British cartoon & comic art from the 18th century to the present day

Characters and Caricatures, 1700 - 1770

The cartoon art form began with 'caricatura'.  A caricature - from the Italian caricare, to load or exaggerate - is a drawing that gives weight to the most striking features of its subject for comic effect.  The great Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Annibale Carracci and Gian Lorenzo Benini, all drew caricatures.  These were technical exercises in virtuosity with the aim of defining the essence of a person in a few deft strokes of the pen.  


Many English artists looked to Italy for inspiration, but one man did not.  William Hogarth, painter and engraver, believed:

"Everything requisite to compleat the consummate painter or sculptor may [be had] with the utmost ease without going out of London".

Hogarth created a new form of picture-story, 'comic history-painting' full of 'characters', not 'caricatura', copies of nature, not exaggerations.  His 'modern moral subjects', that can be seen in The Harlot's Progress and The Rake's Progress, depict critical moments in life, in act and consequence.  Time is represented in space, between and within each scene.  It is for this reason that Hogarth is widely regarded as the father of British caricature, in spite of himself, and of the comic strip. 


'The Golden Age', 1770 - 1830

From the 1770s it was the gentleman amateur and semi-amateur, such as Townshend, Bunbury, Woodward and Nixon, who transformed the artform, introducing a more playful style and a strong element of personal caricature.  Social satire blossomed, offering humorous observations on current fashions and social pretensions.

In the 1780s political satire ripened.  Print-shops flourished in the City, Westminster and St. James's, many holding caricature exhibitions.  The hand-coloured copper-plate etching, freer in style that the engraving, became fashionable: often priced at 2 shillings (10p) or more it was a luxury item, and beyond the means of most.  

Plumb Pudding  s

The French Revolution in 1789 ignited a fusillade of satirical propaganda in France and Britain.  Both 'Loyalist' members of the Pitt coalition and the opposition 'Reform' Whigs around Fox sponsored partisan political prints.  At first, the Foxites took the upper hand, creating a new type of sophisticated visual and verbal satire.  But news from France of the excesses of the Terror damaged the reform cause.  By 1795 the Foxites were in decline, and a blast of repressive measures, culminating in the Treason and Sedition Acts, subdued not only the press and opposition, but also the print publishers.  

In August 1819, the local Yeoman Cavalry attacked a crowd of peaceful protestors in St Peter's Fields, Manchester.  The government response was the repressive Six Acts, including an increase in stamp duty that tripled the price of many papers. The publisher William Hone and George Cruikshank, the foremost caricaturist of the Regency, answered these attacks on Reform with a little 24-page shilling (5p) pamphlet, The Political House That Jack Built.  It would go through 50 editions and sell 100,000 copies.  Hone had revived the technique of wood-engraving.  The hardwood relief block was more durable that the copper-plate, and could be set with the metal type and printed together, thereby cutting costs.  Image and text could now support each other, and reach a wider audience.  


The Illustrated Magazine 1830 - 1914


The Reform Bill crisis of 1830-2 stirred up a flurry of satirical prints, but topical satire was finding a new home.  Following an example in Paris, a number of humorous magazine were launched in Britain.  In 1841 the journalist Henry Mayhew and the printer-engraver, Ebenezer Landells founded the most famous of them all: Punch.  It was to be a weekly comic paper 'without grossness, partisanship, profanity, indelicacy, or malice'.  In its long life it cultivated the talents of more comic artists than any other British magazine.  

Vanity Fair was founded in 1868 and revived the tradition of the single-figure caricature in genial colour portraits of celebrities and professional men, a style perfected in this country by Carlo Pellegrini ('Ape').  

In the 1880s printers began to use the new photochemical process.  A truer facsimile of the artist's work, its tone, texture and detail, was now possible.  The greater fidelity benefited two great innovators, Max Beerbohm and Phil May.


Modern Times 1914 - 1961

In the First World War, cartoonists rallied to the patriotic cause portraying an encounter between the national symbols and personifications.  The morale-boosting works of Bert Thomas and Bruce Bairnsfather proved popular with British troops at the front.  

The first half of the twentieth century saw the heydey of the popular magazine, and cartoons helped to determine its graphic style and character.  William Heath Robinson joined The Sketch in 1906 and entertained its readers through two world wars.  H.M. Bateman perfected the wordless strip cartoon, and his 'The Man Who...' series of colour cartoons filled the centre-spread of The Tatler in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Bateman Late Arrivals s copy

Victor Weisz, 'Vicky', one of Britain's best post-war political cartoonists, was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1935.  When he started at the News Chronicle in 1939 his editor advised a crash course in British culture: he soon had a witty command of a British cartoonist's stock references and motifs, including Shakespeare and Tenniel's Alice drawings.  

