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Ink-stained assassins: Can political cartoonists survive in the digital age?

In 1931, Sidney Strube was earning £10,000 a year at the Daily Express, making him the highest-paid man in Fleet Street. But will the current generation of political cartoonists be the last?

“The tradition started with me,” says Ingram Pinn, putting his mug down on the paintsmudged desk. “I hope it doesn’t die with me.”

Pinn is the Financial Times’s political cartoonist, and he shares his office with the paper’s other illustrators. Unlike the rest of the floor – which, like most modern newsrooms, has all the charm and personality of a call centre – human beings have made their mark here. There’s a bookcase filled with visual dictionaries, wine guides and science textbooks; an old radio, and a witty drawing by Patrick Hughes of a hand holding a drooping pen.

On the desk, next to the obligatory slinky Mac, PC and Wacom illustration tablet, sit Pinn’s everyday tools: a stack of paintbrushes, a battered box of watercolours and a widenibbed pen, still stained with the black ink used to draw outlines. There’s also a hairdryer, for emergency finishing close to deadline. The sound of it whirring in the late afternoon has confused many colleagues.

Since 1986, Pinn has illustrated the lead piece on the paper’s opinion pages on weekdays, and gives his own opinion in cartoon form on Saturdays. As the 62-year-old acknowledges, he might be the last to do so. “There are people here who could replace me, who are a bit younger, but there does seem to be a bit of a lack of students coming round with their folders, saying, ‘I’d like to do some political stuff.’” The problem is not that young people aren’t interested in illustration, he adds; it’s that so few want to apply that talent to the specialised art form of the British newspaper cartoon.

This situation at the FT isn’t an isolated one. The Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street, London, helpfully includes the birth dates of all the artists it exhibits. Stan McMurtry (the Daily Mail’s Mac) and the Sunday Times’s Gerald Scarfe are the oldest cartoonists working full-time on Fleet Street; both were born in 1936. Peter Brookes of the Times was born in 1943; Steve Bell of the Guardian in 1951; Peter Schrank of the Independent in 1952. Perhaps surprisingly, the Telegraph – caricatured as the favoured paper of aged Colonel Buffingtons in the Shires – has the youngest stable of regular cartoonists: Matt Pritchett (the pocket cartoonist “Matt”) is 48 and Christian Adams is 46.

Drawing newspaper cartoons is the preserve of a group of men in middle to late age; there are very few women. Notoriously, they don’t retire if they can help it; many of them grumble that they can’t afford to. An 81-year-old Wally Fawkes, better known as Trog, only left the Sunday Telegraph in 2005, after 62 years of professional cartooning, because his eyesight was failing. At the Mail a few years ago, Ken Mahood – then approaching 80 – seemed to me like an emissary from a gentler age, delivering his pocket cartoon in the early evening and then meandering up to the sub-editors to offer them foil-wrapped biscuits as they tried to lay out the next day’s paper.

Yet this is the paradox of cartooning: a few dozen people make a very good living from it, but when eventually they hang up their nibs, will they be replaced? Print sales are falling; the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show the daily newspaper market contracted 7.79 per cent in the past year. Do cartoons work divorced from the topography of the newspaper page? Will they bring enough “eyeballs” to advertisers to justify their existence on the internet?

And, if this is the last generation of news paper cartoonists, what will we lose when they are gone?

Dido in despair

Some time in 1887, a 42-year-old former bank clerk called Francis Carruthers Gould drew a simple line drawing for the Pall Mall Gazette, a London newspaper that was later absorbed into the Evening Standard. In doing so, he became the first cartoonist to land a staff job on a British newspaper.

Sadly, that first drawing is lost to history, but it seems reasonable, looking at his later work for the Gazette, to assume it would have involved two politicians, stiffly posed and plausibly rendered, exchanging a quip. Gould was inordinately fond of pastiches, producing a Kaiser Walrus, after Alice in Wonderland, for his next employer, the Westminster Gazette. “He was a very tedious cartoonist,” the Guardian’s Martin Rowson tells me. “It was all animals with politicians’ heads – an owl with Campbell- Bannerman’s head. Very boring.”

The present generation of political cartoonists doesn’t regard Gould as the father of the tradition. That honour goes to James Gillray (born 1756), who drew such intricate portraits that they demanded extended study. Most people would hire them for the weekend from a gallery, much as we might rent a DVD. Then they would invite their friends over to debate the meaning of the fine details.

