Books & Manuscripts

A Brief History of Political Cartoons in 7 Works

By David Wootton

A head of the auction of The Political Cartoon Collection of Jeffrey Archer in London on 14 March. David Wootton, a researcher and writer on British art, offers an essential guide to Britain's best cartoonists through the ages.

James Gillray, 'Consequences of a successful French invasion … or … We fly on the wings of the wind to save the Irish Catholics from persecution', 1798.

If caricature and cartooning as we know them were invented in Renaissance Italy, they were first applied consistently to political subjects in 18th century Britain. The pictorial satires of William Hogarth early in the century prepared the way for the popular caricature prints of especially James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. Connoisseurs shared them as an after-dinner entertainment, while members of the working classes gathered around the windows of the London print shops.

'The father of the political cartoon', Gillray attempted to retain freedom of opinion, and attacked both the Whigs and the Tories, and even members of the royal family. He was initially pleased when the ancien regime fell in France in 1789. However, he altered his opinion as events turned more bloodthirsty, and produced some of his most horrific satires of the activities of the revolutionaries. Here, for instance, he imagines what they would do to Roman Catholic clerics in England and Ireland.

John Tenniel, 'Nuts to Crack', 1882.

Across the 19th century, the British taste in cartooning changed, from the savagery of Gillray to the gentility of Beerbohm. This is epitomised by the history of Punch, the comic magazine that was founded in a spirit of radical engagement, but turned gradually to conservative commentary in order to better appeal to a respectable family audience.

In 1864, John Tenniel became Punch’s principal cartoonist, just a year before the publication of his famous illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Grounded in a high art tradition, he replaced grotesque caricature with beautiful draughtsmanship, allegorical imagery and a rich vein of fantasy. The exaggeration that did occur was often based on anthropomorphism – instilling animals with human characteristics, or vice versa. This is particularly pointed in the present example, which draws on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to encapsulate the situation in the Liberal government of William Gladstone. Gladstone was attempting to bring various debates to a close in response to systematic obstruction by Irish nationalists. 

JOHN TENNIEL, 'NUTS TO CRACK' , 1882. ESTIMATE: £4,000—6,000.

Max Beerbohm, 'Draughting a Bill at the Board of Trade', 1909.

The work of Max Beerbohm represents a shift in tone that is both highly individual and symptomatic of the perceived confidence of the Edwardian age. Equally valued as a caricaturist and a writer, he sustained an elegant detachment in art and life. Though his drawings are acute in observation, and often lightly wicked, they are also affectionate, for he hated to wound his subjects. Only rarely directly political, they tended to appear in literary magazines and exhibitions, and became part of social discourse rather than doctrinal debate. His image of Winston Churchill, as President of the Board of Trade, suggests the magnetism and relaxed energy of this highly ambitious, still relatively young politician.

David Low, 'Twenty Years After', 1934.

Born in New Zealand, David Low moved from the outer reaches of Empire to become the outstanding political cartoonist working in British newspapers between the wars. Whereas his most distinguished forebears had only to produce a cartoon once a week, he had to be continually responsive to news events in order to produce one a day. He built on the achievements of previous generations to create immediately recognisable and fully human individuals, whether his own creations – famously Colonel Blimp – or historical figures. His confident grasp of a global perspective – in an age of improved communication – enabled him to produce such highly prescient images as the present one. Showing Hitler conversing with the spectre of Kaiser Wilhelm II about the justification of state violence, it appeared five years before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Ronald Searle, 'Art: the British public knowing what it likes…', 1954.

From a young age, Ronald Searle consciously absorbed the national and international traditions of cartoon and caricature, through reading and collecting, and he placed himself within them. His burgeoning creativity was then galvanised by his harrowing experience in the Second World War, as a prisoner of the Japanese in Changi Gaol. It bore fruit most immediately in his cartoons of the exuberantly violent schoolgirls of St Trinian’s, and then in wide-ranging reportage that, in turn, informed incisive social and political commentary.

Early in his career, Searle made frequent contributions to Punch, including the present satire on the public furore over Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill. It contrasts the static image of the declining elder statesman with the hysterically dynamic responses of visitors to an imagined exhibition.

Gerald Scarfe, 'Victory Celebrations', 1975.

Influenced by Ronald Searle – and early coupled with Ralph Steadman – Gerald Scarfe was the cartoonist for The Sunday Times from 1967 to 2017. His large bold portrait caricatures became something of an institution at a time when Sunday newspapers were expanding and encompassing the functions of reflection, summation and entertainment at the end of each week. Here Margaret Thatcher, and her predecessor, Edward Heath, apparently join in celebrating her first significant success as Conservative leader: the Woolwich West by-election. However, their ‘V for Victory’ hand gestures – borrowed from Churchill – can also be read as signs of abuse, so revealing the mutual animosity of the two politicians. 


Peter Brookes, 'Has Bambi Got Teeth?', 1994.

Peter Brookes of The Times is the greatest of our current daily newspaper cartoonists, highly inventive and invariably on the button. He is also extremely literate in the broad history of images, from high art to popular culture. Here, in a cover for The Spectator, he references Walt Disney’s Bambi, in order to pick up on and subvert the nickname that had been given to Tony Blair, the then new leader of the Labour Party, to allude to his youth. When Blair succeeded John Major in 1997, he became Britain’s youngest Prime Minister in 200 years. This image also shows Brookes revelling in the use of colour. While Gillray took the potential of colour for granted in producing prints at the turn of the 18th century, national newspapers have used colour regularly only since the mid 1980s.


You can read about the various depictions of Winston Churchill that also appear in the sale here

CLICK HERE to view the full sale catalogue. 

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.