Saturday, 26 March 2016

'ANOMALISA'/'THE DEVIL SPEAKS TRUE'

This week, for no particular reason, a film and a play...

'ANOMALISA'


Charlie Kaufman's new film is set in Connecticut. Well, nominally. It's actually not set somewhere so much as anywhere – an anonymous, interchangeable world of bland hotel lobbies leading to nicely made-up suites. Service encounters are simultaneously object-oriented and substanceless, ritual exchanges, a means of masking empty space. Those encountered talk like Hal from '2001', their modulated smoothness the sonic equivalent of the lobbies they inhabit. The casting of David Thewlis as Michael, a Brit adrift in America, neatly underlines this. (I kept having to remind myself creator Charlie Kaufman isn't English himself.) Remember the old Bob Dylan line, “There'd be no point talking to me, It'd be just like talking to you”? The conceit is that to him everywhere is like this and everyone, men and women, both look and sound the same.

Which makes it bizarre to consider this was made with puppets. Generally, we file puppetry animation alongside cartoons, and expect the same zippy pace. (Think of how we picture 'Wallace and Gromit' as so quirkily English, yet how frenetic it would seem if filmed as a live action.) And we expect characters to look iconic rather than identikit, coming complete with some distinguishing tell like Mickey Mouse's ears. Here things proceed at a trudging pace, including a checking-in to a hotel and elevator ride to the room in all its excruciating endlessness, with the room card that only seems to work the fifth or sixth time you swipe it.

And yet its actually so perfectly suited to the form. Everything, from sets to characters, looks produced. People are just assemblages of parts given motion. Most animations avoid the uncanny valley, the disquieting midpoint between iconic and realistic. This film finds its uncanniest depths and pitches its tent there.


It would be tempting to see in this a critique of alienation and corporate conformity, seen through the prism of service culture. But when Michael turns his blundering convention speech into an off-script rant against The Man, he merely looks ludicrous. And in his dream the depersonalised mass cry not “you must conform”, the catchphrase of Pod people everywhere, but “we love you”. We learn early that this is the (non)relationship he has with his own family, an indication we'll be spending time with not with a heroic rebel but one of life's losers.

The customer service guide he's written seems to have not only read but been absorbed by everyone he encounters. He's not only implicated in this world – he's not far off having created it, having made his world this anonymising purgatory he now has to lie in it's king size bed. Kaufman has a penchant for allegorical names and not only is Michael's surname Stone, not the most porous or flexible or substances, but the hotel he stays in is named after the Fregoli delusion. And the image of him checking into his own myopia is strong. Though what he's really suffering from is a case of solipsism less acute than all-embracing.

Michael's constructed a world for himself where others have become instrumentalised by him, there to help him with his problems. To the point where all human encounters become service encounters, the need for love and understanding equivalent to the need for room service. And of course he ruminates ceaselessly over his problems, unable to see it's this which has become his problem. (The tag line for this film should really be ‘Instrumentalising Others – A How Not-to Guide’.) He seems so inured in this world that not only does he no longer notice other people as other people, he's even stopped noticing he doesn't notice. There's one scene in the whole film not seen through his eyes, a brief coda, mostly there to show the world with his filter removed.


Then he encounters Lisa, the one person he's able to see and hear for who she is. And immediately, and quite literally, he pursues her. Which cues in a virulent debate over whether that makes her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (See for example this Guardian discussion.) Certainly he obsessively assumes she can provide him with life validation. He fixates upon her identifying facial scar, while she does her best to conceal it behind her hair.

At one point he buys a Japanese sex toy. And some have suggested she is this toy, animated into personhood only in his warped mind. (See here for an example.) Certainly, we're given multiple points of comparison between the two, a clear sign she is being objectified by him. But to turn a comparison into an equivalence is too literal a reading. In the morning-after scene, perhaps the film's key moment, he sees her turn back into another faceless face, as she starts to recite the set platitudes he's heard earlier. Were she the toy, surely it's that she would turn into. In fact, I'm going to argue almost the opposite about her.

It's not precisely spelt out why he's able to perceive her uniquely, but it must be to do with her lack of 'face' - of presentation. Unlike the smoothly smiling mass she's almost childishly guileless, spilling out her lack of her sexual experience. Yet when he hits on calling her Anomalisa she asks to be called that “all the time”, then corrects herself – there won't be any “all the time”. And for all his compulsively gushing that this is a life-changing event, that they should straight away move cities to be together, its her assessment which holds. While he compulsively grasps at straws she – if crippled by low self-esteem - is grounded. (To a degree they resemble to the identical twins in Kaufman's earlier 'Adaptation', one self-important and self-absorbed, the other louche but at home in the world.)

And we recognise the same truth as her. We're expected to not just recognise the Dream Girl trope but simultaneously see the folly in it. A self-pitying middle-aged man will manage to turn his life around by screwing an impressionable younger woman? Yeah, right. “I thought she was special and unique, so special that being with her could change everything. But she was just like the rest!” How many times have you heard some sad sap burble that one in a bar, as he cries into his beer? We don't expect it to work for him, and then it doesn't.

