by Royston Robertson
After much media hoopla, Private Eye: The First 50 Yearsopened at the Victoria & Albert museum in South Kensington, London, October 28. The exhibition will run until January 8.
The free exhibition explores the wealth of artistic talent that the magazine has showcased since 1961 and features original artwork for some of the funniest Private Eye cartoons.
Cartoonist Nathan Ariss attended the private view. He writes:
“According to one insider it was ‘the most fun’ the reverent halls had witnessed in decades. Yes, the PE PV at the V&A was AOK, and deemed a rather fine night indeed.
“A bunch of cartoonists were interspersed with some serious marble statues and seriously well-off people and then somewhat embarrassed by a warm and gracious speech from the Editor, Ian Hislop, who paid full tribute to the importance that cartoons have played in the magazine’s success.
“I imagine the exhibition will be equally as enjoyable as all the sparkling repartee and champagne on the night itself, but I’m afraid I became somewhat tired and emoticon as the night wore on. Thankfully the exhibition is still on until the new year.”
There are lots of cartoons in the show by members of the PCO, which runs the Bloghorn, such as Andrew Birch, Wilbur Dawbarn, Neil Dishington, Pete Dredge, Len Hawkins, Martin Honeysett, Tony Husband, Ed McLachlan, Alexander Matthews, Ken Pyne, above, Royston Robertson, Mike Turner, and the PCO patron Bill Tidy.Many cartoonists started their careers at the magazine, and they can be seen in this show, including Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Willie Rushton, Barry Fantoni, Nick Newman and Michael Heath
The cartoons are in themed sections, on politics, royalty and social observation. There are single-panel cartoons, long-running strips and caricatures.
Here’s a round-up of some of the many Private Eye: The First 50 Years features you can currently see on the net:
A behind the scenes look at the production of the Eye, including a video of how a Ken Pyne cartoon progresses from idea to page, can be seen on the V&A site.
The Private Eye blog has a piece on putting the exhibition together.
Fifty years of Private Eye as seen by The Wall Street Journal …
… and by Creative Review.
Ian Hislop takes the BBC’s Will Gompertz on a tour of the exhibition. The site also has political leaders and pundits giving their views of Private Eye
And finally, to coincide with the 50th celebrations, the Chris Beetles Gallery has an online exhibition selling artwork by Private Eye cartoonists.
You can read more about the 50th celebrations for Private Eye here and here and you could also slum it and read Media Monkey, as provided by The Guardian.
Here are a few cartoons from the exhibition:
|Cluff (John Longstaff)|
Heath on Heath
‘I don’t know why I became a cartoonist,’ says Michael Heath. ‘I had no education during the war, so when I was twelve and war ended, I couldn’t read or write like children now. I suppose I sort of expressed myself by drawing.’ He is sitting in the conference room at The Spectator, surrounded by shelves of leather bound back volumes, almost sixty years worth of which are filled with his drawings. I’m shocked to learn he was born in 1935 — he doesn’t look anywhere near a man in his seventies. He still treks miles to work every day on foot.
Cartoons today, he tells me, aren’t at all what they were. There are fewer of them, of course, but they’ve also lost much of their bite: ‘Back then if you drew a cartoon attacking a politician, they’d be horrified,’ he remembers. ‘These days they love being caricatured — they buy the original and hang it in their loo.’
The new exhibition at the V&A, of Heath’s work and others’ for Private Eye, reveals how times have changed in fifty years. Sadly, the show has been under-curated, and far too little attention has been drawn to it by the museum. But, though it deserves better, the collection is still a long overdue retrospective of the golden age of cartooning — an art, says Heath, that will never be quite the same again.
‘The problem is that there’s nowhere left like Punch where cartoonists can grow,’ he sighs. ‘For cartoonists, Punch magazine offered a great opportunity to spread your wings — they might give you a double page spread and you could do ten or twelve drawings. There’s nowhere now where you could do that. It’s the saddest thing in the world for cartoonists because they can only make a living by sending hundreds of single column drawings to The Spectator or Private Eye.’
