Martin Rowson: Caricatures and Commentary
Text and photographs by Antje Boorman
Martin Rowson walked onto the stage at the Frontline Club last night with a pint and Laurie Taylor, presenter of the Radio 4 discussion programme Thinking Allowed and commisioning editor for New Humanist magazine, to which Rowson also contributes.
As you would expect from a satirist, the tone of Rowson’s presentation was humorous with generous lashings of acerbic wit thrown into the mix. The first to be treated to the latter was the absent Alistair Campbell, the “second most powerful man in the UK at the time… after Rupert Murdoch”, who in 2002 didn’t take kindly to playing a part in Rowson’s ruse to earn free meals at Greek Street restaurant The Gay Hussar. Rowson had struck a deal with the manager to caricature patrons of the restaurant while they dined in return for a meal for each drawing. There are 60 such pictures on The Gay Hussar’s walls now.
Rowson described the cartoon Campbell so strongly resented as some kind of vodoo, as "doing damage to somebody with a sharp object from a distance”, or a form of shamanism, stealing the subject’s soul and somehow revealing it on paper, an apt summary of what cartoons are about.
In a short historical overview he informed the audience that cartoons were more or less legalised in 1695 when the Licensing Act was abolished by Parliament, ending royal censorship of printing presses and paving the way for a free press. Or, as Rowson put it, Parliament forgot to schedule a renewal of the censorship laws, and by the time anyone noticed, they had already lapsed.
Rowson documented his influences by his predecessors in the job, from William Hogarth and James Gillray in the 17th and 18th centuries to David Low whose most famous work was a chronicle of the rise of fascism and the ensuing World War II produced for the Evening Standard.
In a lively question and answer session he revealed how difficult it sometimes is to get a handle on a new character on the political scene, and he offered a rather surprising, though convincing, opinion on the Danish Muhammed cartoons, concluding that they were used in attempts by individuals to provoke anger and enhance their own power.
With his own cartoons being sometimes jaw-droppingly outspoken in a visual way, there is however a line Rowson would draw for himself: he only attacks people for what they think, never for what they are.