Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Party Line

We used to have a book knocking about the house, its subject British early to mid twentieth century newspaper cartoons.  In the book were illustrated several cartoons by Sir Bernard Partridge.

Partridge was an arch conservative, whose natural political stance was reactionary, and who seemed to be against everything.  He didn't want unions, or votes for women, was all for the British Empire and if workers went on strike for tuppence ha'penny more in wages, then they were obviously inspired by the devil.  He worked in cliches, drawing all socialists and trade unionists as Lenin look-alikes who carried suspicious attache cases, the workers were always good souls led astray (you could tell they had integrity by the way they always smoked a pipe) and the businessmen were always shown as tough and uncompromising but misunderstood.  Whatever they did wrong - they were still right.

Bernard Partridge

And his cartoons were also very traditional in approach; they were drawn pretty much in the same way from the 1880's right up to the Second World War, only the costumes changed.  But by god could he draw.  At its best Partridge's style has the same kind of sinewy 'engraved' line  you see in the work of that great Edwardian illustrator Arthur Rackham.  I first saw his cartoons at about the age of thirteen or fourteen and they were probably the first such work I ever studied.  There were two I especially remember.  

I knew a little about the First World War and the politics that led up to it so I came to these cartoons with some understanding, but the thing I really appreciated because it could be seen instantly, was the quality.

The first cartoon showed the Kaiser sitting at a table in full Germanic regalia, cloak, sword and helmet with a spike.  He has before him an hourglass and he is watching it with rapt attention.  On the hourglass is inscribed the word 'Militarism' and the caption is 'The Sands Run Out'.

Partridge really knew his huns!
I told you he was traditional!  But the image has immence visual impact, it is dramatic, dark, threatening, brooding - in short, all the things the press constantly stated the Kaiser to be.  All summed up in one vital drawing.  I don't remember copying this cartoon, but I spent long periods studying it.

The second image, I think dating from just before the First World War is a beautiful drawing showing Germania the Goddess of Germany (Partridge always depicted countries as Grecian, Nordic or Roman Goddesses!  He inherited the idea from Tenniel,) leaning on the ramparts of her coastal defences looking out to sea.

She is looking out at a distant British Dreadnought, a type of early ironclad battleship, and she's saying something like 'I wish I had one of those eagles!'  The quick confident deftness used to draw her figure, the way she gracefully leans against the ramparts shows an expert hand.

I bet Angela Merkel's got a winged helmet, long robe and a fish scale corsalet in her wardrobe.
But Partridge's own opinion of his work was quite low; he thought that his work was 'second rate' and that he was 'little more than a hack draughtsman.'  This only shows the high level of expectation that he had set himself and the high quality that artists tried to attain generally at that time.

Politically I can't stomach the party line he followed, but in all other respects his line was excellent.

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  1. I honestly think Angela Merkel should adopt the winged helmet, long robe and fish scale corsalet look - with shield, spear and eagle accessories - because accessorising is so important, darling.
    It would wonders for European unity.

  2. Hi Sue -

    And the Greeks could do with a few wonders right now.