Stirring fools out of their folly

Ian F. Grant is chairperson of the Guardians of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive and has written widely on cartoon history. He is not an employee of the Department of Internal Affairs, and as such, his views are his own.

A visit from the Guardian

If one could guess the mood, as the large crowd left the National Library on 9 March, it could well have been delight at hearing (and seeing) someone thumbing his nose very decisively at the growing authoritarianism in world politics.

The crowded ground floor of the National Library – with about 180 attending and others left on a waiting list – listened with rapt attention to the Guardian’s Steve Bell, one of the world’s best known cartoonists, talk about his cartooning career and demonstrate the power of editorial cartoons to shape public perceptions of politicians.

A sell out audience at Steve Bell's talk.A sell out audience at Steve Bell's talk. Photo by Imaging Services.

Chris Szekely, Ian Grant, Steve Bell, Hannah Benbow, and Oliver Stead.Chris Szekely, Ian Grant, Steve Bell, Hannah Benbow, and Oliver Stead before the 9 March event. Photo by Imaging Services

The political cartooning legacy

Steve Bell traced his cartooning lineage, and those of other leading practitioners today, back to James Gillray in the late 18th century. Bell, and his colleagues, still pay visual deference to Gillray who Bell considers “the first real political cartoonist”.

Cartoon by James Gillray, showing Pitt and Napoleon carving up the world for themselves.James Gillray, "The Plumb-pudding in danger", 1805.

Steve Bell talking cartoons.Steve Bell talking cartoons. Photo by Imaging Services.

Bell, a large man with a laugh as hearty as those of the bearded cartoon pirates he loved in comic books as a child, kept his audience enthralled for over an hour as he explained how he worked out ways to encapsulate British and US leaders: David Cameron encased in a condom, Boris Johnson, a mop on legs, G. W. Bush a chimpanzee, and Donald Trump’s distinctive head a toilet bowl.

Famously, Steve Bell drew British Prime Minister John Major with his underpants over his trousers, immortalising him as, in Bell’s words, “a crap Superman”.

Former UK Prime Minister John Major, underpants over his trousers, with a road cone up his behind. He is calling the Cone Hotline to report a problem.Steve Bell, "Hello? Cone Hotline?", 1994.

He has recently drawn Theresa May, with her distinctive fashion flair and unusual shoes, as a crazed Harlequin figure. In one of Bell’s cartoons, the UK government’s front bench, has a moribund UK lying between May and Johnson.

Steve Bell's impression of the UK Tory government front bench, including a harlequin Theresa May and fuzzy-headed Boris Johnson.Steve Bell, "The UK Conservative Government's front bench", 2017.

New Zealand’s cartoon tradition

With the New Zealand Cartoon Archive at the Alexander Turnbull Library celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it is interesting to recall that cartoonists are at their penetrating and perceptive best when major political personalities overturn conventional and predictable political apple carts.

In New Zealand, in the 1890s the Liberal revolutionaries led by Richard John Seddon stimulated a flowing of cartooning talent. In the 1930s, Sir Gordon Minhinnick’s career was given a fillip by the actions of the first Labour government he heartily disliked. In the 1970s, Robert David Muldoon’s pugnaciousness and divisive policies gave an edge to the work of cartoonists like Peter Bromhead, Bob Brockie and Tom Scott.

Cartoonists felt a genuine sense of loss when Muldoon left the political scene.

Cartoon of Muldoon saying 'By and large, the tradition of this party is not to tackle sitting members', in front of a shadow of a member clearly stabbed in the back.There is nothing a cartoonist likes less than a bland and regularly featured Prime Minister. Bromhead, "By and large...", [date?]

Even for Eric Heath, the Dominion’s generally mild long-time cartoonist, the Muldoon he drew had evolved from a genial gnome-like figure into a ranting gargoyle.

Eric Heath's caricatures of Muldoon from 1969 to 1993, increasingly grotesque.Eric Heath's evolving depiction of Muldoon, 1969-1993.

Here, the success of the Cartoon Archive over the last quarter century is a reflection of the parade of great cartoonists New Zealand has produced during the last 120 years. None is more illustrious than Sir David Low who succinctly summed up the role of political cartoonists in 1942:

Their function is not to please but to provoke, for in this way they contribute to progress by shocking the indifferent into action and stirring fools out of their folly.

Famous for his early warnings about Hitler’s Germany, Low was a long-time Guardian cartoonist. Later another New Zealander, Les Gibbard, was the influential paper’s political cartoonist for 25 years before Steve Bell succeeded him.

During the NZ Cartoon Archive’s quarter century there has been increasing acceptance of the importance of editorial cartoons as valuable historical sources. As Thomas Kenitz wrote in 1973:

[cartoons] can provide insights into the popular attitudes that underlay public opinion, insights that may be more difficult to glean from written material or from other evidence of behaviour.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Marshall called cartoons “instant enlightenment”.

Recently, Hannah Benbow, the Alexander Turnbull Library's Research Librarian, Cartoons, analysed the increasing use made of the collection, now numbering over 50,000 cartoon images.

Steven Bell sitting with Ian Grant and digital librarian Dolores Hoy.Steve Bell hearing about the process of collecting and referencing digital cartoons, with Ian Grant and Dolores Hoy. Photo by Imaging Services.

She found that 85 percent of requests were to reproduce cartoons in academic publications and text books. Common requesters include museums – a number overseas – government departments and journalists. A large number of requests are from teachers, students, examiners and authors of school textbooks.

What’s coming up for the Archive?

The Cartoon Archive will be marking its anniversary year in two further ways.

In July, it will be publishing the second in a series of monographs dealing with more specialist aspects of New Zealand cartoon history. Savages to suits: Māori in editorial cartoons by Paul Diamond, the Turnbull Library’s Curator Māori, surveys cartoons produced from the 1930s to the 90s, and examines what these say about how cartoonists, editors and media owners have depicted Māori, Pākehā and race relations.

In August, in conjunction with the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, the Turnbull Library and Cartoon Archive will be holding the capital’s first caricature exhibition. Ludicrous likenesses: The fine art of caricature, will feature the caricatures of 46 cartoonists and artists chosen by Dr Oliver Stead, the Turnbull’s Curator, Drawings, Paintings and Prints and Hannah Benbow.

Steve Bell visited the Cartoon Archive the day after his talk and looked at some of the caricatures chosen for Ludicrous likenesses, with Hannah Benbow, Ian Grant, and Oliver Stead. Photo by Imaging Services.

Whatever else 2017 holds, with elections here, Brexit, European demagoguery on the rise, and a once-in-several-lifetimes president in the White House, cartoonists everywhere are having the time of their lives.

By Ian F. Grant

Ian F. Grant is chairperson of the Guardians of the New Zealand Cartoon Archive and has written widely on cartoon history.

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