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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 09:19 GMT
Seriously funny work
John Prescott skewered by Rowson in the Guardian
John Prescott skewered by Rowson in the Guardian
By BBC News Online's Ollie Stone-Lee

Most politicians would rather be caricatured as a gob of phlegm dripping off a barbed wire fence than not be drawn at all.

That is the view of Gerald Scarfe, the cartoonist who admitted this month he has been struggling to lampoon new Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has "no face at all".


I'm looking out for the first cartoonist to draw me with my new hair colour

Ann Widdecombe
So should Mr Duncan Smith feel relieved or worried if the artists whose nibs are loaded with acid find it difficult to get a handle on him?

That relationship between cartoonists and politicians is an uneasy one - while the satirists want to wound and mock, politicians' vanity, or even sense of humour, often makes them willing subjects.

Even in the 18th century, prime minister-to-be George Canning rejoiced in his diary at the prospect of being immortalised by the great cartoonist of the age, James Gillray.

More than a year of Canning's scouring the print shops for his own caricature passed before he finally appeared as a corpse in Gillray's Promised Horrors of the French Invasion - hardly worth the wait.

Vicious accolade

Two centuries on, former Conservative shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe is keeping her eye on the cartoons for a slightly different honour.

"I'm looking out for the first cartoonist to draw me with my new hair colour," she told BBC News Online.

"They will probably swear that my pudding bowl was so much of a proclamation that this is Widdecombe."


Widdecombe: "Pudding bowl" enjoyed by cartoonists
The Tory MP has "masses" of cartoons, mostly of herself and mostly fairly vicious.

For her the appeal is simple: "They make me laugh." But she sees even the abuse as a compliment.

"I think the mere fact that you are cartooned is in itself an accolade because it means that when the cartoonist draws you, he expects people to recognise you."

And Miss Widdecombe has no doubt that however Iain Duncan Smith feels about his current predicament, the cartoonists will soon find a way to draw him.

She is not the only politician to collect cartoons - Michael Heseltine and Tony Banks are other notable examples.

Such enjoyment is bound to infuriate those out to damage as Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell found with former Tory chairman Kenneth Baker - portrayed as a slug in Spitting Image.

Michael Heseltine with his Spitting Image puppet
Heseltine is an avid caricature collector
Mr Bell recently wrote: "This man - upon whom for many years during the 1980s I attempted to inflict intense metaphorical suffering - turns out to be our number one fan."

Such problems made Ralph Steadman, who with Gerald Scarfe in the 1960s took the cartoon art back to the caustic contortions of Gillray and Hogarth.

He stopped drawing politicians a decade ago because he believed it only served their vanity.

But speaking at the British Library recently Mr Scarfe suggested there was a division between politicians climbing the ladder seeing cartoons as a sign they have "arrived" and prime ministers.

Getting noticed

"If you are prime minister, it's an irritation," says the man who drew Thatcher as an axe beheading the unemployed, Harold Wilson as a toad and Enoch Powell as the Hound of the Baskervilles.

"I don't think they want to be noticed. It's a strange relationship you have. You insult them but it's beneath them to react."

Gerald Scarfe's depiction of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair and William Hague
Scarfe says prime ministers do not want to be noticed
John Major was apparently one prime minister who did not enjoy the abuse laid at the door of Number 10 when he was in office.

His biographer, Anthony Seldon, says what Major found most offensive was Steve Bell's caricature of him as a "naff, underpowered Superman" who wore spotty Y-fronts outside his trousers.

Major said of the work, a throwback to Vicky's transformation of Harold MacMillan into "SuperMac": "It is intended to destabilise me and so I ignore it."

Mr Seldon told BBC News Online: "I think cartoons wound leaders if three factors coincide: if they are quite vulnerable characters anyway; two, if they are based on derision; and three, if they are in tune with the media mood."

He says the cartoons did not change any decisions but only angered Major.

Another prime minister, Bute in 1761, was so shaken by the savage cartoon attacks on him that they are thought to have played a key role in him losing his nerve and leaving office a year later.

John Major and Tony Blair as Punch and Judy
Major was angered by some of the cartoons
In his book on cartoons of prime ministers, Kenneth Baker concludes: "Lesser figures can be hurt, particularly if they show that the attack has struck home.

"But the reputation of real political giants has not been impaired by the images left by the cartoonist."

Historians will be able to judge whether Iain Duncan Smith emerges as a great prime minister or as a political pygmy.

In the meantime, every time he makes a mistake the cartoonists are sure to find a way to mark those blots on their caustic copybooks in a venomous work of art.

See also:

17 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Tory leader 'bad cartoon material'
30 Nov 00 | Entertainment
British Cartoon Awards: The winners
29 Nov 00 | UK
The state of the art
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