Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02
By TIM BENSON
From July 1949 until May 1958, Leslie Illingworth was responsible for over 90 percent of the political cartoons that appeared in Punch, Britain’s famous humour magazine. Under the editorship of E.V. Knox (1932-49), Illingworth had been allowed latitude for controversy in his cartoons. Under Kenneth Bird (1949-52) conspicuous progress in design was not matched by editorial pluck. Illingworth was thus increasingly restricted to statements of fact and the journal’s note became more muffled.
The General Election of 1950 found Punch hanging uncertainly betwixt parties, a conservative journal in tentative search of socialist readers. Illingworth was called upon to stay well above the issues and personalities. When Kenneth Bird retired as editor, Malcolm Muggeridge succeeded him, and it is safe to say the proprietors got more than they bargained for. During “Mug’s” five controversial years Punch became more pointed, relevant, and audacious than it had been since its early, radical days under Douglas Jerrold and John Leech. No longer was the cartoon apt to dangle from a tenuous snippet of news.
The practice of pairing the cartoon with a signed piece began on 21 January 1953. The question of Winston Churchill’s retirement as Prime Minister was raised gently in a cartoon of 4 March 1953, and somewhat less tactfully seven months later (Alexander at Babylon being pressed by his officers to appoint a successor, October 7th).
According to Claude Cockburn, a colleague and friend, Muggeridge was seeking a new market for satire, and saw that “the prerequisite for success was to make a loud nasty noise of the kind nobody associated with Punch.” Cockburn met Muggeridge at the station in Limerick in late January 1954. “As he sprang from the train [he] remarked with profound satisfaction that the issue of the magazine he had just sent to the press was ‘likely to get us all in a lot more hot water.'” This was the number of February 3rd, with an Illingworth drawing of the Prime Minister, listless at his desk, the face registering unmistakable effects of the partial paralysis he had suffered the preceding summer, the bookcase of his writings full—and closed. The caption was taken from Psalm 114: “Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.”
On the facing page in an accompanying editorial entitled “A Story Without an Ending,” Muggeridge ostensibly traced the decline of a Byzantine ruler, Bellarius: “By this time he had reached an advanced age and might have been expected to settle down to an honourable retirement…Instead he clung to power with tenacious intensity. His splendid faculties…began to falter. The spectacle of him thus clutching wearily at all the appurtenances and responsibilities of an authority he could no longer fully exercise was to his admirers infinitely sorrowful, and to his enemies infinitely derisory.”
Churchill was bitterly hurt by the cartoon: “Yes, there’s malice in it. Look at my hands—I have beautiful hands…Punch goes everywhere. I shall have to retire if this sort of thing goes on.” Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, was also shocked by what he considered a vicious caricature of the Prime Minister: “There was something un-English in this savage attack on his failing powers. The eyes were dull and lifeless. There was no tone in the flaccid muscles; the jowl sagged. It was the expressionless mask of extreme old age.”
According to Cockburn, Illingworth’s cartoon immediately had the desired effect. Leading conservative publicists and politicians howled with rage, helping with their din to notify one and all that Britain had something new in the way of magazines. Inevitably a cartoon of this kind—a kind that, in relation to the Grand Old Man, had been taboo for years—produced a little friction and headshaking even inside the office. Muggeridge later recalled that “Perhaps the biggest row [with the proprietors] came over a cartoon of Churchill…suggesting that it was time he went. This was so obviously true, had been so frequently remarked, especially among Churchill’s closest associates, that it infuriated everyone.” It was rumoured that after trie publication of the cartoon in Punch, Muggeridge became known in Churchill circles as “Buggeridge.”
Angry letters poured in, one from Churchill’s parliamentary private secretary Christopher Soames in defence of his father-in-law. As Churchill later recalled: “Christopher wrote to that awful fellow, Muggeridge. He knows him, lives in his neighbourhood. Muggeridge wrote back saying that he was a journalist. If he held opinions, he must express them; said he was one of my greatest admirers, but that I was no longer up to the job.”
Punch historian R. Price classified the cartoon among the editor’s “calculated exhibitions of what die-hard readers considered bad taste” and reported that it cost the magazine “a number of regular, inherited readers.” He also believed the venture showed that Punch was once again “a claimant for power.” Circulation improved, but advertising declined.
Muggeridge and Punch finally parted company at the end of 1957. IUingworth suspended his association five months later and, except for a pair of non-political double pages in 1959, did not appear for four years.
In 2003, the Political Cartoon Society is planning an exhibition of Leslie IUingworth’s Punch drawings from the 1930s and 1940s.
Cartooning in Britain has an unrivalled heritage going back over many hundreds of years. From Hogarth through Gillray through Low and Vicky to the present day, cartoonists have had a major impact on both readers and historians. The corrupt New York politician Boss Tweed famously blamed Nast’s “damned pictures” for his decline. Low’s Col. Blimp, Vicky’s drawing of Alec Douglas-Home, Bell’s Major with underpants have created images that burned in the mind.
Today there are more political cartoonists employed by British newspapers and periodicals than ever before. The Political Cartoon Society mines this rich vein of visual history through the cartoon medium. Our aim is to promote the “political” cartoon in an amusing, informing and educating way.
Mr. Benson represents the Political Cartoon Society (www.politicalcartoon.co.uk). Individual (£20) or family (£25) membership includes quarterly newsletter, cartoon news, ephemera, exhibitions, discounts on original art, lectures and seminars. Details from P.C.S., Hille House, 132 St Albans Road, Watford, Herts. WD24 4AE England, tel. (01923) 242769, fax (01923) 228110.