Comics Showcase: The Work of London's Cartoon Museum

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Broken Frontier's BRITS ON TOP! event this week has been all about promoting the creative talents and rich history of the comics industry on these shores. What more apt way to round the week off then, than to shine a spotlight on an institution that is doing just that all year round: London's Cartoon Museum. BF spoke to curator Anita O'Brien about the Museum's mission statement, its collections and its role in bringing cartoons and sequential art to a whole new generation of potential readers...

BROKEN FRONTIER: The Cartoon Museum was opened in 2006 as a unique showcase for British cartoon and comic art. Could you tell us a little about the origins of the museum? And how you would define the aims of the collection?

ANITA O’BRIEN: The Cartoon Art Trust was set up as a charity in 1988 by a group of cartoonists, collectors and the families of cartoonists with the aim of founding a museum dedicated to the British tradition of cartoons, caricatures and comics. As an educational charity our aim was to develop a collection and library which would become a resource aimed at sharing the artistic, historical and humorous riches of cartoon and comic art since the 18th century.

We have been putting on exhibitions since the early 1990s but it was in 2006 when we moved to our current site, very near the British Museum, that we were able to show both temporary exhibitions and galleries showing highlights from the history of British cartoons and comics over the last 250 years. We also have an education programme for young people of both primary and secondary age and we welcome students from a wide range of colleges both from within Britain and abroad. For over 4 years we have been running courses in writing and drawing for the graphic novel in collaboration with Birkbeck College.

BF: Although we have a rich tradition of cartooning in the U.K. - from political satire to decades of much-loved children's comics - comic art and its practitioners have never been held in very high regard here. To what extent do you think having a permanent attraction like the Cartoon Museum, highlighting the social and historical importance of the form, helps to redress the balance and celebrate the medium?

O’BRIEN: Though we are a very small organisation when compared to the large national museums we feel it is vital to have an organisation - albeit a small one- dedicated to beating the gong for this artform. It's hard to know exactly how much impact a small organisation like ours can have has but here are a few areas where we believe we have made some difference:

- At least one or two of our exhibitions every year receive coverage in the national press and media.

- We borrow from and lend to national museums such as the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum, increasing the number of people who see this artwork. We also collaborate with museum's overseas such as the Wilhelm Busch: Deutsches Museum fur Karikatur in Germany.
- In the last few years the number of exhibitions on cartoons/comics/caricature has increased such as the Rude Britannia exhibition at Tate Britain last year.

- We are regularly approached by media to contribute to programmes on radio and television on the history of satire/ humorous art/ comics

- A number of our exhibitions tour to other parts of the country and we are also asked by museums to put exhibitions together on specific themes to be displayed at their venue

- Our education programme is very successful and we are now collaborating with a number of larger museums such as the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Wallace Collection on a range of projects. We are now being approached by both schools and other organisations to do new projects so we hope more and more people are coming to understand how varied and rich these works are both artistically and historically.

Above: The museum's exhibition gallery

BF: What does the scope of the permanent collection at the Museum cover; both historically and in terms of individual artists?

O’BRIEN: The collection ranges from prints by William Hogarth, original watercolours by James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson and other works from the Georgian period; original ink and pencil drawings by John Tenniel, George Du Maurier and other 19th century Punch artists; caricatures by Max Beerbohm, Robert Sherriffs and Olaf Gulbransson; 20th century greats such as William Heath Robinson, Rowland Emett, Pont, H.M. Bateman, Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman; Political cartoons by David Low, Vicky, JAK, Mac, Chris Riddell, Nick Garland, Steve Bell; cartoon strips include Andy Capp [Reg Smythe], Dykes to Look out For [Alison Bechdel], Doonesbury [Garry Trudeau], Viz - various [Davey Jones, Simon Thorp, Graham Dury]; comics - V for Vendetta [David Lloyd], Charley's War [Joe Colquhoun], Vern and Lettuce [Sarah McIntyre]. joke cartoons by Mike Williams, Simon Bond, Bestie, Andy Riley, Keny Pyne, Matt, Pugh, Neil Bennett. And the list goes on.