One of Gillray’s best-known pictures, 1801’s Dido in Despair, is packed with references to the affair between Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson. Emma is depicted as a plump, crying Dido, distraught that Nelson/Aeneas is sailing away from her. A verse underneath has her saying that her lover has “left me with the old Antiques, to lay me down & cry”, which readers would have interpreted as a reference both to her husband’s passion for classical antiquities and to his age – Sir William was 70, while his wife was 35.

Hamilton also liked to have Emma pose in Greek dress, which he called her “Attitudes”, and a book open on the window seat refers to “Studies of Academic Attitudes taken from the Life”. In it, a female figure lies naked and flat on her back. As Nicholas Hiley of the Cartoon Centre at the University of Kent has noted in a study of the picture, “many people did regard [that] as her most characteristic attitude”.

Gillray’s methods were labour-intensive and costly. He scratched lines on a sheet of copper coated with varnish or wax, which was then dipped in acid to eat away the exposed parts. Prints were done on a hand press and published by Mrs Hannah Humphrey, his long-time collaborator, at her print shop in central London.

Gillray’s work won him fame, even notoriety. His satirical drawings of “Prinny” – the prince regent, later George IV – were scandalously satirical and gorgeously realised, so much so, that the royal family collected them. (Tragically George V sold them to the US Library of Congress to fund his stamp collection.)

After Gillray died in 1815, his eyesight failing and his sanity shattered, his successors moved away from the exaggeration of the caricature tradition to straighter drawing, although still with a political message. Magazines such as Punch, which launched in 1841, and competitors such as Tomahawk and Judy offered cartoonists an outlet, and the illustrations in them were often A3-sized foldouts. They were done from woodblocks, on to which the cartoonist would sketch an outline; these would be handed over to an engraver to cut away the “dead” areas. By the 1890s, “process engraving” had come into use. This was produced photographically from an original drawing, allowing the artist’s style to show through more clearly.

"Disraeli in Despair" by Matt Morgan in Tomahawk magazine. Photo: Getty

By the beginning of the 20th century, advances in printing made it possible for cartoons to be dropped into pages of text, and the form began to move into its modern incarnation among the op-ed pieces or, for the lucky few, on the front page.

If you had to pick any time to be a cartoonist, it would surely be the 1960s. The “satire boom” created a powerful sense that the stuffy old establishment was being undermined, and the creation of Private Eye magazine provided the new cartoonists with a space in which they could be as outrageous as possible. (The Eye was wonderfully snooty about its main rival; its rejection slips for unsuitable aspiring cartoons had two options – “Try again” or “Try Punch”.)

This was the heyday of Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman. Searle’s lighter work has often obscured the artistry of his drawings from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he spent much of the Second World War and hid his artwork under the mattresses of prisoners dying of cholera to stop the guards finding it. Similarly, Scarfe –whose career has encompassed opera sets, Disney films and the title sequence of Yes, Minister – managed to get the Daily Mail to send him to Vietnam as a war artist. “A cruel artist sent to a cruel situation” is how he describes it.

That experience, he says now, showed him the horrific incompetence of those in power and made him a lifelong opponent of war. “Up until then I’d only known war as something I’d seen on television. The first shock is how young the soldiers are – 19 or 20, just college kids who have been told to go to the other side of the world and fight, and are frightened out of their minds. And the Vietnamese are the sweetest people, so gentle and kind. They had the misfortune of being the battleground on which east and west had their fight.” In a morgue at the airport, he found himself unable to draw the “bits of men” on the slabs. “I went with a writer and our instinct was not to draw the horror. Weirdly enough, I seem to have drawn the beauty of the country, the flora and fauna, the grasshoppers.” In an experience few of today’s journalists are likely to repeat, he also visited an opium den.

“I’m not a druggie but I thought, ‘I must try this opium once.’ I went straight back to the hotel and did a drawing of the opium den. It was the best drawing ever, better than Michelangelo, better than Leonardo.” And how did it look the following day? “Rubbish.”

