MUSEUM NOTEBOOK

As we near the election on September 19, the weapons are being assembled. Electoral promises are being prepared, dirt on the opposition is being gathered and caricaturists are sharpening their pencils to take down their prey one quip at a time.

The art of the political cartoon, also known as an editorial cartoon, travels a fine line between cynicism and humour to form a pictorial satire aimed at governments, officials and other notable personalities. Artists blend wit, hyperbole and artistic skill to share their opinion of authority, social flaws and other ills facing humanity.

Artists have used their creations to represent their views on morality for centuries. Idealised artworks portray the way things should be in the hope the viewer would replicate it, and moral works illustrate the danger of bad behaviour as a warning to keep the public civilised.

The earliest notable politically charged satire was William Hogarth's Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme produced in 1720. This took aim at the South Sea Company, a British joint stock company founded in 1711, which agreed to absorb Britain's national debt incurred from war in exchange for control of trade with Spain's South American Colonies.

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Speculation saw stock prices increase ten-fold in only a few years. When the South Pacific Bubble burst in 1720 many investors were financially ruined, and the public was outraged at the level of fraud and political corruption the scheme exposed.

This 1922 political cartoon by
This 1922 political cartoon by "TL" shows Prime Minister William Massey offering New Zealand electors small apples of a reduction in income tax and land tax, while hiding the "Political Wisdom" basket full of the larger fruit of new railways, new roads, reduced bank rate and the Awapuni industrial unrest.

Hogarth's work features a scene of London with the infamous Guildhall and the iconic dome of St Pauls Cathedral, two symbols of Britain's success and pride, plus a fictional monument (based on the memorial of the Great Fire of London) with an inscription.

It reads, "This monument was erected in memory of the destruction of the city by the South Sea in 1720." Various characters ride a merry-go-round reflecting the scope of investors who were duped by the scheme while others crowd for their turn and allegorical figures display abundant corruption.

This politically themed work sparked a genre that was quickly taken up by other artists who took aim at the King, the Prime Minister and military notables. The French Revolution provided them with a lot of fodder too.

George Cruikshank gained popularity in the 19th century for his caricatures of English life, including "John Bull' as the personification of England. The rotund Union Jack waistcoat of this figure still appears in satire 200 years later. Cruikshank's work was prolific but he was bribed to never portray King George IV in an immoral situation.

Political cartoons were usually produced as individual artworks and copies were sold in stationers and print shops, but the first collections were published in 1830 in Monthly Sheet of Caricatures. These publications greatly influenced Punch magazine, which started in 1841 and spent the next 50 years refining the art of caricature.

Caricature of a character involves simplifying some features and over-exaggerating others to make them ridiculous. It is a psychological trick. If the reader can laugh at the figures, their anger abates and they become more susceptible to receiving the serious message behind it.

Museum Notebook
Museum Notebook

By the mid-1800s newspapers began printing political cartoons regularly to represent their opinions on the politics of the time. The tradition continues with many newspapers today featuring a cartoon on the editorial page, although most artists try to use more humour than their historic counterparts.

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•Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.