A Freebie in Feargus’ Nottingham

One afternoon in June 1995, after returning from having lunch at the Guildhall in Worcester, I sat with Dorothy Thompson in the music room of her country house, Wick Episcopi, situated on the outskirts of the city.    We had spent lunch talking about classical music, but now our attention moved to discussing how research on Chartism could be taken forward.  Dorothy suggested that a meeting of all those who were working in the field would be a good place to start.  And so that September about twenty five people met at the University of Birmingham for an event  which, remarkably, has continued to take place without a break for the past 22 years. This event is  known as Chartism Day – a title invented by one of those early attendees, Miles Taylor.  The other suggestion that Dorothy put forward that afternoon  was that a collection of contemporary pictures of the Chartists should be put together.  Dorothy had been collecting the portraits of Chartist leaders that were given away with the Northern Star for almost half a century – the first engraving she obtained had been glued to a Christmas card in 1950.  These portraits had been framed and hanged on the staircase at Wick Episcopi.  As you climbed the stairs you met the gazes of  Ernest Jones, Peter Murray McDouall, William Prowting Roberts and other Chartist stalwarts .  So there were a core of images to begin the project.  I then set about scouring Chartist and other early Victorian periodicals in search of other illustrations we could include.  It was a laborious task – there must, I thought, be better ways of spending a Saturday morning than peering at the Oddfellow on microfilm … until I found two fantastic cartoons in it!  But eventually 80 images were identified and Merlin Press  released Images of Chartism, with a wonderful illustration of a Chartist sampler on the front cover.  (Dorothy’ subsequently donated her personal collection to the People’s History Museum, where they are available to be seen).

In the twenty years since that book appeared interest in nineteenth century caricature and portraiture has grown.  A lot of this, it has to be said, has concentrated on the second quarter of the nineteenth century – see, for example, the interesting publications of Brian Maidment and Richard Gaunt.  Even so there have been some startling discoveries – in turning up all sorts of fascinating material relating to the Chartists, Ian Haywood came across a depiction by the Punch illustrator Richard Doyle of the Birmingham Bull Ring riots of 1839 which was so good that it was snapped up by the Times Literary Supplement.  My own interest in satirical art hadn’t lapsed, but had moved forward in time – to the late Victorian period. What brought this change of focus about was joining the Birmingham & Midland Institute … and getting access to the fabulous treasures of its library. (You can join, too … it’s only £40!).   There I found almost complete runs of Birmingham’s famous satirical magazines, the Dart and the Owl.  These weekly magazines featured a full page cartoon of leading political figures of the day – Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Randolph Churchill, Lord Salisbury, David Lloyd George and so on – drawn principally by two very talented (and overlooked) men, George Bernasconi and Ernest Chesmer Mountford.  Unlike the depictions of the Chartists in Punch in the 1840s, these cartoons weren’t cruel – but they still made powerful political points.  I was fascinated by these magazines. Completely forgotten, the cartoons deserved to be enjoyed in the 21st century. And so I co-edited a volume of them with Roger Ward, an authority on Joseph Chamberlain.  There are 60 cartoons in Mocking Men of Power, ranging over some 30 years and taking in such subjects as Irish Home Rule, the rise of Labour and the Boer War.

But, hang on, you ask, what’s all this got to do with a freebie in Nottingham?  Well, Mocking Men of Power does include a cartoon featuring the pudding-loving John Skirrow Wright, who was elected MP for Nottingham in 1880 but rather unfortunately hit the snooze button before he could take his seat. There’s Feargus O’Connor, of course, gazing across the Arboretum … you can see him for free. But the freebie I refer to is a symposium entitled ‘Graphic Satire and the UK in the Long Nineteenth Century’, which takes place at Nottingham University on Tuesday 5 September.  Richard Gaunt, an associate professor at the University, is one of the organizers, and he’s roped in eight speakers, including Brian Maidment.  It looks like it’ll be a very interesting day. And here’s the good news … it’s free!  So let the train take the strain, settle down with a copy of the remarkably inexpensive Mocking Men of Power, and head to Nottingham on 5 September!

Stephen Roberts and Roger Ward eds .Mocking Men of Power: Comic Art in Birmingham 1861-1911 (2014) is available from Amazon for the very satisfactory price of £8.99.

To register for the Nottingham symposium go to nottingham.ac.uk/go/graphicsatire.

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