Talking dogs

There are roughly three modern types of newspaper cartoon: the editorial, pocket and strip varieties. The last is exemplified by Dilbert and Garfield in the US, or Tamara Drewe in the UK. The pocket, or joke, cartoon is a single panel, often with a line of text beneath it. Matt of the Telegraph is the best-known exponent; the allegedly huge size of his salary and his unique guaranteed front-page position make him the target of much friendly jealousy. The pressures on the joke cartoonist are a mixture of the serious and bizarre. Pritchett tells me that he worries about being “scooped” on Twitter, and about whether he’s drawing too many talking dogs (which the readers love).

The last form, and the one that most people think of when they hear the phrase “newspaper cartoon”, is the op-ed or comment cartoon – a postcard-sized drawing that sits on the opinion pages of a newspaper, and is expected to provide either an angrily satirical or a gently ribbing take on the day’s news. The consensus is that the left-wing newspapers tend towards anger, and the right-wing ones towards light relief. “There’s quite a stark contrast between the Guardian and the Telegraph,” says Bob Moran, a young illustrator who draws twice a fortnight for the latter. “The Guardian cartoons tend to be more aggressive – the readers want to vent anger, they want to see [politicians] looking hideous and ugly and wading in their own shit and sick. At the Telegraph, you’re not allowed to draw things like that. They want to make people laugh.”

Martin Rowson in particular seems to revel in mixing allusions to obscure literary texts with lashings of excrement. A cartoon he drew last month for the Morning Star features a “fivearsed pig”, shitting turds emblazoned with the logos of London 2012 sponsors through sphincters coloured like the Olympic rings.

Occasionally, the digestive obsession becomes a bit too much even for left-wing papers. Rowson tells me that his fellow Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell always files as late as possible to make the staff grateful that the picture has arrived at all. “There’s a wonderful story about Georgina Henry, when she was deputy editor, going past the comment desk at about eight o’clock one evening and Steve’s cartoon had just come in,” he says. “It was a wonderful one of [George W] Bush as a monkey, squatting on the side of a broken toilet, wiping his arse with the UN Charter. And there’s all this shit splattered on the wall behind it, and she looks and says, ‘Oh God, no.’ [Alan] Rusbridger had put down this edict saying less shit in the cartoons, please – you know, the editor’s prerogative – and she and Steve had this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.” What happened? “He finally caved in. In one of the greatest betrayals of freedom of speech since Galileo, he tippexed out three of the turds.”

Caricature from character

What is daily life like as a professional cartoonist? They all have their quirks – Bell and Rowson work from home; Pritchett and the Times’s Peter Brookes are among those who prefer the bustle of the office. “I used to sit in my office doing my ideas, but now I sit on the picture desk,” says Paul Thomas of the Daily Express. “The ideas come from banter with other people and I find it easier to think of the ideas if I’m being generally amusing and taking the piss.”

Some cartoonists use pen and ink, others use watercolour or gouache (a heavier, more opaque paint) and a few tinker with their finished products in illustration programs such as Photoshop. Across the board, however, they resist changing over to working digitally from start to finish. Sometimes it’s habit, sometimes deliberate Luddism; at other times it’s because of the scale. Gerald Scarfe, who has worked for the Sunday Times since the late 1960s, draws pictures a metre high and half a metre wide and digitises them on a special oversized scanner bought in Norway.

Each is attached to his own way of doing things. Ingram Pinn has had his paintbox the entire time he’s been at the Financial Times, while Rowson has stuck with Pelikan Indian ink, despite learning that it was used to tattoo the inmates of concentration camps. (“It’s like wearing a Hugo Boss suit – you’ve got to do a quick audit and see if the statute of limitations has passed.”)

Their lives follow the peculiar rhythm dictated by a daily newspaper, a reaction in turn to the process of printing and distributing a physical product. For most cartoonists, the day begins around 10am with reading the morning’s papers and deciding what topic to cover. Running stories are difficult, as are those that revolve around policy rather than personality. “At the moment, I want to do a lot of drawings about Syria,” Brookes tells me. “But the news out of Syria is all the same. You could say the same about the eurozone, the repetition of that. It’s as boring as hell to [have] yet another cartoon on the same subject. Yet if that’s dominating the headlines, dominating people’s fears, or the financial markets’ fears, then, in a sense, you’ve got to do it. The challenge for me –what I enjoy about all this – is that you find new ways of doing it.”