But the film's great paradox, which makes the Dream Girl debate so potent yet so irresolvable, is this - Lisa's easily the most likeable character in the film. (There's such a false opposition between her low self-esteem and his insistence she's extraordinary, I felt like yelling at the screen “no, you're just okay. And it's okay to be okay!” I am at heart a simple soul like that.) But then most-liked out of this company may be a prize for which there's little competition. More to the point, she's also the most realised. She may well be a bundle of quirks and insecurities, but Michael's no more than a set of symptoms with a name attached. Lisa's not just the most real character to Michael but to us too. And yet the film remains his.

And this paradox is accentuated by Lisa ostensibly coming out of it the best. She writes to Michael in a bookended counterpoint to the “fuck you” letter he still keeps from his ex, suggesting the encounter's instilled in her a new-found confidence. Is Kaufman simply trying to reverse the Dream Girl trope, where the validation rubs off him and sticks to her? If so it doesn't really work. For all its fumbling attempts at intimacy, there's a creepiness – even a wrongness – about their one night stand which goes against any notion there's validation to be claimed.

It doesn't seem too unreasonable to suggest that Michael is a dark reflection of Kaufman himself, his own worst tendencies taken out and stuffed inside a latex fetish. But perhaps the film succeeds too well in this, in getting inside Michael's head, and can't extricate itself when it needs to. One small line stood out, when Lisa's friend encourages her to go with him because “he's gorgeous”. Which must surely qualify as one of the most unearned lines in cinema history. Perhaps she's supposed to have her own perception filter, which can't tell fame from attraction. But it's one of several points which come too close to wish-fulfilment for comfort.

Some films you review because you feel you have something to say about them. For others its almost the opposite, you need some way of working out how you felt about them and it might as well be pen and paper. And there's nothing wrong with the second kind, films don't have to be neat and tidy. But sometimes when you have a conflicted reaction to a film its because the film itself is conflicted.


THE DEVIL SPEAKS TRUE
Dome Studio Theatre, Sat 19th March



A version of 'Macbeth' played out in actual or semi darkness? It did cause me to joke about 'The Scottish Murder in the Dark' and all the rest of it. Yet as a way to see one of Shakespeare's most claustrophobic plays, it also appealed. As it turned out, Goat and Monkey had a different fish to fry. They describe their performance's means and ends like so:

”'The Devil Speaks True' uses wireless headphones, projection, scent, a physical performer and binaural sound design to plunge audiences into an intimate, 360 degree experience... a chilling exploration of the psychological effects of war.”

Scenes from the play were alternated with testimonies from those who warfare had inflicted with post traumatic stress disorder. When not in pitch black, the onstage action was confined to a few semi-static tableaus, in a manner similar to illustrations in a novel.

The headphone-based sound design by Dominic Kennedy was indeed evocative. The disturbing nature of the performance, warned of in both pre-publicity and by the ushers before you went in, seemed to concern itself with the interview accounts. But it was the sound design which unsettled. The headphones trap you in with the sounds and voices, they're directed at you rather than disseminated, like you're inside someone else's psychoscape. And sound devoid of context often takes on an eerie effect.

'The Rest is Silence' by DreamThinkSpeak, also took a Shakespeare play as a jumping-off point. But where they condensed 'Hamlet' down to a skeleton, this was more reductive still - like chopping some limbs off 'Macbeth' and shaking them at you.

It might seem charmingly traditional to assume an audience will know Shakespeare from their eddyercation, along with how to do up a bow tie and which direction to pass port in. But in actuality it's something much more modern. The performance is something like a hypertext, patching itself together out of chunks of iambic verse and testimony tapes. But so little of the play survives it becomes a hypertext with no underlying text. Sections were rendered inaudible, as if just a sound source.

The focus on Macbeth's erstwhile buddy Banquo as the PTSD survivor becomes problematic. One reason given is that he sees the witches. But while (as we're told) survivors can continue to 'see' memories of incidents they can't shake, there's no suggestion they also get beset by apparitions – so the connection seems unclear. And besides, Macbeth sees the witches too. Plus, in what's normally regarded as Banquo's best-known appearance, he returns as a ghost to silently accuse his old mucker of his murder. Which fits the model more closely, though it makes Macbeth himself seem more like the afflicted. So why not make Macbeth the subject of their 'Macbeth'?

But that would start to associate the affliction with feelings of guilt. Which would undermine the narrow focus where sufferers are treated as witnesses of horror, never involved in what they saw. A kidnapped IT consultant is treated as on a par with soldiers. Let's not get on to how or why a soldier might experience guilt, or whether or not the feeling is rational or justified. (This isn't, and doesn't have to be, a work about the British occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan.) The point is that this narrowness seems symptomatic of treating the play as a set of pullable quotes. You cut up the cloth to make your patches, and the big picture cannot help but be lost.

