Margaret Thatcher! A name that sends shivers down the spines of a generation, and admiration from a far few others. It may seem even sacriligeous to mention her names amongst the realms of Star Trek or Doctor Who, Wolverine or Transformers. Arguably the Iron Lady was the Terminator of her day but that does not justify her position here. It is the fact that she is the subject of a wonderful new exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum which looks at an often under-rated area of illustration: political cartoonists. These are often chroniclers of their age, deciphering current events in inventive, incisive and often uncomfortably truthful ways. In this case, it’s a parade through the ten years of Maggie’s premiership, reliving the dreams and nightmares that she gave birth to.
Curated by the unlikely duo of cartoonist Steve Bell and one of Thatcher’s former Cabinet ministers, Kenneth Baker, this is a collection of illustrations that capture precise events from that first historical election victory in 1979 through to her demise at the hands of her own treacherous party in 1990, with an epilogue on life after her departure from Number 10. In that time, there was The Falklands War, the Westlands affairs, the union battles at Wapping’s printing presses, the Miners’ Strike, high unemployment, and the Poll Tax riots, and that’s nor forgetting the wider global picture of Reagan’s America, Gorbachev’s Russia, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Mandela’s release from prison. Whilst photographs can create indelible memories, these illustrations seem to carry more impact, as memorable now as they were some thirty years ago. They only serve to demonstrate the supreme skills of a caricaturist.
Those first few years show Maggie as a fussy housewife, more bouffant than bully, but as they years progress, those portraits of her become sharper, more malignant and menacing and ultimately concentrated depictions of madness. Follow the course of the exhibition and it reads like a continuous narrative, a political comic strip illustrated by some of the country’s top newspaper and magazine cartoonists. Steve Bell’s Orwellian vision remains distinctive, angry and savagely funny, having followed her actions every step of the way through his ‘If..’ cartoon strip in the pages of the Guardian, as well as contributions to Time Out and New Statesman. Arguably he gives a blistering commentary on her Premiership in a warped version of our own reality. Equally as prominent is Michael Cummings’ more playful but still poignant work for the Daily Express and Charles Griffin’s darker satire in the Daily Mirror.
There are also contributions from Daily Telegraph, The Times, Daily Mail and Private Eye, all with their own unique interpretation of events, often determined by the editorial policy of their proprietors. In turn, she’s seen as a preening housewife, Queen Victoria, Britannia, a bouffant atomic bomb, the Virgin Mary, and a deranged eye-popping madwoman. Surely assumed identities that are guaranteed to offend everyone. However, the creatures of nightmare are unleashed by Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe, who depict Maggie as an automaton, a battleship or demonic force. And then the Raymond Brigg’s turning his hand from one bogeyman to another, as the Falklands inspires The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. The varied interpretations of the same person only underline the vastly dividing impact she made on friends and foes alike, but highlight the extraordinary diverse imagination that flows in ink across the page.
The drawings themselves tell their own story but the blurbs alongside each of them helps put the events into perspective, often sending chills down the spine with the unforgettable memories they capture. They offer a chilling insight in the disturbed conscience of a nation that is both funny and sobering. There are scenes of industrial destruction and well as self-mutilation even cannibalism. Farce frequently gives way to horror, particularly in the hands of Bell. That also carries through to the members of her Cabinet, who are as distinctive and notorious as the leaderene herself – Heseltine, Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe, Tebbit, John Major. Somehow the vision of Blair hammering home a stake into the heart of Maggie doesn’t offer the comfort of knowing the beast has been slain. Sometimes these are devastating images that open old wounds and reveal some social scars have never healed.
With scenes of Spitting Image playing in the gallery, it’s impossible not to find how much our view of the Thatcher years has not been shaped by the satirical mirror that reflects her ever darkening deeds, as well as a darkly humorous one. More importantly, it demonstrates the lasting power of caricatures that outlive and surpass the people themselves. The economy of their style, the breadth of their imagination and the poignancy of their message are skills that deserve to be celebrated. Whilst those masterful artists remain, these devastatingly chosen illustrations only serve to underline the bland nature of politicians today, although films like In The Loop can still create biting satire that savages the world of politics and those liberating days of Blair’s first months in power gave birth to 2000AD’s B.L.A.I.R One strip. This is a triumphal exhibition providing a true and painful portrait of the nation, a time when monsters walked among the corridors of Whitehall; when Britain experienced its own Dark Reign. No superhero could ever defeat them forever.
Better still, the Cartoon Museum also has a permanent collection of original artwork from some of Britain’s greatest comics and strips including early Punch cartoons, The Beano, The Dandy, Modesty Blaze, Battle, V For Vendetta, 2000AD and Viz. Well worth a visit.
6 May – 26 July 2009Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell St, London WC1A 2HHAdmission: £5.50
Further info: www.cartoonmuseum.org