A universal grumble is about bland politicians: there is great nostalgia for the days of Margaret Thatcher, not just because her hair and her handbag provided instant visual references, but because of the force of her personality. Scarfe might have drawn her with exaggerated facial features, but that is not where his portrayal of her started. “The best way is to get a mood, a kind of ambiance for the person,” he tells me over the phone. “It’s not necessarily big nose, big ears, big head on a tiny body – it’s mostly what you feel about the person. The caricature must come from character. When I was drawing Thatcher, she was so aggressive and attacking and aquiline.” That led to depictions of her as a knife or an axe. “Whereas you take someone like dear old John Major, a grey and hopeless man. You couldn’t draw him as an axe. He didn’t have an axe within him.”

For similar reasons, Nicolas Sarkozy, with his beaky nose, stack heels and echoes of Napoleon, was a gift, the current British cabinet and shadow cabinet less so. Nick Clegg, it is widely agreed, “has no face”. Rowson has got round this by repeatedly depicting him as Pinocchio. And George Osborne “looks like he should be fat”, according to Bob Moran. “He’s like a fat man in a thin man’s body, so you tend to draw him fatter than he is, and it works.”

The trend towards younger, more photogenic politicians has spoiled much of the fun. “With Blair at first, I found him tricky to draw without making him look like Bambi,” Pinn says. “But as he got older, it got easier – he got more drawn, and his eye got bigger.”

When David Cameron took power, his smooth and unremarkable face presented a similar challenge, but after a while a consensus emerged that he should be pictured with round, rosy cheeks and shiny skin. This is another quirk of the cartoonists as a group: after a while, their caricatures of a politician begin to draw on each other’s work as much as on the appearance of their unfortunate victim. Look again at Cameron. He doesn’t have rosy apple cheeks, but they’ve become part of his mythology, because of what they represent – the wellfed and enthusiastic-but-not-too-clever public school boy.

That is also the driving force behind Scarfe putting him in a Cavalier’s uniform or Rowson drawing him in bloomers. (Unlike Stanley Baldwin, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill – who collected cartoons of himself and hung them at his house in Chartwell, Kent – Cameron is said to hate these portrayals. But at least he didn’t take being caricatured as badly as Gordon Brown, who, as legend has it, once asked an unnamed cartoonist why he always drew him so fat. “Because you are fat,” came the reply.)

Over a coffee at the Punch Tavern on Fleet Street, I ask Thomas of the Express how he draws the Prime Minister. “I don’t draw him any more, I just draw that” – and, grabbing a napkin, he sketches two round eyes on top of an unfinished triangle of a nose – “and readers know that’s Cameron now. All cartoonists draw versions of each other’s caricatures, and [he looks] nothing like what I draw, but people still know because I juxtapose him outside No 10. He’s got a waxwork face.” He jokingly offers me the napkin to keep.

Just as cartoonists feed off their peers’ work, so they judge it. Because they all know each other, it is hard to get them to go on the record with an honest appraisal of their competitors; but promise them anonymity and the floodgates open. “I love Martin Rowson like a brother,” one announces, before cheerily slating him for several minutes. “Ralph Steadman is an infinitely more exciting artist than [the Independent’s] Dave Brown,” says another. “Dave is very slick but Ralph is dirty and mucky and filthy and sexy.” A third tells me: “It’s no badge of honour to get the word ‘fuck’ into a cartoon. To be proud of that is a bit pathetic, really.” One tells a story about seeing one of his ideas stolen by a rival. He responded by ripping off the plagiarist’s next cartoon, knowing that he wouldn’t be picked up on it.

As with any close-knit group, a pecking order has emerged: every cartoonist has a corner of- the-eye awareness of who is doing better than him at any given moment and whose star is on the wane. There is a lot of sniffiness about certain visual clichés. Two of the most derided are Britannia and the Statue of Liberty weeping (“Oh fuck, I’ve done that so many times,” one artist tells me). Labelling – drawing a snail and writing “IMF” on it – is also treated with scepticism, though sometimes it’s unavoidable.

Putting editorial cartoons online has increased the temptation for editors to want everything explained in this way. “I’m very keen not to label things, not to make it so it’s obvious, putting ‘US economy’ on the back of Obama’s shirt or something, and I therefore rely on the reader knowing a context without me telling them,” Peter Brookes says. “And you get a better ability to do that in the pages of a newspaper than you ever do on screen.”