There's also more prosaic problems. I find I need time to tune in to the heightened nature of Shakespeare's language, and the everyday English of the testimonies kept throwing me back out of it. And the lack of narrative leaves the performance with no real momentum. We don't just not get the play's ending, we really don't get much of an ending at all.

Lin Gardner's Guardian review summed the problem up as not enough 'Macbeth'. But perhaps it was the other way round. For what I found to stay speaking to me afterwards was not the Bard’s timeless verse but the survivor testimonies. Perhaps they, set among the soundscapes, would have been enough. Or perhaps they could have been interspersed with multiple quotes from literature and poetry which seemed to suggest at post-trauma, rather than trying to pin the whole of it onto poor Banquo.

Some intriguing ideas made for an interesting failure. But still, a failure.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY ENCOUNTERS THE CALEDONIAN RAINFOREST...

...by venturing out along the southern tip of Mull. Dramatic scenery containing pine forests, cliff waterfalls, bold rocky outcrops and disdainful-looking mountain goats. As ever, full set on Flickr.








Friday, 11 March 2016

ROWLANDSON, GILLRAY AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH CARICATURE: THE NAPOLEONIC WARS IN THE PRINTS

The second and final instalment in our look at two Regency caricature exhibitions, 'High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson' at Queens Gallery, and the British Museum's 'Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon'. The first part looked at their founding role in modern political cartooning. This time let's look at that age of Napoleon.


Those Revolting French

First just a smudge of history...

When the French first rose up, in 1789, British public opinion could often be sympathetic. However, though perhaps counter-intuitively, support for the Revolution didn't necessarily make you a revolutionary. It ranged from the truly radical, most famously expressed by Tom Paine, to the Whig – which blithely assumed things would end up with an English style constitutional monarchy. With Republicanism not considered as much of an option, France was assumed to be merely catching up. Whig leader Fox, for example, essentially took this position.

It can seem bizarre with our hindsight, but comparisons to the English Revolution, where a republic was declared, were made by its decriers. While its supporters preferred comparison to the later Glorious Revolution, where one King replaced another. (Generally 1648, where Roundhead fought Cavalier, was described as the English Civil War despite it actually being a revolution, while 1688 was dubbed the Glorious Revolution despite it being more of a Civil War. Terminology comes ready loaded.)

Yet many were to have their opinions changed by events such as the execution of the King and the Reign of Terror. These combined with domestic pressures, an increasing popular hostility plus greater censorship (called “Pitt's terror” by Fox).

All of which may well have happened to Gillray. In 1790 he produced a print called 'The Triumph of Liberty in the Freeing of the Bastille'. (Unreproduced in the show or companion book, and seemingly nowhere on-line. Perhaps Pitt's forces are still at work.) The same year he published ’France Freedom, Britain Slavery’ (below) in which France’s gains are played up in order to pillory Pitt. Yet notably he's lauding Jacques Necker, the figure carried aloft, whose reformist efforts so came to naught he ended up no more than a footnote to history. (I had to look him up, TBH.)


Then three years later he was back with another split-screen comparison ’French Liberty, British Slavery’ (below). The similar title is this time twisted into irony, the ragged, ravaged onion-chewing Frenchie contrasting with the stout, well-dressed Englishman. (A double for John Bull, if not named as him.) The food metaphor might be potent, for by then an artist's bread was buttered far better on the anti-Revolutionary side. In their guidebook Clayton and O'Connell suggest Gillray's change of heart was also influenced by “an elaborate wooing” involving the “stick” of threatened imprisonment and the “carrot” of a “pension” (read “bung”).


The clincher comes with the later 'L'Insurrection de L'Institut Amphibie' (1799, below). The ostensible target is the scholarly institute the French took with them on their invasion of Egypt. The clueless boffins are unable to harness the crocodiles, their useless books and diagrams littering the ground as they yelp in pain. But of course behind this is a metaphor for the hopelessness of revolution, a fool's errand undertaken only by unworldly intellectuals. Try to meddle with the natural order and you can expect to get bitten by reality. The fleeing figure on the right is dropping a book titled 'The Rights of the Crocodile', a clear parody of Paine's 'The Rights of Man'.


Rowlandson, meanwhile, only required the carrot and was soon hired by the Crown and Anchor Society to produce Royalist propaganda - his own years studying art in Paris quickly forgotten. (Though let's not forget Hogarth had already served up anti French propaganda even before the Revolution, so it was scarcely a stretch.) Formally, 'The Contrast' (1793, below) is another of his mismatched couples – but of quite a different kind, this time good order against foreign and malevolent disorder. English virtues are listed against France's post-Revolutionary failings which include, amusingly enough, madness, cruelty and injustice lined up alongside equality.


And with the caricaturists all enlisted it was time to open fire. Generally, French sympathies only enter the caricature prints negatively, as an object of criticism. (A history of radicalism and republicanism in art of this era lies elsewhere, though I can't imagine where you'd go.) Nevertheless, how that support is engaged with remains significant.

