An exhibition of four centuries of political cartoons opened at the Library of Trinity College Dublin this week. ‘Drawing your attention: Four Centuries of Political Caricature’ includes the Library’s own collections, with originals from its extensive 18th and 19th century collection gifted by Nicholas Robinson, alumnus, writer, lawyer and former cartoonist. The contemporary works in the exhibition are on loan from freelance artist, Martyn Turner, who is best associated with The Irish Times.
Commenting on the significance of political cartoons, Professor in Political Science, Gail McElroy who co-curated the exhibition with the Library said: “Almost 300 years after they first appeared, political cartoons remain as important as ever, if not more so. Strong cartoons challenge, provoke and confront the reader and shape political discussion. The ability to convey a message quickly and effectively, in an increasingly media saturated world, is a key strength of the political caricature. The ongoing persecution of cartoonists, by dictators across the globe, underscores their very real power. In the words of the great 19th century writer Joseph Conrad ‘a caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth’.”
The exhibition highlights six main themes in politics: Trade Relations; Gender Disparity; Political Reform; International Alliances; Politics and Law and Political Treachery.
It draws attention to the artistry involved in the creation of the caricature. In the Martyn Turner pieces, for example, you can see the pencil marks underneath the final ink drawings, demonstrating the development of a cartoon. In the earlier caricatures, you can see the duplication of a caricature or concept for different political purposes. And throughout, reference to other art forms and motifs gives the caricatures depth and a greater meaning, in a medium that uses few words. Most importantly, the exhibition is intended to have resonance with all visitors – the themes and imagery presented across centuries are universally understood: it is this that makes the art of caricature continue to have relevance and popularity.
Highlights from the exhibition include:
- ‘The Lobby of the House of Commons’, 1886 Vanity Fair, 30 November 1886
Men only: A coloured print of Liborio Prosperi’s oil on canvas from 1886 – the same year a proposal in the US Senate to grant voting rights for women was defeated by a ratio of 2:1. Equal voting rights for Irish women passed into law in 1922.
- William Elmes’ John Bull Reading the Extraordinary Red Book London: Thomas Tegg, 
This is one of many satires on the misuse of government money in the 19th century. It shows the classic personification of the English nation, John Bull, reacting angrily to the £453,692 expenditure and pensions paid to individuals the government wished to bribe, reward or buy, as exposed in the ground-breaking publication of 1816, The Extraordinary Red Book.
- John Tenniel ‘Dropping the Pilot’ Punch, 29 March 1890
John Tenniel replaced talented caricaturist Richard Doyle at Punch in 1850. This double-page cut on the Kaiser’s dismissal of Bismarck in 1889 is perhaps his most famous work. Tenniel’s obituary in The Times 3 March 1914 suggested ‘his political cartoons would be as fresh fifty or a hundred years hence as they were on the day of publication’.
As well as the display in the Old Library an extension of the exhibition is running in the Berkeley Library with framed reproductions of Martyn Turner’s work along with a slideshow video loop.
The Nicholas Robinson collection numbers 2,400 items. It can be viewed freely on the Library’s Digital Collections website. The Library was fortunate to add a further 700 caricatures to its holdings with the support of Lewis & Loretta Glucksman.
Co-curator and Assistant Librarian, Shane Mawe said: “The Library is delighted to stage an exhibition on the theme of political caricature. It is a pleasure to showcase exhibits from the significant Nicholas Robinson collection alongside loan material from Martyn Turner’s archive. By viewing cartoons which were printed centuries apart we get to appreciate the enduring appeal of this medium to deliver a strong message.”
Trinity is very grateful to Nicholas Robinson for his generosity and to Martyn Turner for loaning his original works.