Most cartoonists agree that their creations look beautiful when backlit on a monitor, but there are drawbacks to going online – and not just in the increased level of hostility from international audiences unused to such strong satirical meat. “Out of the context of the opinion pages, I think they became something else, something a bit less,” Brookes says. “On the site, it’s divorced. You’ve got to do two or three clicks to get to the context.” Pinn agrees: “When they’re actually there, smack in the middle of the page, somehow it has a slightly different psychological feel to it.”

The editorial cartoon evolved as a way to give the reader’s eyes a break from unbroken columns of text, but there is also a naughtiness to finding something funny, or rude, among the thoughts of Very Serious People. “They are an oasis of anarchy in the topography of newspapers, which exaggerates . . . not their importance, but their impact,” Rowson says. “I tend to get more death threats than the columnists whose columns I squat on like a gargoyle, because people respond to this visual piece of anarchy when they’re looking through the newspaper.” Even the pocket cartoonists feel that their position in the paper is vital to the meaning of what they do. “It would be terribly sad if there wasn’t a printed version every day,” says Pritchett. “When I’m imagining the cartoon, I’m thinking about it on the page and what the headline around it will be. Sometimes, when there’s heavy news around, it can be a tiny little rectangle among pages of horror. It’s the perfect set-up for the joke sometimes.” His first published cartoon for the Telegraph came after the paper had mistakenly printed the wrong date the previous day. It read: “I hope I have a better Thursday than I did yesterday.”

This is part of what will be lost if printed newspapers disappear – the allusiveness that makes editorial cartoons unlike any others. When they float free in cyberspace, there is also more pressure on them to be self-contained. In his slot in the Guardian, Steve Bell can build up jokes and visual references such as John Major’s underpants or Cameron’s condom-head over weeks, months or years. But would a cartoonist without a fixed slot have that ability?

Mocking teachers

James Gillray's "The Plumb Pudding In Danger". Photo: Getty Images

Every November, a group of men gather for dinner at the Gay Hussar on Greek Street in Soho to decide who will be declared Young Cartoonist of the Year. It is hard to think of a practice with fewer exponents that has so many awards, societies and organisations dedicated to it: this trophy is awarded by the Political Cartoon Society, not to be confused with the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation, “formed in 2006 from the amalgamation of the Cartoonists’ Guild and the UK branch of the Federation of Cartoonists’ Organisations”. Successful artists can have their work exhibited at the Cartoon Museum, or purchased by the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent.

Whenever the cartoonists get together, their dual nature is on show. Many have the brittle status consciousness of the sitcom writer, coupled with the generosity of the artist whose greatness is recognised in his lifetime. They make great subjects to interview – but, I imagine, exhausting company. “It’s a right old bitchfest,” says Paul Thomas of the annual dinner. “Can you imagine what it’s like having 15 men in the room trying to be funnier than the other?

Rowson says it used to be worse when the big newspapers had offices closer together and the cartoonists saw each other more regularly. “We all used to hate each other. When I started off 30 years ago, you’d all go into a pub full of cartoonists and it was a nightmare. Michael Heath [of the Spectator] used to have these dinner parties in 2 Brydges Place [a private club in Soho] and you couldn’t go for a piss. You knew as soon as you left the room they’d say, ‘What’s that arsehole doing here?’ so all these people are crossing and uncrossing their legs all evening.”

Disrespect for authority is pretty much in the job description. Many started out by drawing their teachers, and, as Matt Pritchett puts it, “Politicians are the teachers of the adult world.” That carries over into the office, too. “I feel like I have a bit more licence than anyone else to be cheeky to the editor, I hope I do,” Thomas says. “I think we have a licence to not wear a tie and to be irreverent.”

One man’s “irreverent”, naturally, is another’s “wildly offensive”, and the line between them is one that cartoonists walk every day. It’s a cliché that the public today, having lost all respect for the establishment – politicians, the church, the monarchy – is unshockable. That is not quite true. There are three subjects that can still cause instant, huge and widespread offence: recent deaths, religion and the Middle East. Almost all the controversial cartoons of the past decade have fallen into one of these categories.

