Top five: Caricatures of Prime Ministers

We don't do a lot of caricature at Scriberia - generally, we try hard not to upset anyone too much. But that doesn't stop us admiring them when done well. The most successful are a perfect distillation of physical appearance and personality, summed up in a few elegant lines. Every face is a puzzle to be solved, and like all the best visual solutions, the answer seems obvious as soon as it shows itself. With an election coming up, Dan picks his favourite examples of caricatures that have helped to make or break the Prime Ministers of our past.


Gerald Scarfe's Margaret Thatcher

The dominant political figure of my childhood, Thatcher was frightening enough already without those fears being compounded by Scarfe's nightmarish take on her. She was a creature with dead eyes and a lethal looking nose designed for pecking out the eyes of schoolchildren and decapitating striking miners... and that was exactly the way Scarfe portrayed her! (haha. Joke). Judging from the vitriol he poured into every image, it's a safe assumption to say he didn't like her much. Those sharp, scratchy lines were Scarfe's trademark, but there's even more attack in his Thatcher drawings I think. He's really going into battle.

If you've created such a recognisable way of drawing somebody that you can arrange the features into ever more grotesque and contrived formations - and, still, it's unmistakeable - you know you've pierced the public consciousness. Sometimes Scarfe really puts Thatcher through the mangle - like a furious Picasso.


James Gillray's William Pitt the Younger

Caricature before the age of photography is an interesting thought… these days the constant media coverage of our politicians means everyone knows their faces intimately, and the cartoonists themselves get far more opportunities to study them. But 200 years ago, Gillray, the godfather of the political cartoon, wouldn’t have been able to analyse the features of George III, William Pitt or Napoleon Bonaparte so easily, and the people enjoying his prints, even less so. So, his caricatures must really have shaped public perception of those people.

George III was one of his favourite targets, while the Prince of Wales paid a lot of money to suppress an amazing, caricature-packed print called L'Assemblée Nationale. (He even had the original printing plate destroyed.) But I particularly like his images of Prime Minster William Pitt as a chinless wonder with ruddy cheeks, an upturned nose and beanpole limbs. Gillray didn’t pull any punches - drawing Pitt on one occasion as a toadstool growing out of a heap of dung, and on another, with a belly full of gold coins, spewing and crapping £1 notes onto the public.


David Low's Winston Churchill

Low’s career spanned 1919-1962… not exactly lean times for political cartoonists. Churchill was at the very forefront of British political scene for virtually all of that time and they had a real love-hate relationship. As Low was left-wing they were miles apart politically, and Churchill could be infuriated by the relentless jibes of a man he once said "never drew a single line in praise of England." But there was mutual respect too. Low acknowledged Churchill's intellect and great powers as a speaker, while Churchill often found Low's cartoons very funny, even when he was the butt of the joke, and often bought the original drawings.

Churchill saw being the subject of Low's cartoons as a sign he was still relevant and, generally, that took the sting out of being mocked on a regular basis. He might have learned a thing or two from Low's cartoons, too. Churchill could see that in honing in on a couple of unique characteristics a cartoonist could turn a person into something more iconic; an instantly recognisable image that really imprints itself in the public consciousness.

As he got older, Churchill really played up those visual identifiers we now associate with him. It's probably not an exaggeration to say he became a caricature of himself. And Low claimed some credit for that. "Don't imagine", said Low, "that the familiar wartime idea of Churchill with his V sign and cigar was all his own invention." A symbiotic relationship between cartoonist and his subject.


Vicky's Harold MacMillan

Victor ‘Vicky’ Weisz was born in Berlin and started his career as a cartoonist there, but left for London in 1935 when Hitler came to power. He had a great belief in the power of cartoons to influence opinion - and he could really draw too - he had a lovely, clean, decisive brushstroke which was perfect for caricature, but also a darker, scratchier style for more serious subject matter. His editor at the News Chronicle particularly hated these ‘grim’ cartoons and often rejected them.

He was the top cartoonist of his day and politicians often relished being ‘done’ by Vicky. "I don't make fun of a face. I make fun of what is behind that face,” he said. I really like his Churchill - amazing economy - but his favourite target was Tory PM Harold MacMillan. He really went for him, although the ironic ’Supermac’ character, a dig at the personality cult he saw as surrounding the Prime Minster, didn’t do MacMillan any harm in the end. The nickname stuck and probably endeared people to him even more.


Steve Bell's David Cameron

Steve Bell does a different kind of caricature. There’s always a strong likeness there, but he’s got another line of attack alongside the exaggeration of physical features. He has this knack of creating an ‘in joke’ about someone that must be deeply unsettling for the individual in question. He’ll take some seemingly unimportant observation or insight and run with it for months – years even. John Major, the ‘crap superman’ figure, wearing his underpants over his suit and silently eating a plate of peas for dinner every night is the classic example. The more obscure the joke, the more infuriating it must be for the victim - an embarrassing, baffling, mocking reflection of themselves that's impossible to shake off.

Bell’s David Cameron is perhaps the most extreme version of this – evolving from a blancmange-pink and rubbery-faced character, through to a jellyfish, a man in a condom, and eventually some maniacal half-man half-condom creature. Cameron obviously didn’t like it – he told Bell: “You can only push a condom so far.” Quite.