Generally, it is not the radical but the Whig position which is attacked. Supporters are gormlessly braying yes men, Napoleon’s useful idiots, rather than quislings or Jacobin fifth columnists. Perhaps the moneyed audience for the prints was primed to see Pitt and Fox as the full span of the political spectrum. Atop of which, even to engage with more radical opinion might have granted it some form of credence. Notably, this silence coincided with increasing censorship of radical media and suppression of groups. Radicalism wasn’t wrong so much as it was unspeakable.

Isaac Cruikshank's 'Bonne Farte Raising a Southerly Wind’ (1798, below) does show an army welcomed ashore by an English Jacobin. But the image is dominated by Bonaparte literally farting an invasive ill wind across the channel. Fox and his cohorts, standing up on a clifftop separate from the Jacobin, breathe this in - exulting “how fair is this southern breeze”. Useful idiots, too dumb to smell a stench.


The Black Legend of Little Boney

By 1799 Napoleon was already effectively in charge of France, though he wasn’t crowned Emperor for another five years. And after the chaos and bloody feuds of the Terror, his rule was first welcomed as a restoration of order. If you couldn’t have your wished-for constitutional monarchy, then the Napoleonic Code seemed a reasonable substitute. Fear of the mob, of no-one in charge, soon gave way to the fear of someone in charge. By 1803 the Napoleonic wars had started, clearly delineating the sides.

The increased targeting of Napoleon may partly have been down to practicality - satirists taking a gift when it was offered them, a single face to target rather than the bewildering succession of snuff reshuffles that had characterised the Terror. Though it’s notable that, in an era before photography, how his look can vary massively from artist to artist. In Isaac Cruikshank's 'Bounaparte at Rome Giving Audience in State' (1797, below), his first appearance in a political print, he's a louche, lanky long-haired youth, ill-manneredly kicking off the Pope's mitre. 


Later that same year Richard Newton's 'Bounaparte Establishing French Quarters in Italy' ( below), ostensibly depicts the same scene. Yet he's here a chubby brigand, an extra twenty years on him at least, with his square face and improbably curly moustache. And, just to make things more confusing, at times Cruikshank also gives him a moustache! John Bull is depicted much more consistently, and he was entirely fictitious.


Nevertheless, there's a set of tropes we see soon firming up, which are then stuck to fairly rigidly. Let's call this totem by the popular diminutive nickname 'Little Boney' (invented by Gillray), the better to separate what is often called the 'Black Legend' of anti-Napoleon propaganda from the actual historical figure.

First he is given the complex which was retrospectively named after him. He was a tin-pot tyrant who tried to compensate for his diminutive height by becoming the continent’s Dictator. (“They will have to look up to me then”, and so on.) Allegory allowed for this to be taken to extremes, for example in the anonymous 'John Bull Teazed by an Ear-Wig' (1803, below).


There's also a fixation on his Corsican birth, reflected in print titles, such as Gillray's 'The Corsican Beast' (1803) or Rowlandson's 'The Corsican Spider in his Web' (1808). His name is normally spelt in the Italianate fashion, 'Buonaparte', to reinforce this. (Though he'd actually been born just after the island became French.)

Then the reckless ambition that leads to. In Gillray's 'Bounaparte Hearing of Nelson's Victory' (1798) he swaggeringly demands an obelisk inscribed to him as “Conqueror of the World & extirpator of the English Nation”. While Cruikshank's 'Bounaparte! Ambition and Death!' (1814) is captioned “Bounaparte led on by ambition seeks the conquest of the world”, and shows him with a blood-drenched sword upraised at the globe.

And lunatic ambition soon gives way to outright lunacy. Gillray's 'Maniac Ravings' (1803, below) where he seems more beset by his own crazy thoughts and delusions than foreign opposition. They seem to have turned his office over and smashed his globe. (In a nice touch, as they fall his verbalised ravings become the parchments and papers which litter his office.)


But of course foreign opposition is just what happens, and his greatest accomplishment is to unite Europe against him. Prints often show other countries of Europe uniting against him, all previous rivalries forgotten.In for example in Rowlandson's 'The Corsican Tiger At Bay' (1808, below) he and the other nations of Europe are personified as fighting animals. (With only Britain remaining as the familiar human figure of John Bull.)


And so an excess of pride of course leads to a mighty fall. In Rowlandson's 'The Two Kings of Terror' (1813, below) Napoleon is faced off by the skeleton of death. (Presumably the second 'King'.) Its longer limbs are enhanced by it sitting on a gun barrel while he's placed diminutively on a drum. The upraised forearm and lower leg of the skeleton mark the mid-way point, while both it's foot and (behind them) the Allied troops push past the half-way mark. (The background figures are depicted so much more realistically they could almost be sitting before a painting.)