First, death. Several of the cartoonists I spoke to now find the cartoons they drew the day after the 11 September 2001 attacks meaningless, even maudlin. (There was at least one Statue of Liberty crying.) But what could they have done? There was nothing to say, except that a tragedy had happened; the politics came later. A similar problem presented itself on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Steve Bell’s cartoon on the occasion of her funeral had to be amended before publication –her hearse, depicted as a moving truck, had the words on the side changed from “Global Interstiff” to “Non- Royal Windsors”. Charles Griffin’s cartoon for the Daily Express a year later, on the first anni - versary of her death, was a different kind of objectionable. Entitled The Queen of all our Hearts, it showed Diana cradling a bald child, presumably suffering from cancer, as a crowd of malnourished African youngsters looked on.

The second taboo is religion. Both Scarfe and Brookes have been censured for satires on the Catholic Church. In 2009, Brookes criticised Benedict XVI’s assertion that condoms were not the solution to the Aids crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. His cartoon for the Times depicted the pontiff wearing a condom as a hat with a needle through the tip of it (a reference to the Church’s claim that condoms are permeable to HIV). Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the then archbishop of Westminster, wrote to the newspaper to protest: “I was appalled at the tasteless cartoon depicting Pope Benedict XVI. No newspaper should show such disrespect to a person who is held in high esteem by a large proportion of Christians in the world. To pillory the Pope in this way is totally unacceptable.” Brookes remains defiant. “I didn’t feel in any sense that I’d made a mistake,” he says, “or I should have backtracked on it.”

Scarfe’s provocation to the Church was even more deliberate. His March 2010 cartoon Hell showed a cadaverous Pope concealing childabusers, and their screaming, pyjama-clad victims, under his cassock. “You’d be amazed how many Catholics wrote in,” he says. “Some of them said, ‘I’m a Catholic and I agree with you.’ Most of them said, ‘You’ve got it wrong.’”

Any discussion of religion can’t fail to mention the most talked-about cartoons of the past decade: the “Muhammad” drawings published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Following their publication, Denmark’s embassy in Islamabad was bombed, and its missions in other cities were attacked. Anita O’Brien, the curator of the Cartoon Museum, explains that she doesn’t have them on display, not through any notion of political correctness, but because they are not very good as satires. In his book Giving Offence, Rowson writes that the pictures were commissioned by the rightwing newspaper to provoke a reaction and to stoke anti-immigrant feeling against Muslims in Denmark. In this, they succeeded: the violent backlash against them hardened many westerners’ assumptions about Islam.

Finally, there is the Middle East. Even the FT’s Ingram Pinn, a former art teacher who is no one’s idea of a firebrand, gets a reaction when he draws anything that is critical of Israel. “I remember I did one and this guy said, ‘In all of my 25 years as a reader of a whole variety of civilised newspapers, I’ve never seen anything so disgustingly disgraceful.’”

One can only imagine what that man made of Dave Brown’s 2003 cartoon for the Independent of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby. The Israeli embassy, backed by Sharon, said it was a repetition of the “blood libel” on the Jews, its lawyer Anthony Julius arguing that it was “anti-Semitic, in a fantastically irrespon - sible way”. The Independent defended it, noting that the work was a pastiche of a painting by Francisco Goya which had been parodied before. The Press Complaints Commission refused to censure Brown.

Never looked back

Martin Rowson at a cartoon exhibition. Photo: Getty Images

Last year, the Political Cartoon of the Year award went to a student named Ben Jennings, for a drawing of Libya as Muammar Gaddafi’s face. Jennings, who now draws the Saturday cartoon for the Independent offshoot the i, had been one of six young cartoonists invited to cover for Rowson and Bell at the Guardian during the summer of 2010.

The three men and three women chosen for this role, from among hundreds of candidates, surely represent the most likely successors to the current generation of cartoonists. Yet their experiences are a microcosm of the problems besetting the whole of journalism.

Bluelou, for example, is a single mother-of two based in Bristol. She works (unpaid) for the Morning Star, and feels that because of geography and childcare arrangements, she can’t do the networking necessary to find other outlets. Nick Hayes supports himself mainly as a general illustrator, producing occasional comment cartoons for the Guardian when the regulars are away, while Bob Moran commutes from Taunton in Somerset to London for his twice fortnightly slot in the Telegraph. Both Jennings and Moran came from illustration degrees where they were the only students interested in political cartooning.

