Freelancer Sophie Grove reports from London on the city’s Cartoon Museum putting on its own royal airs ahead of the April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton — an exhibition of satirical drawings about the monarchy and nuptials through the years.
The engagement gathering isn’t going well. A scrofulous groom-to-be gazes admiringly in a mirror, while his distraught, porcelain-skinned fiancée sobs into a handkerchief. At their feet, a shackled pair of dogs symbolize the ill-fated union that is to come.
This is the first frame of William Hogarth’s 1743 series of scathing caricature engravings titled “Marriage à la Mode” — the story of a wedding across class lines and for all the wrong reasons. The signs are unmistakable; the wealthy middle-class father-in-law brandishes a marriage contract while the penniless, gout-ridden, aristocratic father of the groom waves his family tree. “It’s all about social mobility,” says David Bindman, emeritus professor of history of art at University College London. “It was a standard plot in plays: the rich bourgeois and the idiot lord. Of course, it all ends dreadfully.”
British society hasn’t dropped its obsession with class. Cut to November 2010 for another acid approach to the subject. The Guardian newspaper’s cartoonist Steve Bell imagines a royal vetting: The Queen, resplendent in turquoise, asks her grandson about his new fiancée, “‘This Kate gel: Just exactly high common is she? Is she posh, but not quite Royal common? … Or is she ‘I’m a slag wot comes from a long line of slags common?'”
As Prince William limbers up to walk down the aisle with the said “gel” on April 29, London’s Cartoon Museum has raided its archive for satirical drawings on all things royal and nuptial. The resulting exhibition, “Marriage à la Mode: Royals and Commoners In and Out of Love” (through May 22), is a revealing, barbed view into changing attitudes toward marriage, class and morality in British society.
The Cartoon Museum is a quirky converted dairy in a back street tucked behind the British Museum with a library and a permanent exhibition of around 2,000 cartoons, caricatures and comics from 18th century engravings to modern-day animation and comic strips. This show begins when monarchs provided plenty of fodder for Hogarth and his contemporaries. Satirical renderings were printed, copied and pirated on a mass scale. A sketch by popular caricaturist James Gillray, “La Promenade en Famille,” published in 1797, shows the florid Duke of Clarence (the third son of King George III) pulling along a cart full of his illegitimate brood while their mother, his mistress, the Irish comedy actress Mrs. Dorothea Jordan, walks alongside with her head in a book. (The couple went on to have 10 children.)
The most risqué of Gillray’s clever skits depicts another royal scandal of the time. “Wife & No Wife” from 1786 reimagines the secret wedding of the Prince of Wales to his lover, Maria Anne Fitzherbert. The artist transports the illicit nuptials to a French cathedral and shows Lord Fox and Lord North — both major aristocrats of their day — as witnesses. “The union was later declared invalid,” explains the show’s curator, Anita O’Brien, “[Fitzherbert] was a Catholic, so from a legal point of view he wasn’t able to marry her. The funny thing is later he got married to Queen Caroline of Brunswick, which was a disaster.”
So far, so scandalous. Then O’Brien hit a shallow patch when she got to the late 1820s. As Britain edged toward the Victorian era, the shenanigans of the upper classes were deemed off limits to the press. This satirical blackout reached its darkest days in the 1930s, when the American divorcée Wallis Simpson — whose relationship with Edward VIII in 1936 caused a constitutional crisis — failed to produce a single cartoon in the press. “There were some indirect allusions to the crisis, but cartoonists were under instructions from newspaper owners like Lord Beaverbrook not to represent the characters involved,” O’Brien says.
It was only in the 1960s that royal satire made a comeback. By the ’70s, the likes of Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman had turned their sharpened pencils back on the royal family’s antics.
Enter Lady Diana Spencer. Without a doubt, the most cutting and grotesque examples of royal caricature in the show come from the 1980s and ’90s. The era of satirical puppet show “Spitting Image” and parody magazines such as Private Eye turned its sights on Charles and Diana’s troubled matrimony and had a field day. Images of the time were louche, bawdy and rude. Steve Bell’s “Fairy Tale Divorce” from 1986 depicts the royal couple head-butting each other; Diana, in her wedding gown, is spewing sick from her mouth.
How British is all this? O’Brien says Germany and the Netherlands have rich traditions of grotesque caricature, but Britain has quite a distinct style, inherited from Hogarth and his ilk. The Brits are uniquely brutal in their depiction of royals. One Spanish visitor was apparently shocked by some cartoons and said Spanish newspapers would never publish anything as scathing.
This visual vitriol makes today’s images of Kate Middleton look mild. The exhibition displays some sketches from a new — and wholesome-looking — graphic novel, ‘William and Kate: A Very Public Love Story,’ documenting the couple’s courtship.
Kate’s glossy brown locks and affable countenance haven’t elicited much scorn, which O’Brien thinks is a sign of the times. “So far, Kate has been exemplary in her behavior, she hasn’t put a foot wrong,” she notes.
In a museum packed full of witty satire, this feels a little frustrating. Cartoons are a welcome antidote to the po-faced reverence given to the royals — not to mention the wedding hysteria that has gripped the nation — and the couple seemed to have escaped a healthy ribbing, just by being rather dull.
Even so, the pony-legged daughter of an air steward can’t escape her pedigree. (Her uncle is rumored to have “Nouveau Riche” tattooed between his shoulder blades.) And the most biting satire refers to her stock. One brilliant sketch by cartoonist Robert Thompson shows David and Victoria Beckham wavering over their invitation to the betrothal. “Do you think we should, David?” muses Victoria, “She is a bit common.”
— Sophie Grove