Reminding you of anyone yet? Think nearly a hundred and fifty years later. Like Hitler, Napoleon suffered from a height-based persecution complex manifesting as hubristic ambition, and was prone to fits of gibbering rage. Like Hitler, he wasn’t even from the country he showered in so much nationalistic pride. Like Hitler, in an act of grand folly he succeeded only in uniting everyone against him. Compare for example 'Maniac Ravings' to this Bernard Partridge cartoon from 'Punch'.

Yet of course, beyond the obvious point that they were both involved in expansionist European wars which drew in Britain, Napoleon and Hitler weren't particularly comparable figures. (Perhaps their only other similarity is a negative one - that despite the ceaseless mocking neither was unusually short for his day, with Hitler being taller than Churchill.) The point is that the needs of satire determine he be depicted in a certain way. There's a part written for him to play, whatever the truth of it.

The one big exception is the Corsican angle being attached to a largely invented narrative of lowly origins, painting a picture of a man not born to rule. For example Gillray's 'Democracy, or A Sketch of the Life of Bounaparte' (1800) depicts Napoleon born to “wretched Relatives in their native Poverty... Free Booters”, gnawing on bones, scarcely different to the dogs around them. Later he's shown sitting on a golden throne before “Sychophants and Parasites”. (Shown below with the first two frames enlarged.) This is the era where 'democracy' was a scare word, analogous to 'mob'.



Caricature Cannot Flatter

Let's close on Gillray's classic 'The Plum-Pudding in Danger' (1805, up top), which Martin Rowson has called “the greatest political cartoon ever… almost the type specimen of the medium”. In other words its not just the best we’ve seen yet, it’s the standard by which we judge all the others.

I first saw it in a school history class, and to my young eyes the meaning seemed clear. The two rulers are even divvying up the globe with geographical accuracy. While Napoleon slices into Europe, Pitt forks the Atlantic, suggesting (in the show's words) “colonial empire and a monopoly of seaborne trade”. (Though America itself was independent by then.) This was surely a plague on both houses, an expose of the greed inherent in all rulers. The problem of of the French Revolution wasn't that it had turned to anarchy but precisely that it hadn't. Instead it had produced yet another crowned despot. Napoleon and Pitt are presented as two variants on a theme, Pitt's upturned beak the complement to Napoleon's downturned schnozz.

And yet of course as we've seen Gillray was no anarchist. He led the comfortable life of a Regency gentleman, a situation abetted by regular sales of his work to other Regency gentlemen. But then again art criticism must ultimately be about the artwork. And look again at that print – it is an anarchist image, isn't it? It could adorn an Occupy leaflet today, just with Amazon and Monsanto replacing Pitt and Boney. In fact, if someone hasn't done that already I'll eat Napoleon's hat.

And despite Pitt's carrots and sticks, there was always that tendency. Because to some extent it's there in the form, like a DNA that can't be shaken off. There's a reason, after all, why 'Plum Pudding' became Gillray's most enduring image, and the one with the crocodiles hasn't. And isn't that reason because its so off the leash, so levelling, so even-handedly denunciatory?

Remember when right-wing rentagob David Starkey claimed the riots had happened because kids now spoke street slang innit, rather than the Queen's English dontchaknow? (The infamous “whites have become black” thing.) And of course the priggish little twerp was was being as absurd as he was racist and risible... yet hang on. Racist and risible certainly, but absurd?

How we speak isn't just some see-through container for what we say, like a cellophane wrapper. It imprints content, it frames certain utterances more easily than others. And cartoon and caricature are to art just what that kind of slang is to speech. Caricature can't flatter, so can have no friends in high places. It's a coarse jeer without the words to express respect for power. To misquote Jim Morrison, no-one here gets out unmocked. Anyone who gets placed in the frame gets pushed from his pedestal. The only way to keep away from it's levelling force is to keep outside the frame. But even that doesn’t work, because if you’re not in the picture you’re a nobody. 

Perhaps the bribes these artists received were less payments than payoffs. Like the barbarian warriors of latter-day Rome, you paid them to protect you not from others but from themselves. And remember how that ended up...


Saturday, 5 March 2016

ROWLANDSON, GILLRAY AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH CARICATURE: THE ARRIVAL OF CARTOONING

The first of a two-part look at two Regency caricature exhibitions'High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson' at Queens Gallery, and the British Museum's 'Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon'. (They're both now over. You guessed that part already, right?)


“Man is the only creature endowed with the power of laughter. Is he not also the only one who deserves to be laughed at?”
- Rowlandson

Looking Back At the Golden Age

The Regency era is often dubbed the Golden Age of English caricature, and it may be true in that it was both great and founding. Art dealer Thomas Tegg boasted of possessing a 'Caricature Warehouse', suggesting a period stuffed to the gills with bombast and bile. While no less a fellow than the Guardian's Steve Bell has said it was James Gillray who invented political cartooning as we now know it. (A fact which stays true from either end of the quality spectrum. Back when I was making my scrawly autobiographical comics, my self-image was largely half-inched from Gillray's Pitt.)

