book, however, is not a trivial pursuit for it also includes some great events and great people in a century of turbulence.

Cartoons are a revealing way of looking at history. For the eighteenth century they are essential to understand the politics of the day. Official portraits were propaganda and so it was up to the ‘paparazzi’ of the day to depict Walpole, Chatham, North, Pitt, Fox, George III and George IV. By looking in print-shop windows the ordinary people of England could see for the first time what their leaders were really getting up to. Gillray, Rowlandson, Newton, Dent and Cruikshank were not in the business of flattering or reinforcing majesty, nor revering statesmen. In the nineteenth century photographs captured the likenesses of the great, but cartoons were a very important social and political commentary. The weekly political cartoon in Punch, which emerged from a roundtable discussion, was the establishment view of the week.

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