Ronald Searle has been described as 'arguably the foremost graphic artist of [the twentieth] century', and is unquestionably one of the most influential.  The malevolent schoolgirls of Searle's 'St Trinian's' appealed to a new public taste for black, cynical humour cultivated in wartime.  In his later work a baroque extravagance of detail is painstakingly built up with his extraordinary line - stuttering, fidgety, barbed.  


The New Satire 1961 -

Private eye Poster Rushton s

Britain was finally coming out of a post-war period dominated by deference and social conformity.  A younger generation of comedians was appearing on stage, radio and television.  In 1961 a new satirical magazine Private Eye was founded.  It was a magazine of political gossip and disclosure that ripped aside the curtains of gentility and decorum that Punch had upheld for over a century. For cartoonists it was a breath of fresh air, publishing cartoons that no other newspaper would print. 

For the first time in many decades caricature took centre stage.  Two revolutionary artists pushed British satire to the extreme, both visually and politically: Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe.  Wally Fawkes, 'Trog', brought intense focus to caricature and political cartooning through his ability to condense a complex situation into a single memorable image.

Peter Fluck and Roger Law had worked together since the 1960s.  In the 1970s they began producing three-dimensional caricatures for the [Sunday] Times and other publications.  Out of this work grew the satirical show Spitting Image, first screened in Britain in 1983, featuring Fluck and Law's latex puppets.  


Matt Incapacity benefit small


The British Comic: 1884 -

In the mid-1800s the illustrated magazine took many forms, ranging from the respectable and staid Punch to the more lurid 'penny dreadfuls', which entertained the lower orders with tales of crime and horror.  Fearful of the effects this might have on impressionable young adults, more wholesome offerings were launched such as the Boy's Own Paper (1879), filled with stirring tales of sporting prowess and imperial adventure.  In 1884 Ally Sloper's Half Holiday pioneered the first proto-comic strips.  The magazine was the first to mix strips with prose stories and joke cartoons with the Micawberish 'Ally Sloper' appearing in satirical takes on current events.  

The real break came in 1890 when Alfred Harmsworth launched Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips, the first halfpenny comic papers. They were a runaway success.  In 1896 Tom Browne created a pair of tramps who came to be known as Weary Willie and Tired Tim.  They held sway on the cover of 'Chips' until it folded in 1953.  In the years leading up to the First World War a host of new titles appeared including Puck, Merry and Bright and Funny Wonder.  So great was the demand for comic material that many British comic publishers relied on American reprints.  

Competition was intense and publishers introduced colour in titles such as Rainbow, which introduced the 'Bruin Boys' led by Tiger Tim, who graduated to his own title in 1919.  The cinema inspired several comics including Film Fun and Kinema Comic (1920) featuring real comedians such as Laurel and Hardy.  As with most newspaper cartoon strips the story was moved forward by several lines of text that ran below the pictures: the speech bubbles playing a relatively minor role.

Paper shortages during the war hit many comics hard.  In the 1920s industry revived: the Scottish publisher DC Thomson began to publish a number of new adventure papers.  The Wizard (1927), The Rover (1929), and The Hotspur (1937) were essentially illustrated magazines.  However in the late 1930s DC Thomson broke the mould when it launched the innovative The Dandy (1937) and The Beano (1938).  These titles offered their readers powerful gag humour with authority-hating characters such as the cow pie devouring Desperate Dan.

In the 1950s the influence of American culture extended into the world of comics and many were imported into the UK.  Some Christian groups in Britain were concerned at what they felt to be the pernicious influence of American horror comics.  They responded with the groundbreaking Eagle.  The quality of the artwork, which included Frank Hampson's science-fiction hero Dan Dare, raised the bar for British comics.  Hulton Press followed up with Girl (1951) and Robin and Swift for younger children.  DC Thomson responded with a new generation of anarchic characters including Davey Law's Dennis the Menace (1951) and Leo Baxendale's Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids (1953/4).

Dennis Nails s with credit

In the 1950s and 60s new titles for boys offered sport, war and adventure in Lion, Valiant, and Hurricane.  Bunty and Judy gave girls ballet and school stories, and for slightly older girls there was romance in Marilyn, Valentine and Jackie.

