Sussex

Animals and the political cartoonist

Cartoon by Gerald Scarfe Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption The Tortoise & the Blair by Gerald Scarfe - the cartoon was published after it was announced the Chilcot Report findings would not be released until next summer

Cartoonists have been using animals to mock politicians for generations, but what is it about this means of debunking political bunkum that appeals so much? A new exhibition has taken a look at the practice in Georgian times.

Curators at the Brighton Pavilion have focused on 18th Century exotic animals in fashion and the arts, including satire and caricature.

Dr Alexandra Loske said by then there was already a long tradition of using animals in satirical prints, both in Britain and across Europe.

"In most cases the joke was not on the animals but the figures associated with them," she said.

And it is a tradition that has continued to the present day.

Image copyright Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Image caption Le Mort by John Doyle and Thomas McLean in 1829 poked fun at King George's giraffe

In a career spanning more than 50 years, celebrated political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe has produced drawings that feature Russian President Vladimir Putin riding a bear, former Prime Minister Tony Blair as a hare and Home Secretary Theresa May as a dog - as he tackled subjects including the Ukraine referendum, the Chilcot inquiry and the draft investigatory powers bill.

Dr Loske has explained the enduring appeal of the animal world.

She said the use of animals to ridicule humans offered endless possibilities.

"The natural world is so colourful and varied. It's full of strange and extreme shapes. If you are looking for a way of ridiculing a human, you have your pig for instance."

"It's the question of how close are we to the next ones down in that chain of being."

But Dr Loske said it was not just the sheer comical effect of sticking an animal head on a human body and vice versa.

She said many animals came with a ready-made set of symbols attached to them - so a bear or a cat would signify ferocity or danger.

And a code of meanings also developed. One example is that 19th Century Russia was typically depicted as a bear.

Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption Can You Ever Trust a Bear? by Gerald Scarfe was a comment on the Ukraine referendum

In the Brighton exhibition, a number of prints pay particular attention to a giraffe owned by King George IV which satirists used to comment on the king.

Dr Loske said the giraffe was injured in its long journey through Africa and both the animal and the ageing and ailing king were "great fodder for caricaturists".

In Le Mort, the king is shown weeping over his giraffe which is shortly about to die.

"This was the post-Napoleonic war era, and a lot of money was spent on the care of the animal," Dr Loske said.

"That was difficult for a lot of people. It was saying the king was not looking after the country but rather weeping over a silly toy because the giraffe was considered to be a toy.

"It was saying the king was in hiding from the public and wasting his time - and weeping over the giraffe and not weeping over the country."

In The Great Joss and his Playthings, Robert Seymour "Shortshanks" pokes fun at the king's interest in anything exotic and expensive - and a close look shows the king stroking a toy giraffe.

Image copyright Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Image caption The Great Joss and his Playthings by Robert Seymour "Shortshanks" and G Creed, c1829, mocked the king's expensive tastes

The R-G-NCY PARK shows animals with human heads including the foreign secretary as a wolf in a a tug-of-war with a prime minister shown as a snake.

Dr Loske said the location of the scene, the recently created Regent's Park, was coincidentally soon to become the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London.

Image copyright Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Image caption The R-G-NCY PARK, M Jones, 1813, showed politicians fighting - but in the guise of a wolf and a snake

Dr Loske said titles of prints tended to abbreviate or obscure royal names and titles, possibly to avoid prosecution for libel or slander.

She said this would explain why Regency was changed to R-G-NCY in one title, and King George was referred to as the Great Joss in another.

Comparing the 18th Century with now, Scarfe said satire's subject matter remained the same - as did its purpose.

"It's politicians, it's social life and fashion. It is the same intent and that is to poke fun or draw attention to the bad things in the world - as well as things that are funny."

When Scarfe started at the satirical magazine Private Eye in the 1960s, his work was compared with 18th Century satirists such as Hogarth and Gillray, and drew comments on its virulence as satire enjoyed a boom period.

"At Private Eye, I was drawing public figures, politicians, royalty - just as they did in the 18th Century - and in the 60s we moved back into biting, actual satire."

But what fuels satire - and is it the personal view of the satirist or a reflection of public opinion?

"It has to be personal to me, but I may be led by what's in the press," Scarfe said.

"When Blair took us into the Iraq war, people marched in the streets, and I was very aware of public feeling in general.

"I think anger to a certain extent fuels my drawing, if you're really involved, one's point of view does matter."

Scarfe's view is that satire is both healthy and important.

"The point is that it's healthy to have other points of view, especially to be able to criticise those people who are rulers, or who are telling us how to lead our lives.

"Cartoonists are a bit like an old-fashioned court jester. They were the only people who were able to say to the king 'you are wrong'.

"It's a very healthy thing to have freedom of speech."

Exotic Creatures is at The Royal Pavilion in Brighton until 28 February

Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption Always Keep Your Sniffer Dog On A Leash - Scarfe targeted Theresa May's Draft Investigatory Powers Bill

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