Thursday, 26 July 2007

Unruly Contraptions in Bloomsbury

by Edwin Hesselthwite

All Behind You, Winston (1940, Evening Standard)- David Low's classic cartoon, note the Labour politicians Atlee, Bevan and Morrison in the front row to demonstrate national unity.

Bloomsbury in central London has an intellectual history few neighbourhoods in the world can match. From shrine's to The Mahatma to stuffed philosophers it's an abidingly Enlightenment influenced square kilometre. At it's southern end is Little Russell Street, situated a minute's walk from The British Museum and the location of both a Nicholas Hawskmoor church (St George's Church — a particularly eerie chapel, Roman style architecture and unicorn and lion statues climbing the tower are disturbingly pagan, typical of the mysterious Hawksmoor) and that most English of places: The Cartoon Museum.

The satirical cartoon is one of the defining artform's of Britain's colonial era, from Hogarth in the 18th century onwards, and this small charitably owned museum attempts to do justice to the history of the art. The present temporary exhibit (5th of July to 7th of October) cover's the life of William Heath Robinson, Britain's great absurdist cartoonist, who's life's work revolves around elaborate and convoluted contraptions. So abiding is his influence on the public consciousness that his name has become an adjective to describe rickety and overcomplicated machinery.

The reconnoitring mortar (1916)

His work is characterised by a masterful attention to detail, each cartoon requires minutes of thought to interpret fully, and an abidingly English cast of ladies, top hatted gentlemen and amusingly sweet Huns (he typically played The Enemy as being incompetent rather than evil in both his WWI and WWII cartoons). At £4 entrance this is a affordable and satisfying museum to spend 2 hours in, with a permanent exhibit of comics and graphic novels above the exhibit on political satire. One comes out realising what a large contribution this art form has made to the idea of Englishness, each of the big names works in a land of stiff upper lips, cynicism and grand gestures and Heath Robinson in particularly is continually raising the class divisions of this country, but without socialist flag-waving. The collection runs all the way to the present, meaning one must consider the placement of the modern (and I must admit, I hate his work in strip cartoons) Maggie-basher Steve Bell alongside W.H.R and co, yet it makes it clear that the political cartoon is still a major force.

Personally I was most intrigued by what regular cartooning does to an artist's style (in this case W.H.R but you could say the same of Gary Larson, who draws heavily from him) ... Initially we see serious artistic and visual variation as he demonstrates his penmanship chops, but the requirements for weekly cartoons, and stylistic consistency, means that his work becomes both increasingly detailed, and increasingly stylised throughout his career... The newspapers are not interested in innovation, but intelligence, humour and theme. Thus his later work increasingly takes place in a "Heath Robinson World" which works under the rules, traditions and vision established over hundreds of previous single frame images. This alternate reality is fantastically detailed, and Heath Robinson is a remarkably optimistic visionary, there is rarely malign intent in his work — and often absurd degrees of compassion.

Little Man, What Now? endorses this product — well worth a break for when strolling amongst the granite edifices and Rosetta Stones of England's plunder museum.

Testing Golf Drivers (1934)

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