He’s right. Cartoons are slowly going extinct. Heath sees few newcomers to his profession these days: ‘I don’t think young people are particularly interested in cartooning, commenting on life around them, drawing people the way they look, or satirising, which isn’t a word I like anymore. Just drawing people as they are — their shoes, their hairstyle — has always been a fascination with me. And no-one else is bothering to do it.’
These details of fashion and style matter a lot in cartooning, and Heath’s lifestyle of obsessive scrutiny is key. Cartoonists have always found ways of singling people out by the way they dress, but it’s a skill that is becoming more redundant the more people buy off the rack from well known high street chains:
‘I don’t think there’s ever been a time in history when we’ve looked so conservative, and yet at the same time think we’re all terrific. We’re all wearing jeans and the same bloody shoes and trainers and tops. Boys and girls dress much the same as each other, and old people dress in jeans like everybody else. Clothing, as I knew it in 1945, doesn’t exist anymore. Back then you could identify a person by his dress: a working class person had a cap on, maybe a choker and a worn out suit; they didn’t buy clothes, they had them pressed and sponged, and kept up appearances by putting their trousers under the mattress to keep them sharp. You drew a middle class person to look like a bank manager. You could draw upper class people, even after they gave up top hats. Everyone wore hats. You could draw a city gent, because he had a bowler, a brolly and a three piece suit. Now all that’s gone. The middle class man is terrified of being beaten up, so he looks like a yob, the yobs are all hoodies in a class of their own, and everyone else just looks like you.’
You can’t tell a banker by his bowler anymore. Identifying types through fashion is becoming a cartoonist’s nightmare. The question is: how can you expose and lampoon people if the whole world is conforming to a single stereotype?
‘I’m going crazy,’ Heath grumbles. ‘Everyone looks the same and nobody ever changes. People just stumble into these generic high street stores and waltz out with the latest gear like all the rest, but they still think they’re somehow individual, and they have to, because that’s all there is. People aren’t outrageous in any way — well, some poor kids cover themselves in studs, but generally it’s difficult to stand out in a crowd of people all dressed in the same gear. You can’t identify them in a drawing.’
But for all his frustration with the time, Heath’s drawing has always stood the test of it. Surviving in a profession notoriously unforgiving, his cartoons are as fresh and contemporary today as they ever were. This kind of staying power is rare, and only a handful of people have achieved it. A cartoonist’s career is usually as ephemeral as the paper his work is printed on. So how did Heath become an exception to the rule?
‘Well, I’m telling you a secret here…’ he smiles, waggling an ink-stained forefinger at me. ‘In 1945, I thought, hang on, wait a minute, I’ve seen so many cartoonists become successful and then fade away. So I decided I would draw people exactly as they look, and then my drawings would always seem contemporary. I do it as a protection against looking dated. I don’t want to be left out. I don’t want to draw the wrong woman, I want to get her right. I don’t want to be caught out as some man pretending to be young, going up to my kids and saying “Oh, Justin Bieber, eh? Wow. Well I’ve got some Cliff Richard records you could bop to.” I don’t want to be thought of like that.’
He never has been. Back in 1954, when he sold that first cartoon of his hero, Thelonious Monk, to Melody Maker — ‘a magazine for musicians, but it also carried a lot of jazz’ — he could have had no idea of the changes his career would see. Since then his drawings have survived the demise of Punch, the censuring of Private Eye, and the death throes of comic book satire. No-one is better placed to comment on how cartoons perceive and are perceived today, and no-one better sums up the character of the lampoon artist.
‘A cartoonist,’ Heath says, ‘first of all, has to be neurotic, then lonely, and an only child, preferably with some talent for drawing. Then, instead of bursting into tears and running away, he can observe people and draw them later. There’s a sort of release in that, I suppose.’