In the 1970s, the twin influences of American Underground Comics and Punk shook the industry.  Viz (1979) revelled in bad taste but earned a huge following and became the best-selling British comic ever.  A number of short-lived titles of the early 1970s introduced artists who were to become major names through 2000AD (1977).  These included Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Kevin O'Neill and Bryan Talbot, many of whom would later work for major American publishers DC and Marvel Comics.  2000AD also produced Britain's first major comic superhero, Judge Dredd.

In the 1980s the Japanese animated series Transformers began to appear on British TV screens while Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball and films such as Akira introduced a British audience to a very different tradition of comic art.  In recent years manga, anime and computer games have had a visible affect on the work of younger artists.


The Cartoon Strip and the Graphic Novel

W.K. Haselden is regarded as the father of the British newspaper cartoon strip.  From 1904 he began to produce 'reflections' on topical subjects in a panel divided into a series of up to eight frames.  During the First World War he effectively lampooned the German Kaiser and Crown Prince in his series Big and Little Willie.

In 1915 the Daily Mail asked well-known children's illustrator Charles Folkard to create a daily feature for their children's corner.  Teddy Tail proved so popular with younger readers that within a few years most of the popular papers were running strips: Pip, Squeak and Wilfred was created by A.B. Payne in 1919-20, Rupert by Mary Tourtel in 1920 and Bonzo by George Studdy in 1922.  The most popular strips inspired huge followings amongst their young readers.  Pip, Squeak and Wilfred appeared on plates, had their own song, and a fan club called the 'Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs'.

The first strip aimed at an adult audience was J. Millar Watt's balding everyman Pop (1921).  Watt's strips showed a sophisticated understanding of how a narrative could be developed across the time and space of linked panels.  Another adult strip was Norman Pett's Jane (1932).  Jane's greatest hour came during the Second World War when every episode saw her lose her clothes one way or another.  She was revived in the 1960s and again in the 1980s and 1990s.  

Domestic strips were among the most popular and enduring.  The suburban family saga The Ruggles (1935-57) was followed by the even more popular Gambols (1950), created by the husband and wife team of Barry and Dobs Appleby.  The most popular of all domestic strips featured a drinking, gambling, work-shy northerner Andy Capp (1957).  Reg Smythe's original single panel evolved into the most popular British strip ever: at its peak it was syndicated in over 1,400 newspapers worldwide.  Another popular export was Fred Basset, Alex Graham's 'Hound that's almost Human'.

A very different tradition was the masculine adventure and detective story.  Square jawed Dick Tracy had appeared in American papers in 1931.  Britain's first action hero was Garth created by Steve Dowling towards the end of World War II.  The exploits of the wartime RAF and a fascination with the space race inspired Sydney Jordan to create Jeff Hawke in 1955.

Office politics was the setting for Frank Dickens' Bristow (1961) and again in 1987 when Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor created the thrusting merchant-banker Alex.  Rufus and his friend Flook started out in 1949 as a strip for children drawn by 'Trog' (Wally Fawkes).  However in the 1960s and 70s it became a sophisticated satirical vehicle for writers such as Humphrey Lyttleton and George Melly.  For ten years John Kent's beautiful blonde Varoomshka innocently picked her way through political minefields, enraging legions of feminists along the way.

In the 1970s and 80s Posy Simmonds' The Webers followed the mid life crises of the liberal middle classes, Steve Bell charted the rise of Thatcherism in his strips Maggie's Farm and later If..., while Tony Husband's Yobs and later Yobettes offered another slant on hitherto uncelebrated sections of British society.

Posy Why Marriage s - Copy

In the same period cartoon strip and comics artists began to develop increasingly complex narratives.  In 1977 Bryan Talbot produced what is regarded as the first graphic novel with the fantasy The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.  Alan Moore's collaborations with Dave Lloyd on V for Vendetta, Dave Gibbons on Watchmen and later with Kevin O'Neill on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were landmarks within a genre.  Others such as Raymond Briggs showed how the medium could range from children's fantasy in The Snowman to a post-nuclear war scenario in Where the Wind Blows.  Talbot returned to tackle the sensitive issue of child abuse in the award-winning The Tale of One Bad Rat.  There were also graphic novels inspired by works of literature such as Hunt Emerson's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Lady Chatterly's Lover and Posy Simmond's Flaubertian tale 'of adultery and soft furnishings', Gemma Bovary.


Further resources:
An illustrated lecture on The History of British Cartoons and Caricatures given by Lord Baker of Dorking, trustee of the Cartoon Museum, at Gresham College in London in 2011 can be seen at:
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