Perhaps there was the perfect combination of talent, opportunity and events. Packed into a few short years came the Regency crisis, the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars. (I tend to think I lived through a golden age of interesting times in the Thatcherite Eighties, but their turbulence pales by comparison.) All of which didn't just have a political impact but an effect upon the national identity. (So please note what follows is more concerned with how the prints focused and reflected popular attitudes than with their historical accuracy. Fairness was not their primary drive. It shall also hopelessly conflate London, England and Britain, just because people of the time did.)

The prints were not normally reproduced in magazines, but kept as standalone items. They were more often passed around than hung. (In fact the often teeny text would seem to presuppose this.) With recent innovations in transferring images, scenes were sometimes reproduced on mugs and jugs. Gillray's 'Very Slippy-Weather' (1808, below) is set outside Mrs. Humphrey's shop which sold his prints. The foreground figure taking a pratfall looks like an excuse, the focus is really on the works in the windows – recognisably his. The glass-pressed crowd suggest these were like the Tumblr graphics of their day, loose and readily transportable.




Yet, however much we might want to romantically imagine some precursor to the anti-authoritarianism of underground comics, Mrs. Humphrey's shop was in wealthy Bond Street and it's prints priced beyond the pockets of regular folk. Indeed one of the exhibitions taking place in Queens Gallery, part of Buckingham Palace, is indicative of the number of nobility who collected them.


Its Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and (to a lesser extent) George Cruickshank who are usually regarded as the stars of this era. Contemporaries, even born in the same year, Gillray and Rowlandson worked so often under pseudonyms its hard to fully catalogue their output, but both were extraordinarily prolific. Our focus will initially be on Rowlandson, principally because – as its title suggests – the British Museum show takes the story up from the later Napoleonic wars. But also in part because Gillray's star can shine so bright he obscures others.


Both men had a talent for combining the highly individualised with the deeply archetypal; we feel that each person has been caught square in their pincers even as they seem to epitomise a general type. Figures have a liveliness, a solidity to them; whatever the absurdity of their situation they seem to come alive before you.

Rowlandson's great gift was for caricature. While he'd sometimes barely bother to sketch in backgrounds, often even in his crowd scenes every figure is individualised. His 'Sketches at an Oratorio' (1800, below) merely shows a series of heads, strung along the thin through-line that they're all reacting to the same oratorio. But that should make them sketchbook doodles, a reserve army of players waiting to be inserted into scenes. Yet each is so well-realised that the work's effective in it's own right.



Though satirical prints dominated Rowlandson's work, he also produced more general comic images and scenic views. (He may have been pushed towards the more lucrative prints by his perpetual ability to get himself into debt, his gambling sessions lasting up to thirty-six hours a stretch.) These vary in interest, but tend to the more staid such as the respectful 'King George Returning From Hunting Through Eton' (c. 1800), villagers dutifully watching their monarch pass.

Yet when he starts to populate these scenes with his stock English cartoony characters, Rowlandson starts to look more like a forerunner of Giles. Marina Vaizey of the Arks Desk describes him as “more a comedian than a satirist… motivated more by affection than by rage”. While the more venomous pen of Gillray would seem to begat the plasticated figures of Scarfe.

The Arrival of Allegory

Like Steve Bell and other later artists, Rowlandson borrowed heavily from the great satirist print-maker William Hogarth. (Who had died fifteen years before Rowlandson began work.) The show puts together Rowlandson's 'A Grand Battle Between the Famous English Cock and Russian Hen' (1791, below) and it's inspiring piece, Hogarth's 'The Cockpit' (1759, also below). They show both Hogarth's influence on the younger artists, and how much they moved things on.




First we might notice the leap into colour – enabled by advances in production, if still applied by hand. Those bright blocks of solid colour look eye-catching and cheerily gaudy. (Though black-and-white alternatives existed for the budget buyer.) To our eyes this makes them look more proto-modern than Hogarth, they make the work look populist and with it more scurrilous and salacious.

More importantly Hogarth depicts a scene, while Rowlandson's interest is allegory. He places the fighting cock and hen neatly at the centre of the composition, then shows the bet money placed on the fighting table itself. (Something they're unlikely to have done in real life.) Hogarth's background and jumble of foreground figures are simply done away with to add emphasis to the central figures and fighting birds – we need to be looking at what we need to be looking at. But most of all, the cock and hen are given the grafted faces of George and Catherine the Great. We now take this kind of transmogrified allegory so for granted, at least in political cartoons, it's almost a surprise when we discover it had to be devised.


Similarly, in 'A Peep into Friar Bacon's Study' (1784, above) doesn't meaningfully distinguish the apparition of the three hovering discs from the room setting. Those watching disdainfully through the left door seem able to see them. It followed that real-life symbolic occasions, processions and ceremonies, were often used, lending themselves so easily to both tableaus and symbolic depiction - for example 'The York Dilly, or the Triumph of Innocence' (1809, below). Everything represents - a rickety rowing boat stands for the ship of state, a stiff-backed chair is the seat of office.


