The wit and wisdom of Martin Rowson, editorial cartoonist and satirist, was enjoyed by an appreciative audience in the Wodehouse Library on Founder’s Day.
Rowson began by tracing the progress of caricature from early cave paintings to the sudden burst of satirical material in the 18th century caused by an oversight in parliament, when press control laws were not renewed. Thus began the relationship which continues to this day, where the politician craves the attention of the cartoonist whilst fearing his or her power. Rowson described these powers as ‘voodoo like’, and allowed that politicians are right to fear a drawing that can have a real effect on their fortunes, political and personal.
Acknowledging with relish that his work is often seen as vulgar including frequent scatological references, Rowson defended himself against accusations that he was crossing the boundaries of good taste by arguing that those boundaries had already been trampled many times over hundreds of years in a healthy British tradition. He traced a direct link between his work and that of Gillray and Hogarth, claiming a moral element to the puncturing of inflated public personas.
On how characters emerge and develop, Nick Clegg was cited as an example of somebody he found difficult to draw convincingly, until he noticed a slight wobble of his head during the delivery of a speech and so Clegg became Pinocchio, the puppet who wanted to become a real boy. The delight in finding the perfect incarnation of a character was evident, but caused mixed feelings when somebody he loathed politically but enjoyed drawing left centre stage and no longer justified an appearance.
Illustrating his points with fascinating historical and contemporary images, Rowson showed how earlier satirists had used classical images for their own purposes, and how he in turn had used these for inspiration and reference. So, Hogarth’s etching ‘Gin Lane’ subverted the traditional image of Madonna and Child by portraying the absolute opposite of maternal concern as the drunken mother lets the child slip to certain death. Rowson showed several of his own recreations of this scene to explore different issues.
A sparky mix of political context and personal anecdote, Rowson proved as engaging and insightful in the flesh as he is on the page.
Rowson’s editorial cartoons can be found in The Guardian – available daily in the Periodicals Room