Above: the main gallery of the museum

BF: Past temporary exhibitions have ranged from the populist areas of the UK industry (The Dandy/The Beano and the adult humour of Viz), to political cartooning (Steve Bell and depictions of Margaret Thatcher) through to exhibitions that may introduce visitors to specific artists for the very first time (the whimsy of Rowland Emett's work or Georgian caricaturist Robert Dighton for example). What are the particular challenges behind providing such an eclectic programme of exhibitions that offer such a wonderfully diverse view of cartoonists and their work?

O’BRIEN: We try to programme a range of exhibitions throughout the year so that there is hopefully something to appeal to most people. In the summer we think of the fact that a lot of families will be visiting and we look for something with cross-generational appeal if possible. We try to balance choosing a subject which we believe merits an exhibition, where there is a reasonable body of work of good quality, which may not be done by another museum and which hopefully will attract both press coverage and visitors. So for example when Ronald Searle was approaching his 90th birthday it seemed essential that it be marked with an exhibition. Through the exhibition many younger people discovered him for the first time.

One of the greatest challenges of doing these exhibitions is that the artform is ephemeral. Once the artist no longer appears regularly in magazines or newspapers their work - even if of great quality, very funny or of real historic importance - quickly fades from people's awareness. One of our goals is to remind people how many themes recur through time as well as to remind them of great artists from the past.


Past exhibition catalogues displaying the range of the museum's coverage

BF: The Museum shows a great commitment to introducing children and young people to the world of cartooning and the comics page. What is the philosophy behind the focused educational events you run in this area?

O’BRIEN: Our overriding goal is to show how cartoons and comics can inspire creativity and a way of relating to the past within a class situation. We have developed a range of sessions linked to the curriculum for secondary and primary classes. These range from “Understanding Historical Cartoons: World War I and World War II”, “Digitial Animation: Mythical Tales” [with the British Museum], “Caricature You”, “My Mini-Comic” and “Doodle Your Way In”.

As a small museum we can be adaptable and aim to tailor our sessions to the needs, interests and level of the young people. By creating their own comic, producing an animation or drawing a doodle all children whatever their abilities can come away with a sense of achievement and fun.

BF: An exhibition of art from the world of Doctor Who comics will be running until 30th October. What titles and eras of Who comics history can visitors expect to see represented?

O’BRIEN: The exhibition includes material from 1965 up to material which hasn't yet been published yet. There is material from TV Century 21, TV Comic, TV Comic and Countdown, Radio Times, Doctor Who Annuals and Storybooks, Doctor Who Weekly, Doctor Who Monthly, Doctor Who Magazine, Doctor Who (IDW), Doctor Who Adventures and some illustrations for calendars and stories. We've even included a story featuring Peter Cushing, plus he is featured on a special 'Usual Suspects' line up which Lee Sullivan produced especially for the exhibition (see below), which has generated some degree of discussion amongst Who fans.

Image (c) Lee Sullivan

BF: For those interested by the work of the Museum and the Cartoon Art Trust, are there ways in which they can become actively involved in supporting it?  

O’BRIEN: First and foremost please visit us and if you enjoy it, visit again and tell other people. We can't afford to advertise widely and word of mouth recommendation is the best form of promotion. If you become a regular visitor you could become a Friend of the Cartoon Museum. You get invited to openings, get discounts and receive our newsletter.

If you have a collection of original cartoon or comic art you might lend some artwork for an exhibition or in our main galleries. As a completely self-funded organisation we rely greatly on artists and collectors donating artwork to the collection. We are rarely in a position to buy works so people's support is crucial as we aim to constantly expand the range of work we are able to share with the public. You might enjoy volunteering at the museum. We only have three full-time and one part-time members of staff and rely a great deal on our volunteers to help run the museum. Finally donations of money of any size are very welcome.

For more details on visiting the Cartoon Museum, its exhibitions and events check out the website here. The Cartoon Museum can also be followed on Twitter. The Doctor Who exhibition runs until 30th October.

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  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 19, 2011 at 8:28am

    I wondered where that Doctor Who lineup came from! Outpost Skaro have been running it as a banner on their site for awhile...

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