Starting With Speech

In another difference to Hogarth, Rowlandson introduces speech balloons to 'English Cock and Russian Hen'. And overall, this is about the time they emerge. However, these are given a somewhat different use to the one with we're now familiar. This is manifest even in their design - they're not our bubbles but billowing trails, with no requirement for the writing to remain horizontal. They look like a revival of the Medieval speech scroll; though divorced from its original religious context it still has the same sense of proclamation – as if the speaker is reading aloud from a held scroll.

At other times (for example in 'The York Dilly') they're looping trails, suggesting opera arias. And speech often takes on sing-song patterns, or attempts doggerel verse. What's said is almost always expository. They're used for speechifying rather than speech, announcements rather than dialogue. They become verbalised labels ('labels' being the commonest term for them at the time), an accoutrement of the characters as much as pose or clothing.

As mentioned earlier us political types want to see in these prints political radicalism. Similarly us comic fans want to find in them a gestation, the medium we recognise being born. Yet the use of speech balloons is haphazard, suggesting they were employed more as an extemporised device, for times when the pictures alone couldn't be left to do the talking. Gillray's prints are often festooned with intra-image writing (labels on bottles, the covers of pamphlets etc) without a single speech balloon in sight. (For example 'French Generals Retiring On Account of Their Health', 1799, below, or 'The Handwriting Upon the Wall', 1803.) Without any meaningful sense of interchange between characters, the prospect of arranging panels into a narrative sequence is still some way off.


'Of Labels, Loops and Bubbles' by Thierry Smoldern from 'Comic Art' 8 is a good article on this sort of thing, though now tricky to track down. It convincingly explains why this generation took to balloons while Hogarth didn't – and it has to do with that cock becoming Catherine the Great. Here's a snatch:

”The vast majority of satirical pictures which appeared in the English-speaking world were allegorical in nature... In such a context the reason why the labels cannot be read the same way as our modern speech balloons becomes clearer. Nothing is alive or natural in allegorical constructs: they exist in a timeless and spaceless dimension, in which no living sound will ever travel. How could metaphors freely dialogue between themselves like characters in a comic strip?

”...It is important, when one wants to retrace the historical changes behind a familiar cultural construct like the speech balloon, to understand the older avatars in their own terms, as positive entities – and not as the imperfect intermediaries leading to the achieved form (i.e., the form with which we are comfortable.)”

England as a Mismatched Couple


Rowlandson often employed what the Queens Gallery calls “mismatched couples”, most clearly in 'Doctor Convex and Lady Concave' (1802, above), used as the poster image (up top). 'The Last Dreg' (1811, below) is perhaps another variation on this, with the gluttonous fellow oblivious to his imminent spearing by the skeletal figure of death. This time the second figure is not alongside the first but above and behind, ambiguously somewhere between coming down on and emerging up from him.


And let's remember during the Regency the bums jostling on the throne were themselves a mismatched couple. George III was ailing and concerns arose he was becoming too unwell to rule, spurring plans for his son (later George IV) to step in as Regent. False alarms rang before this finally happened, spiking concerns instead of closing the deal. Robert Southey has said this era...

“...saw the end of a more pious and reserved society, and gave birth of a more frivolous, ostentatious one. This change was influenced by the Regent himself, who was kept entirely removed from the machinations of politics and military exploits... leaving him with the pursuit of pleasure as his only outlet, as well as his sole form of rebellion against what he saw as disapproval and censure in the form of his father.”

The figures of King and Regent were, at least in the popular mind, then duplicated in Parliament. The King favoured the Tory leader William Pitt, while the Prince associated with the Whig Charles Fox. These were commonly depicted as beaky and rakishly thin versus louche and girthsome. See for example Rowlandson's 'Billy Lackbeard and Charley Blackbeard Playing at Football' (1784, below) which plays up their physical dissimilarity by bookending them in the composition.


Though their frames make them opposites, they as readily mark them out as targets. Fox is depicted dropping playing cards (and was often show brandishing dice boxes in the place of justice's scales), yet Pitt is a gangly youth disparagingly called Lackbeard. Virtue exists on neither side, each merely carries his own particular problems.


For example, in Gillray's 'Midas Transmuting All into Gold Paper' (1797, above) Pitt is shown as the miserly anti-Midas, hoarding gold in his locked belly (absurdly bloated against his otherwise scrawny frame), while spitting and shitting only paper money. (The context being that gold payments had been suspended due to the cost of war, leading to paper money being issued for the first time.) In other words while the louche Fox will probably raise taxes to spend all your money, Pitt would raise them just to keep it.

This reflects something I said of the Tate's 'Rude Britannia' show: “It posited two Britains perpetually at war with one another, the upright and spendthrift versus the bawdy and licentious.” It reflects Shakespeare's 'Henry IV', except with Prince Hal and Falstaff united into a single figure. (The scene where Hal takes his father for dead and crowns himself is almost a forerunner of the Regency crisis, and is almost echoed in Rowlandson's 'Filial Piety' of 1788.) But even Shakespeare may just be a way-station on this journey, with the figures going back further still.

