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October 13, 2004

Leslie Illingworth at the Political Cartoon Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Leslie Gilbert Illingworth
The Political Cartoon Gallery
32 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BS
15th September - 20th November 2004
Monday to Friday 9am - 5-30pm, Saturday 11am - 5-30pm
Free Admission

Illingworth, a leading cartoonist in turn with the Western Mail, in Punch and on the Daily Mail was one of the great British cartoonists of the twentieth century. Less well known perhaps than his savage left-wing rivals Low and Vicki, he remains nonetheless as memorable as them and he was a far better artist. His sketch of an employment exchange in the 1930s with men in caps queuing hopelessly for work or the dole with a paralysed coal mine in the background gets far closer to the heart of the tragedy than anything his ranting rivals could have drawn.

Illingworth's most memorable cartoon, that has even been put on a souvenir mug sold by the gallery, is undoubtedly his cartoon of 17th November 1939 showing Hitler and Stalin as cats looking at a Balkan goldfish bowl in which swim fish marked Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece. The caption reads "What me, I never touch goldfish". There have never been two such smug, sly cats, each capturing the distinctive features of the two dictators who were in turn to devastate the Balkans and murder its citizens. Hitler-cat's eyes are slightly open and he peers sideways at Stalin-cat whose eyes are closed and eyebrows arched. Each has his well known moustache. Suspicious allies indeed.

Illingworth's cartoons of Hitler are said to have offended the Führer so much that he put the cartoonist on a special list of enemies. It is difficult to see why. The ones in this exhibition could easily have been found in the books of cartoons of Hitler by his opponents that Goebbels used to give Hitler for his birthday. They are not vicious, but their very lack of all-out aggression makes them more effective. Illingworth's cartoons of Stalin are even better – they capture the essence of evil through essentially benign drawings. In his cartoon The Victor of Budapest drawn at the time of Khruschev's invasion of Hungary in 1956 which killed 30,000 Hungarians, Illingworth shows Stalin in his plush coffin still alive. Stalin, with his famous arched eyebrows, smiles and winks at us. Friendly, intimate, charming comrade Stalin, the true author of the massacre. The front cover of Punch on 18th August, 1956 also featured Stalin, this time as a little devil in the sky flanked by Trotsky and Beria. Way above them are Lenin with a halo and Marx raising his top hat in greeting. On the ground Khrushchev drives an open carriage with Bulganin as his passenger drawn by Eden, Selwyn Lloyd and a man with a now forgotten face, Hewlett Johnson the Red Dean dances in the traditional apron-like skirt of a Dean of Canterbury Cathedral on one side and copies of the Daily Worker rain down on the other. It is a pleasant comfortable, well-executed scene in red and black that tells us all we need to know about the 1950s down to the inane eager youngsters in duffel coats on the fringe of a respectable social order that is about to crumble.

Curiously the only truly vicious cartoon is a war-time drawing of a Trotskyite fomenter of strikes. A worker in a cloth cap has been transformed by Illingworth into a gangster by a skilful use of dark colours and making the subtle changes to his appearance that are the mark of the skilled artist. A communist had chalked up on a wall the slogan "Strike now in the West" (i.e. open up a second front to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union) and the Trotskyite is crossing out "West" and substituting "works". No doubt the communist would have said that 'objectively' the Trotskyite was a Nazi.

The exhibition begins with Illingworth's early days in the 1920s working for the Western Mail, the national newspaper of Wales with a cartoon showing Lloyd George being knocked around by his fellow Liberals. A dignified bearded man in episcopal attire only just emerging from a flood of water represents the fate of the Church in Wales at the time when it was being disestablished and disendowed. It is a dull picture; the old esgob lacks the electric-whiskered excitement of today's wildly bearded Cymric Anglican prelate. The cartoon lies at the beginning of the long trajectory that rises from Illingworth's relatively uninspired work of the 1920s and 1930s to his masterly years in the 1940s and 1950s on Punch and the Daily Mail and back down to his lacklustre if well drawn contributions to the News of the World after his retirement. A great career but with a very distinct peak.

Not only does the exhibition stimulate the sense of humour of the aesthetic sense of the visitor, it is also well labelled and provides a lesson in history, reminding us of often now forgotten events. There is a cartoon referring to the Italian pirate submarines who sank neutral vessels carrying cargoes to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Eventually, as the cartoon notes, they were seen off by the British navy but the very word 'pirate' is an indication of an unwillingness publicly to recognize that they were part of the Italian navy. Where else could they have come from? Pirates rob ships, they do not sink them with torpedoes and run for it. Here too is a reminder of Clement Attlee's opposition to the introduction of conscription in March 1939 after Hitler broke the Munich Agreement and occupied the whole of the Czech Lands. Attlee said conscription was divisive and a precursor of industrial conscription. What was Attlee 'objectively'? Chamberlain was willing to stand up to the Nazis. Why were Attlee, Morrison and the rest of them not all rolling their sleeves up and saying "Right behind you, Neville"?

The Political Cartoon Gallery is a new gallery with an exuberantly decorated café and lavatory. The Illingworth exhibition is due to be followed by one about Strube the cartoonist who drew his famous 'little man' for the Daily Express in the inter-war period when that paper had one of the highest circulations in the world. The Express has gone from getting a 'first' to getting a 'Desmond'. Perhaps they should be looking for another Strube.

Update 15th November: The National Library of Wales has launched a permanent on-line exhibition of Leslie Illingworth's cartoons - Illingworth Cartoons in the National Library.

Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Transaction Publishers 2002.

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Read my new biography of Leslie Illingworth with over 300 of his best cartoons. Visit the books page on

Posted by: Dr Tim Benson at July 27, 2010 09:55 PM
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