The broadsheets pay about £400 a time for an editorial cartoon from a freelance, so it is just about possible to scrape by doing these, but elsewhere pickings are far more slim. By 1931, Sidney Strube was earning £10,000 a year at the Daily Express, making him the highest-paid man in Fleet Street. In 1966, the Daily Mail offered Gerald Scarfe £6,000 and an E-type Jaguar to stop him defecting to the Express. In 2012, the i hoped to hire a pocket cartoonist to produce half a dozen roughs and one final artwork for £19 a day, according to two sources (the i’s deputy managing editor Sean O’Grady says this is “not correct”). The Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation was so outraged that it placed the story in Private Eye.

Outside newspapers, the opportunities are thin on the ground. Punch has closed, and many magazines switched from cartoons to photographs in the 1980s and never looked back. The Spectator, the Oldie and Private Eye all take pocket cartoons, but they get enough submissions from established artists to make it rare that they need to take a chance on a new face.

“When people do send things in, it’s terribly unfortunate for them and I really do feel for them,” Brookes says. “It’s not done in a proper time scale and it’s not done as a reaction to anything – it’s not the real thing. It’s not their fault at all. I think it’s desperately difficult, and you can only really do it when you’re doing it.” But with so few live, paying outlets, will the young cartoonists of today be ready when the previous generation gives it up?

The older cartoonists are divided on whether the form will survive. “It’ll see me out” is a common refrain. “Its future may well be as a radical but unpaid version on the web,” says the Sun’s cartoonist Andy Davey, a sentiment echoed by Rowson. “Ever since they failed to renew the Licensing Act in 1695 there’s been this outpouring of visual satire,” Rowson says. “A third of that period, we’ve been parasitizing on the back of newspapers, and when newspapers die, like any hideous sensible parasite, we’ll just jump off on to the next host.”

I relay this to Paul Thomas, who sighs deeply. “Martin always jokes when we have the Young Cartoonist competition that it helps us know where the opposition is coming from so we can break their fingers. But we’re just encouraging the little buggers. What’s the point of encouraging people into a dying industry?”




Postscript: Cartoons in the New Statesman

“My first proper gig was on the New Statesman,” says Martin Rowson. “It was a series of excruciatingly bad puns. The first cartoon was Marx and Engels exploring an old house with Engels looking at a toilet cistern and saying, ‘Hey Marx, there’s a couple of those antique Stradivarius fiddles in here,’ and Marx puffing on his cigar saying, ‘Ah, Engels – that’s merely the violins inherited in the cistern.’”

Rowson is one of many of the current cartoonists who got their break on the NS. This magazine also hosted the first ever professional work by the Daily Telegraph’s Matt Pritchett and, in the 1980s, it ran a cartoon series called Slump, by a young shaver called Will Self. (Wonder what happened to him.) In 1967, after leaving the Daily Mail, Gerald Scarfe began to contribute to the NSunder the editorship of Paul Johnson. He sends me two of the drawings from this period. One is of Lyndon Johnson shitting bombs on to Vietnam; the other is of Aubrey Beardsley, in Beardsley’s signature style but with outsized genitals.

Scarfe’s tenure at the NS ended when he submitted a picture of Konrad Adenauer: Johnson was convinced that he’d drawn the German chancellor’s chin and jowls to resemble a penis and testicles. (After seeing the drawing, I email Scarfe to tell him that I’m with Johnson – it’s definitely a penis.) What attracted the modern cartoonists to the magazine was its heritage: in the 1920s, the NS published caricatures of public figures by David Low; in the 1940s and 1950s, Victor “Vicky” Weisz plied his trade here. Rowson has one of these caricatures hanging outside his loo; it was rescued from a skip when the Statesman moved offices from Shoreditch to Victoria in the 1990s.

Today, this magazine publishes cartoons by Ralph Steadman, who has been associated with the NS since 1976: recent targets include Danny Boyle. We also have the gag cartoonist Grizelda, one of the few women working in the business, as well as contributions from David Shrigley and David Simonds. But there is, at the moment, no regular editorial cartoon. This was brought up by several of the cartoonists I interviewed. My best response was that it wasn’t a deliberate decision, but a consequence of losing the page on which the cartoon appeared. Do our readers miss it? I’d be interested to know.

Editor's Note: The November dinner is for Young Cartoonist of the Year, not Political Cartoonist of the Year, as the print edition suggested. This has been changed online.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?