Not Just for Geeks
This piece was originally published in the The Courtauldian, the quarterly student newspaper for the Couratuld Institute of Art, London (December 2013 - January 2014).
As the bitter winter dark closes in, London’s museums and arts institutions gain the added charm of warm respite from icy streets and cold student flats (while of course also displaying some of the best art in the world). However if, like me, you ever feel a pang for something a little less serious, wander past the BM to the Cartoon Museum nearby on Little Russell Street.
This small space (merely two floors of galleries) boasts an impressive collection of original illustrations, cartoons, caricatures and comic strip pages with a regularly changing display. Here fans of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland will be excited to also see original political drawings by the illustrator John Tenniel. Multiple George Cruikshank and James Gillray drawings for publication in Punch decorate the walls as well as pencil and ink drawings by Ralph Steadman and Roland Searle. Pen and ink comic strip designs by David Law for Dennis the Menace and Beryl the Peril are displayed alongside a Charlie Schultz illustration of Snoopy and a John Harrold drawing of Rupert Bear.
The enchanting thing about these works is the hand-made intimacy many of them provide. As they are designs for final works, made to be sent off to printers and magazine editors, notations in margins and crossed out or revised gag-lines lend a sense of immediacy to many of the images on display. More than anything, the fluidity of ink on the page or the sketchy appearance of pencil facilitate a connection between artist and viewer by lending insights into the creative process and giving these opinionative works a further layer of authorial “presence”. In some cases, this offers familiar hands a fresh appeal, while elsewhere when encountering personally favoured artists, you can feel that spark of the relic.
The two floors are arranged chronologically and you work your way up in a spiral from Hogarth and Rowlandson to the scathing Punch comments of Gillray, the chaotic machines of William Heath Robinson and the elegant spare lines of Harriet Fish’s 1920s illustrations for Tatler, to original 1950s Disney comic strip designs and David Lloyd’s pen and ink illustrations for his iconic graphic novel V for Vendetta. Following the sequence of the rooms is like flicking through a visual history of England, captured through the pop-culture ephemera of the broadside, comic strip, magazine, newspaper and book.
The museum’s Heneage Library is a fabulous source for visual research, providing reading access by appointment to around 2,500 original drawings and over 4,000 books on illustration.
Or if you’re feeling inspired, have a go at some pithy visual commentary with pens and paper provided in the drawing room!
Regular temporary exhibitions feature lent items and images from the collection. Currently, the 1920s and 30s glamour of the London stage and Hollywood screen are on display in a retrospective of R. S. Sheriff’s illustrations. Star-spot Noel Coward, Bette Davis and Charlie Chaplin in Sherriff’s Beardsley inspired designs until December 24.
The Cartoon Museum
35 Little Russell Street, WCIA 2HH
£7 Adult, £5 Concession, £3 Student entry, Under 18 Free