"I'm not retweeting it. Steve Bell's @guardian cartoon is appalling and, as a woman (rarely something I say), I find it offensive."

"Oh I see that Steve Bell cartoon can't be offensive because some old man did a similar one a million years ago. Stand down lads."

So goes the tenor of social media commentary on Steve Bell's parody last month of the 1792 cartoon Fashionable Contrasts by James Gillray.

If Bell's hat-tip to Gillray is considered appalling now, you can imagine how the original was received when King George III was at the royal helm. Gillray shows a side view of the feet of both the Duke and Duchess of York, in an obvious horizontal position of copulation, the Duke's feet drawn large, with the Duchess's feet (toes up) small and petite, both wearing the high end fashionable shoes of the day.


In Bell's contemporary rendition, it is the large leopard-skin shoes of Britain's PM Theresa May (toes down) with the naked orange trotters of Donald Trump laying in between. The suggestion of the US impact on Britain needs no explanation.

Bell says the Fashionable Contrasts cartoon is the first time he's ever had anything trend on Twitter.

"There seemed to be a lot of positive response, followed by the more pusillanimous claims of 'sexist - you're only doing it because Theresa May is a woman'.

"Sniffy, self-righteous bastards.

"These people wouldn't understand subtlety if it came up and sh*t on their heads."

Steve Bell is the ever-smiling, prolific, left-handed "lefty" observer of Britain's social and political conscience.

The language and delivery is in-your-face, the message is clear, and the metaphor resonates. You either love it or hate it - and people have been divided into those camps since Bell started work 40 years ago.

The Observer once named Bell - who turns 66 tomorrow - alongside Ricky Gervais as one of the 50 funniest acts in Britain. High praise indeed for a former art teacher from Birmingham.

The sheer volume of his work could also be considered a window to his soul. Bell combines his obvious intelligence with a keen eye for the pitfalls of power.

He is currently in New Zealand courtesy of the University of Auckland Hood Fellowship. In person, his bear-like frame, woodsman beard and booming baritone vocals suggest a gentle giant. But there's a poisonous co-ordination between cerebellum and drawing hand.

One of his most infamous cartoons followed the 2015 Pig-Gate controversy in the UK. This was the indulgent lifestyle of Oxford University's secretive Piers Gaveston Society members, portrayed in Lord Ashcroft's unofficial biography of David Cameron. It suggested that while a student, Cameron was treated to a porcine initiation ritual, which involved his genitals and a pig's head - something that will no doubt haunt him to the grave.

"The Pig F*** cartoon wasn't the first I did," says Bell. "But it was drawn more or less from life at the Conservative Party conference in 2015. [Cameron] has this curvaceous wooden podium/lectern thing that he always spoke from. He is what I call a podium stroker (as opposed to a podium shagger or podium wrestler) and the shape of the lectern, together with his sensual, writhing posture sort of suggested the cartoon."

To add insult to injury, Bell drew Cameron as a pink condom for most of his term as PM anyway. But that is actually mild in comparison to many of the public figures crucified in his long-running - cavalcade cartoon strip If.

There seemed to be a lot of positive response, followed by the more pusillanimous claims of 'sexist - you're only doing it because Theresa May is a woman'.


The name is borrowed from Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling's stoic poem, the subject matter is rich pickings from the fertile social demographic bandwidth of Britain and Europe.

For cartoonists, the Trump era is an endless rambling freight train full of patriotic malaprops, breathless nescience and narcissism, delivering in spades to satirists all over the world.

Isis said they would bomb the West with people, and they have succeeded, giving rise to populist ideology.

"I think the most important thing we can do is resist the talk of 'Clash of Civilisations' or 'Culture Wars' and keep clear-eyed when we draw all of the bastards, " says Bell.

He is particularly concerned by Trump advisor Steve Bannon's position of power and influence.

"Theresa May is wilfully playing up to this by making control of immigration the central issue driving Brexit, and it looks like we're all going to get f****d by that. It's pure populism, and she's also offering social justice as an added bonus.

"In other words she's stolen Labour's policy trousers, and Labour is deeply f****d (by itself) at the moment. The result is that the Tories are about 15 points clear of Labour in the polls and Theresa is sitting pretty."

In a Guardian interview wrapping up 2012 in politics, Bell remarked that what depressed him most was that "this shit goes mostly unchallenged".

And this is where the satirists step in, picking up where the journalist's trail finishes. The cartoonist's mental toolbox is a good mix of heavy hammers, surgical blades and everything in between.

Bell's artistic skill employs the traditional use of ink, paper and water colour - something many cartoonists and illustrators have dropped, favouring the faster and more portable Wacom digital drawing.

Bell prefers the feel of pen on paper, which has the added bonus of producing something tangible to show for it. His work is awash with copious amounts of watercolour, the occasional watercolour pencil or coloured inks. Because of the odd way he holds a pen, his work tends to be quite small, usually drawn the same size as it's published.

Acute social and political satire makes the observer think. It may not alter opinions or bring down a government, but it will chip away at the mortar and form the cornerstones of our history. Satire - humour's evil twin - is a powerful tool. If there was ever a time for the world's motley crew of cartoonists to be at their finest, it's probably now.

Bell himself is quick to acknowledge Gillray as the father of political cartooning, turning historical figures into something far more important and lasting: cartoon characters. Visual satire has an illustrious history in the UK and Bell has been a major torchbearer since 1977.

A close friend of Bell's is the Economist's cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, or KAL. Visiting New Zealand from Baltimore recently, KAL described Bell as a giant among cartoonists. "It's not his hulking physical presence but it's the extraordinary depth and breadth of his career in the art of graphic satire that ranks him as as one of the globe's finest cartoonists."