Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published September 27th 2013
The Serious Art of Laughter
A year or so ago, I treated myself to the complete Looney Tunes Golden Collection on DVD. As well as well known favourite characters such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Sylvester, Warner Brothers also have a series of Merrie Melodies, which feature one-time characters, and focus on music rather than narrative. A number of these Merrie Melodies feature caricatures of Hollywood stars from that era. Some, such as Greta Garbo, Humphrey, Groucho Marx, and Shirley Temple are easily identifiable, but there are are great number that I do not recognise.
So when I heard about The Age of Glamour Exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, I thought it would be a great chance to find out who these caricatures were of. The leaflet described 'a unique collection of glamorous 1920s and 1930s portraits', and had a big picture of Garbo on the front. When I got there, however, I was a little disappointed. Although Garbo was featured, it was not the Hollywood spectacle I was expecting; it featured a much wider range, covering performers of ballets, plays, talkies, and pantomime as well. I suppose this is a good thing in a way, because it puts things in a wider context; I guess I was just a little put out that my 'who's that?' question didn't get answered.
Age of Glamour Exhibition
While these sections did not hold a particular interest for me, the was one sketch that took my fancy. It was a ink sketch from 1933 depicting a conversation between Shakespeare and Novello Ivor. Ivor was an early twentieth century actor and playwright, who had performed and produced many plays at the Globe Theatre, including Romeo and Juliet. In the sketch, Shakespeare says 'Happy to have been of service to you, sir.'
Charlie Chaplin out of costume.
There were a total of three pictures from the Hollywood age. One of these includes a picture of a giant Greta Garbo, surrounded by ominous mist (or cigarette smoke, I'm not quite sure), and sitting in front of what looks like a Transylvanian castle. A second picture was an unflattering caricature of Ginger Rogers dancing to 'Isn't it a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain' from Top Hat (1935), and the third, a storyboard sketch of Shirley Temple from her film Baby Take a Bow (1934). The highlight, however, was not a drawing, but a rare photograph of Charlie Chaplin out of his moustache and bowler hat.
The Cartoon Museum, Little Russell Street
The Age of Glamour exhibition is open until the 24th December, but after that there is still plenty to see in the permanent galleries. Entry is £5.50 for adults, £4 concessions, £3 for students, and free for under 18s. They have a library that is open on Wednesdays by appointment, where you can sift through over four thousand books hand over two and a half thousand comics.
Upon entry to the museum, there is a notice that says you are allowed to take photos of the museum in general, but not of specific artwork due to copyright reasons. As long as you're okay with that, go straight on through.
Beano magazines are free to read.
Although the museum does run workshops for children, don't expect to find galleries of all their favourite television characters. What is on display probably won't hold a huge amount of interest for younger kids, but there are things to keep them occupied. The ground and first floor both have piles of Beano comics to read, and an activity sheet, which challenges them to draw Charlie Chaplin.
The term 'caricature' derives from the Italian word 'caricare', meaning to exaggerate. 'Caricatura' was a humorous Italian art form that many famous artists turned to, including Leonardo Da Vinci. The style was adopted by young English gentlemen, who took a liking to it trips to Rome in the early eighteenth century.
By 1780, political caricatures had become quite popular in England; print-shops and exhibitions were flooded with customers, and by 1789, The events of the French Revolution brought unlimited source material.
Punch is arguably the most well known cartoonist magazine in history. It was first published in 1843, it included artist such as John Leech, John Tenniel, and Charles Keene. Its main rival was Vanity Fair (1863), which focussed on single-caricature drawings rather than scenes.
At the start of World war One, artists such as Bert Thomas and Bruce Bairnsfather drew morale-boosting sketches for British troops on the frontline, but as the glamour of war quickly passed, patriotism turned to satire. By the 1950s, a new post-war generation were looking for something fresh, so in 1961, a new magazine called Private Eye came out. This hip rival provided political gossip and didn't worry about keeping things in good taste good taste. Punch remained strong, but finally went out of print in 1992. The cartoons from the magazine are still enjoyed today, and you can find many of them re-printed as greeting cards.
While cartoonist magazines aren't around that much anymore, caricatures are as popular as ever. One of my favourite in the museum was a drawing of Margaret Thatcher being conked in the face by a cricket ball, while another portrayed Thatcher as a big corporate business park; her pointy nose rising to the heavens like a skyscraper.
On the first floor, we move away from caricature and onto comics. When I reached the top of the staircase, I saw what I thought was the very famous Whaam print by Roy Lichtenstein. On closer inspection, however, I realised that it was not quite how I remembered it. In May 2013, a group of comic artists were invited to re-appropriate the original by giving it a twist. In this version, it is now 'Whaam!' but 'Whaat?'.
Dennis the Menace
You can't have an exhibit about comics without including Dennis the Menace. Created by David Law in 1951, Dennis has gone through various changes in his career as chief mischief maker. Although he has always had wild black hair, Dennis used to be quite short and stumpy; he also wore a white shirt and tie until Granny knitted his iconic red and black sweater.
Unlike caricatures, which were always designed for adults, the first comic strips were aimed at children. In 1915, the Daily Mail asked children's illustrators to create a daily feature. These included Teddy Tail, Squeak and Wilfred, Rupert, and Bonzo. The first comic strip for adults was Pop by J. Miller Watts in 1922.
Through the next room you'll find an activity area, where anyone is free to draw. They provide paper, pencils, pens, colours, drawing guides, and inspirational prints and magazines.
Young Cartoonist Shortlist, 2012
Displayed on the wall was a showcase of all the shortlisted entries from the 2012 Young Cartoonist Award. There are two age groups; one of under 18s and one for under 30s. Entries are open for this year's contest, but closes on the 30th September.
Since I had all the tools at my disposal, I thought it was worth having a go. I tried to draw Colin Baker from a magazine; it ended up looking nothing like him, but I was pretty pleased with the drawing itself. I have no chance of winning of course, but it was just for fun.
I went down stairs to reception to hand in my entry, and then finished my visit with a browse around the gift shop. The Cartoon Museum has one of the best gift shops I've ever seen. It isn't just a load of overpriced rubbish, but instead it sells quality books, calendars, cards, and stationary.
Books include manga, graphic novels, how-to-draw guides, comic histories, and activity books such as Where's Wally?. I particularly liked a series of Wacky Races books that featured a fashion mag by Penelope Pitstop and lessons on how to be Dastardly by Dick Dastardly.
Amongst the stationary, they were selling a small range of specialist drawing pens and markers, including ones designed just for left handers. They also had greeting cards and wrapping paper. Since I can never seem to find any birthday paper in our house, I decided to buy a few rolls. All in all, I may not have found out who those Hollywood caricatures in Merrie Melodies are, but I certainly learnt a lot more about the history of cartooning.