Gainsborough House exhibition looks back at 300 years of satirical cartoons as France comes to terms with tragic killings at Charlie Hebdo magazine

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills - Credit: Gregg Brown

There has been a lot of discussion about the wisdom of publishing satirical cartoons of late.

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills - Credit: Gregg Brown

The tragic events in Paris and the death of a number of cartoonists working for the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has brought the issue into sharp focus.

But according to the director of one of Suffolk’s most respected museums, controversial satirical cartoons are nothing new, with a rich tradition stretching back around 300 years.

Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury currently has an exhibition by Samuel William Fores, who commissioned and printed work by the great satirical artists of the 18th and early 19th centuries and displayed them in his two print shops in Piccadilly.

A print seller who practised a mixture of personal and political bias – rather like an 18th Century Ian Hislop – his shop window displays, which once included a 6ft model of a guillotine to capitalise on the growing fascination with the French Revolution, attracted enormous crowds and clients such as Wellington, Nelson and the future King of France, Louise-Philippe.

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills - Credit: Gregg Brown


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On numerous occasions, Fores’s prints sailed close to the wind, even pillorying royalty including the Prince of Wales and his secret wife, Mrs Fitzherbert.

According to Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough’s House, the production of satirical cartoons was a business, and although some of the work was seen as shocking at the time, caricaturists were still free to ply their trade without fear of persecution.

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Mr Bills said: “Cartoons and caricature developed in London as entertainment, moral censure and scurrilous attacks.

“It spread throughout the rest of Europe and has always been an important part of a vent for society.

Prints in the satire exhibition at Gainsborough's House

Prints in the satire exhibition at Gainsborough's House - Credit: Archant

“In the 18th Century, visitors to London from the Continent were shocked to see the outrageous cartoons of the British Royal family shown openly in print shop windows for all to see. In Europe, they (sellers or producers of this kind of work) would have almost certainly faced prison.

“Our current exhibition of Samuel Fores shows how caricature was produced and used, and that everyone was a potential target.

“It is extraordinary that in the 18th Century when you could face the death penalty for theft, that you could get away with such visceral and quite shocking images.

“It seems inconceivable then that in the 21st Century, satirists are the targets of terrorists.”

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills

Satirical cartoons at Gainsborough House. Pictured is curator Mark Bills - Credit: Gregg Brown

The exhibition, ‘Samuel William Fores, Satirist: Caricatures from the Reform Club’ reflects the social and political attitudes of the day and allows visitors to examine this time in history when satire encompassed a whole gamut of attitudes, from moral to immoral.

It explores Fores’s output over 40 years and his remarkable contribution as one of the leading, but unsung figures of the ‘golden age’ of satire.

Bearing in mind recent events, Mr Bills quoted historian and television presenter, Lucy Worsley, who recently said that if she were queen for a day, she would send her subjects on a trip to the past in the hope that they would return with valuable items that are not too plentiful in modern life: toleration, a sense of perspective, and a memory of a time that was fun and free from fear.

He added: “You wouldn’t exactly equate 18th Century satire with these ‘valuable items’ but after recent tragic events in France, it would appear to be a strange, incongruous truth.”

The exhibition will continue until February 22 and is open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm Mondays to Saturdays and from 11am to 5pm on Sundays.

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