Doctor Convex/Lady Concave... the King/The Prince Regent... Pitt/ Fox... ultimately, these figures refer back to Lent and Carnival, as shown in the famous Pieter Breugel painting 'The Fight Between Carnival and Lent'. Carnival, sometimes called King Carnival and as the name suggests almost invariably male, represents the Jungian archetype most commonly known as “the big fat party animal”. While Lent is a gaunt, aged and devout woman. Of all the oppositions fat to thin, gluttony to abstinence, is perhaps central. Carnival was chiefly concerned with feasting and Lent with sticking to a plain diet.

And yet there's nothing moralistic to Lent and Carnival, not at least when they appeared in folk culture - they merely mark the ebb and flow between the seasons. Despite the 'Fight' in Breguel's title they're less at war than involved in some ritualised dance, both well-practiced in their steps. They're like the sun and moon, complementary opposites whose clashes occur as part of an underlying harmony, where we we need both to navigate by.

And it's this element which is lost in the age of caricature. Now opposites do not glide by but collide. While its doubtful there's a single cause for this, the arrival of Protestantism probably struck the killer blow. Catholicism allowed for measured indulgence, between this time and that, and provided you dutifully did your penances afterwards. Protestantism didn't. The only way to enjoy such things was vicariously. Figures which had once been safety valves became targets. The Prince Regent drank, gambled and whored so you didn't have to, like a rock star or merchant banker of today. As Wikipedia comments “the gap in the hierarchy of society was so great that those of the upper classes could be viewed by those below as wondrous and fantastical fiction, something entirely out of reach yet tangibly there.”

This may also help to answer an otherwise perplexing question – why was this golden age so British? Why were there not comparable prints not going on the other side of the channel? France would seem to have had the same combination of opportunity and events; Paris a print centre to rival London, while its lively political landscape really speaking for itself. Prints were produced. Yet the examples given in the British Museum show, such as Jean Louis Arguad de Borges' 'Gare a ta Coronne, et Deffens Tes Cotes' (1803) lack the same bite. The companion book to the British Museum exhibition, by Tim Clayton and Sheila O'Connell, even suggests political prints were a successful British export. Perhaps it was this particular set of social tensions in Britain that made the prints simultaneously an expression of them and a release from them.

England Personified

Given this emphasis on division it shows the peculiarly self-contradictory nature of popular culture that at the same time John Bull should arise. This personification of Britain was stout of heart and wide of girth, with a waistcoat never quite finding its way around his midriff. He was of course a patriotic totem. In the unsigned 'John Bull Viewing the Preparations on the French Coast' (1803), his buckled feet are planted on English soil as if the two are interchangeable. In Charles Williams' 'The Governor of Europe Stopped in his Career' (1803, shown below on a commemorative mug) he pluckily chops off Napoleon's intruding toe, crying “Paws off, Pompey!”


Yet he as often represents the nation as distinct from the political class, and can be shown at the mercy of scheming politicians. In Cruikshank's 'Preparing For War' (1815, below) he's portrayed literally as a bull, a fatted calf about to be sacrificed, beheaded by an axe labelled 'New War Taxes'. “Have I not bled for so many years in your service?” he cries “Will you now take my life?”


Intriguingly, Rowlandson would seem himself almost a double for John Bull. He was not a political figure, despite making his living from his satires. (Or quite possibly because of them, for he'd switch sides at the sight of better pay or if necessary work under pseudonyms.) But he may have himself united these two figures he depicted so often, described by the show as “a convivial man who enjoyed gambling and drinking. But he also worked extremely hard.”

Cruickshank, meanwhile, perhaps best illustrates the short-lived nature of the Regency. Though often seen as part of a triumvirate with Gillray and Rowlandson, he was thirty-five years their junior. Like both of them, he drank his way through the era. But in the 1840s, after their deaths and with the onset of Victoriana, he took to temperance with the zeal of the converted. His later work has an instructive nature which if anything looks back to Hogarth. The Tate's afore-mentioned 'Rude Britannia' featured his 'Worship of Bacchus' (1862), whose gargantuan size boils down to the simple message “don't drink and... look, just don't drink, okay?”

The Regency era seems to snag the popular conception of British history, a dandified jam sandwiched between the dour dry bred of Cromwell's Puritanism and Victoria's perpetual unamusedness. Not seen as a foundation of modern Britain but an aberration, it might appear strange that this is when modern political cartooning was devised. And yet its possible that the reverse is true, that we've never really left this time. With all the populist Tory rhetoric about “hard-working families” versus “lifestyle choice” skiving chavs, doesn't it feel like people have become hard-wired to swallow all that? As if the stuff which made us us all happened then?

Coming soon: Napoleon takes the stage...