The Greatest Political Cartoon of All Time? Tim Benson, Founder of the Political Cartoon Society, Introduces His Ten Favourite Cartoons Published in Britain and We Invite Readers to Vote for the Best of the Lot
Benson, Tim, History Today
OVER THE PAST FEW HUNDRED YEARS, cartoonists in Britain have, on occasions, produced drawings that have not only encapsulated significant historical events but have over time become iconic. No other medium, written or visual, comes close to capturing moments in history more than the great political cartoon. This is all the more impressive, when you consider that cartoonists have to interpret events as they are happening, without the benefit of hindsight or the time for in-depth research. Anyone who has studied history at secondary school level must have noticed the many outstanding cartoons in history textbooks and journals such as History Today over the past fifty years. As a consequence, if you ask anyone with an interest in history or politics to name one of these famous cartoons, they will most likely mention several. Although they may not be able to name the cartoonist, the cartoon's caption or where it was originally published, they will be able to describe it. The imagery and composition of Gillray's 'Plum Pudding', Zec's 'Here you are! Don't lose it again!' or Low's 'Rendezvous' have become over the years, part of our common consciousness. Nowhere else in the world does the cartoon have such an impact: it is far easier to list the ten greatest cartoons published in Britain than to name ten equivalent great ones from anywhere else in the world. In America, besides the Thomas Nast cartoon of 'Boss Tweed', the vast majority of American historians would smuggle to name another, even from the twentieth century. The quality and depth of political caricature in Britain has a unique heritage which remains to this day far superior to that of the rest of the world.
What makes a great cartoon? I would say it is where the cartoonist has combined outstanding draftsmanship with an ability to comment on an event or situation in a vivid, perceptive and imaginative way. This can be done either satirically or, for dramatic effect, poignantly. The composition is also essential for ease of interpretation and appreciation. The dynamics of composition can also help heighten the cartoon's impact. With each of my top ten cartoons, complex events have been transformed into simple patterns of black and white. Each cartoon, like the picture, as the old adage goes, paints a thousand words.
Through the years British political cartoonists themselves, have facilitated the memory of the great cartoon by their tradition of alluding to previous 'classics'. Sir John Tenniel's 'Dropping the Pilot' cartoon for Punch (1890) was the first example of a cartoon to be alluded to by other cartoonists. Most of my top ten have since been regularly alluded to by cartoonists. Today, allusions are still popular, especially with the likes of Nick Garland of the Daily Telegraph, Steve Bell of the Guardian and Dave Brown of the Independent. The use of allusion by the cartoonist and of the words 'with apologies to ...' helps keep classic cartoons in the reader's mind and recognizes the original cartoon's greatness, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. This is in no sense copying, for the modern cartoonist is producing an updated version of a memorable image, and one that makes a similar point as the original but refers to a contemporary issue. The composition remains roughly the same but the characters or the captions are brought up to date. For example, Nick Garland's homage to David Low's 'Rendezvous' (which appeared in the Daily Telegraph on March 2nd, 1983) has not Stalin and Hitler greeting each other over the body of a dead Polish soldier, but Thatcher and Foot meeting over the body of the dead SDE Les Gibbard's homage to Zec's famous 'Price of Petrol' was published in the Guardian on May 6th, 1982. It is identical to Zec's original, but Gibbard had slightly changed the title to make a point on the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War. This cartoon almost caused as much stir as the original: the next day Gibbard was labelled a traitor in the Sun's leader column. …