Cartoons make light of our oldest intitutions

A Kentish Town cartoonist who sets the Queen as a barmaid features in a new exhibition at the Cartoon Museum

As the children of Yorkshire parents, my sister and I enjoy both Yorkshire and anti-Yorkshire humour. She encountered an example of the latter through her work as a community architect, when a presentation about a development in Yorkshire was followed by a lively questions and answers session. Afterwards a local farmer’s reply to the query “Did it go well?” was overheard. “Yes,” he said. “If you like laughing.”

I do. So I love the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, where anything from chuckling to laughing out loud is welcomed. And if there’s one person whose job I envy, it’s Anita O’Brien, who has been the curator since 2003. She applied for the position when working at Kenwood because “I have always loved cartoons and combined with my interest in both history and art it seemed like the best of both worlds.”

It’s also meant she has spent time with legends of the cartoon world including Ronald Searle, perhaps best known as the creator of St Trinian’s, who died last month. Another veteran cartoonist – jazzman Wally Fawkes, who draws as Trog and lives in Kentish Town - is well represented in the new exhibition which opened at the museum yesterday - Her Maj: 60 years of Unofficial Portraits of the Queen.

At the start of her reign, cartoonists were respectful, showing her from the back or in silhouette, maybe just as the back of a throne and a hand. “At that time there was a much closer link between the Royal Family and God,” Fawkes recollects. His irreverent depictions spanned four decades, from the early 60s when he pushed the boundaries of cartoons on royalty when contributing to the New Statesman, the Daily Mail, the Sunday Telegraph, Punch and the Observer. In 1965 a reader made a complaint to the Press Council, claiming one of his cartoons was “grossly discourteous to the Queen” – but it was rejected.

His take on the Queen as a barmaid, demonstrates the move to see the Royals as commoners which began in the mid-60s. Ralph Steadman’s 1968 cartoon, first published in Private Eye, depicted the Queen in a pinny standing behind a sofa, surrounded by her extended family in equally plebeian garb – shades of the Royle Family. Steve Bell had a series with the Queen living in a council house and Martin Honeysett drew her rummaging in a skip as part of an austerity drive.

This exhibition gives insights into the past, making light work of increasing our knowledge of history – as did its predecessor which closed last Sunday. The 1897 water famine which affected London’s East End was news to me when I saw Edward Linley Samborne’s humorously critical drawing Waking the Water-bearer in One Hundred and One Cartoonists – a selection of the cartoons, caricatures and comics collected over 50 years by Luke Gertler, the son of Hampstead painter Mark Gertler.

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Luke has a discerning eye for beauty of line and a sense of humour that embraces McGill’s saucy seaside scenarios and the mischievous wit of Pont (Graham Laidler), who was represented by a 1938 Punch cartoon. It shows a homely nanny reading to her smiling charge, an infant in his cot: “This looks to me like ‘Dead-face’ Andersen’s work,” gasped Detective Inspector Watkins, eyeing the corpse in the bath... “

Fortunately Gertler makes long-term loans to the museum, including the marvellous Nicholas Bentley cartoon - ‘Caviare gone up again - it can’t be true!’ This hung in the foyer for a while and is in the book The Art of Laughter (�5) for sale in the museum shop – a treasure trove of mirth-provoking books, cards and artefacts.

Her Maj runs until April 8 at 35 Little Russell Street WC1. Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am to 5.30pm, and Sunday, noon to 5.30pm. �5 and concessions.