Review: Helen Walasek's The Best of Punch Cartoons
The Best of Punch Cartoons Ed., with accompanying text, by Helen Walasek (Prion, 2008)
'Embarrassment of riches' does not do justice to the problem of where to start when reviewing this collection of 2,000 Punch cartoons, selected by Helen Walasek, and what follows will necessarily be impressionistic. One thing is clear, however: whether by English or foreign artists, these cartoons reveal much about the native sense of humour --and, of course, they are also enormous fun.
Was Punch essentially conservative? Walasek tells us that when it first appeared it vigorously campaigned on social justice issues, but it grew more circumspect with success. Indeed, in the pre-World War II nursery, cricket, and servant cartoons, it is hard not to see a complacent acceptance of the status quo facilitating all the lampoonery. The cartoons at the expense of aesthetes, intellectuals and overconfident businessmen likewise suggest a certain fondness for conventionality, but national traits are also satirised at every turn: distrust of modern art (a middle-aged woman remarking, of an abstract sculpture, "Well, whatever it is it's bound to be rude"), DIY (Fougasse's "The Man Who Could Do It Himself"), and nervous holiday-makers (Fitz's "Taking Our Pleasures Sadly"), to name a few examples. Pont's series of cartoons on the national character is a particular highlight, illustrating captions such as "A tendency to leave the washing-up till later," "A disinclination to sparkle," and "Strong tendency to become doggy." Punch never entirely lost its activist edge, either; there is bitter social commentary in André François's drawing of fur-coated women skipping over a tramp on a park bench, and H M Bateman's "The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass in the British Museum" is a ruthless anti-establishment parable.
In any case, it is probably unwise to generalise about a publication with such a wide range of contributors. Alongside the elegant Baumer flappers and the cosy tea-and-crumpet world of E H Shepard, Punch was never afraid to publish fantastically bizarre visions, such as Searle's petrified musician shrinking away from a French horn that has transmogrified into an aggressive snail, Rowland Emmett's comically Gothic fantasies, with their wavy, spidery lines and obsessive detail, and Hoffnung's percussionist tortoises --another peculiar animal/musical instrument synthesis. (Hoffnung's climb to Punch greatness was head-spinningly fast: Walasek comments that "Hoffnung came to London from Germany as a teenaged refugee in 1939 and by the 1950s he was a British institution".)
Throughout the collection, Punch bears witness to the lighter side of history. World War II was particularly fertile in this respect, a time when Punch was invaluable in boosting national morale. Fougasse affectionately salutes native indomitability in his "The Changing Face of Britain," Frank Reynolds pays tribute to a courageously jolly housewife, and there are, of course, Acanthus's Americans ("So, this is Oxford, the English Detroit"). During the sixties and seventies the feminist and hippie movements provided considerable fodder for cartoons that were sometimes—but certainly not always— on the reactionary side.
This anthology contains themed sections on topics including the Great Exhibition of 1851, political cartoons (known as the Big Cuts), caricatures (featuring Searle's fantastic sketch of the Beyond the Fringe team and Trog's haggard and thoughtful Bob Dylan), and lemmings….. There are also two-page spreads on all the Punch greats, notably Du Maurier, Shepard, Fougasse, Hoffnung, Searle, Thelwell, Ffolkes, and Anton. The latter really deserves more recognition as a pioneering female cartoonist, with her fluid, definite drafting, dramatic chiaroscuro and wicked wit. Her subjects include acerbic hostesses, psychoanalysis (a general Punch obsession), and in one memorable cartoon, undue influence exerted by domestic pets. Punch attracted some very gifted foreign cartoonists as well, proving that English artists do not have a monopoly on whimsicality. French-Hungarian François is also represented by his more typically playful work, while the Swiss cartoonist Giovanetti introduced his hamster-like creature Max in Punch. Max's adventure in letter-writing is probably the most charming cartoon ever to have appeared in the paper.
Certain drawings stand out in retrospect: Birketts' Daleks baffled in their quest for world domination by a flight of stairs; Thelwell's "Look Before You Leap," a saga of smug little girls and fat ponies that is the cartoon equivalent of Betjeman's Hunter Trials; and Rowel Friers's delightful psychoanalysis cartoon, in which the devil on a patient's shoulder is persuaded to accompany him on a tiny bike instead. There are plenty of curiosities as well, including some early Quentin Blake from 1954, totally unlike his later, eccentric mature style. (Further on, we see him beginning to develop the swoopy lines that we recognise from his children's book illustrations).
Leafing through, the reader is struck by how many of the world's most famous cartoons first appeared in Punch: there is Fougasse's chef's hat collapsing in disappointment in "The Soufflé"; J W Taylor's daydream in which a woman's head slowly turns into a pint; and, of course, Tenniel's wearisomely familiar "Dropping the Pilot." These drawings are so much a part of the collective consciousness that one questions the need to reprint them—though they are, of course, a major part of Punch's history. However, it is almost impossible to meaningfully criticise this collection. Destined to be a classic, this indispensable, carefully-selected anthology belongs in the collection of anyone with an interest in English humour.--Isabel Taylor