The Political Cartoons of Punch

Punch’s renowned full-page political cartoons – the Big Cuts – had the power to sway governments and influence political elites. Many cartoons became cultural reference points and it was Punch’s depictions of personifications like Britannia, John Bull and the British Lion that became firmly established in the public imagination. The Big Cuts were drawn by a stable of legendary artists some of whom we profile here:

John Tenniel (1820–1914)

Tenniel was already well established as Punch’s principal political cartoonist before illustrating Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. Carroll had chosen Tenniel because of the allegorical, grown-up fantasies of his ‘Big Cut’ cartoons for Punch – another layer of meaning for his readers already familiar with the artist through the magazine. The first of Punch’s cartoonist-knights, Sir John Tenniel produced some of the most influential images of the high Victorian era, such as ‘The British Lion's Vengeance on the Bengal Tiger’. His ‘Dropping the Pilot’ of 1890 is arguably one of the most parodied cartoons of all time.

1867 – The Derby, 1867. Dizzy Wins With "Reform Bill."
Mr Punch. "Don't Be Too Sure; Wait Till He's Weighed."

Linley Sambourne (1844–1910)

A great and perhaps now undervalued graphic artist, Sambourne cartooned for Punch from 1867 until his death in 1910, becoming second political cartoonist in 1871 and taking over as chief political cartoonist from John Tenniel in 1901. Sambourne’s interest in photography and his pioneering use of the medium as ‘valuable adjunct’ in producing his topical drawings for Punch to a tight deadline is now being recognized. Many of the photographs behind the Big Cuts can be seen at Sambourne’s Kensington home 18 Stafford Terrace, an almost unchanged time capsule from the artist’s heyday as a successful Punch cartoonist.

1878 – Under the Censor's Stamp; Or, how the Bear's Paw comes down on Punch in St Petersburg. And yet the Jingoes call him "Russophil"!

Bernard Partridge (1861–1945)

Punch’s second cartoonist-knight Sir Bernard Partridge was a worthy successor to Tenniel as chief cartoonist. Perhaps influenced by his early career as an actor, the political protagonists in Partridge’s Big Cuts were theatrical send-ups brilliantly observed, but always focussed on the real message with a bold urgency. If in Tenniel's cartoons the message could be obscured by the fine detail, Partridge brought it to the fore with at times startling effect, and his work is one of the best examples of British propaganda in the media. By the mid-1930s the elderly Partridge had wanted to retire but was persuaded by the proprietors and editors of Punch to stay. He soldiered on throughout the difficult years of WW2, publishing his final cartoon on 18 April 1945 at the age of 83 and died just over three months later.

1917 – Cancelled. By order of the competent military authority.

E H Shepard (1879–1976)

Ernest Howard Shepard was one of the most famous illustrators of the twentieth century, particularly for his illustrations for A A Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Winnie-The-Pooh, and Kenneth Graeme’s Wind in the Willows. When We Were Very Young was originally published as a series in Punch and marked the first appearance of a prototype Pooh in the form of Edward Bear. Shepard’s introduction to Milne had come through Punch, to which the artist contributed more than a thousand cartoons and illustrations over 50 years. His huge variety of work began with gag cartoons published before, during and after WW1, and went on to include some of the magazine’s most riveting political cartoons of the interwar and WW2 years, as well as hundreds of superb illustrations for poems and Charivaria headings that introduced each issue of the magazine. Shepard’s last cartoon for Punch in 1964 of a small boy dealing a robust kick to a remarkably Pooh-like teddy bear showed how he had tired of ‘that silly old bear’.

1948 – Dotheboys Hall. "It still tastes awful."

Leslie Illingworth (1902–1979)

Illingworth drew of one of the magazine’s most dramatic images of WW2 for Punch’s 1940 Almanack. His full-colour double-page The Combat, of a solitary British fighter plane confronting the monstrous sky-darkening Nazi foe precipitated a flood of heartfelt letters to the editor. In 1949 he became first political cartoonist – while at the same time producing a daily cartoon for the Daily Mail which he had joined in 1939. More than one Punch editor noted that Illingworth was not particularly political and the subject of the main cartoon was arrived at communally. Illingworth’s genius was to interpret these suggestions into brilliant cartoons that were often epic and savagely biting. His most controversial cartoon for Punch on 3 February 1954, with an accompanying editorial by Malcolm Muggeridge, depicted an aging and ailing Winston Churchill, which suggested he was long past his prime. The cartoon greatly offended Churchill who said ‘Punch goes everywhere. I shall have to retire if this sort of thing goes on,’ showing how a Punch cartoon still had the power to wound the political classes.

1949 – The Way to Westminster. "Coming for a walk?"

Trog [Wally Fawkes] (b. 1924)

Trog was already an established artist in black and white working for a variety of publications when he began to contribute political cartoons to Punch in 1969. He had been ‘discovered’ by the great Leslie Illingworth and followed him to the Daily Mail and later to Punch. But it was at Punch, now needing fresh material weekly for its covers, that Trog was encouraged to begin producing works in colour. This led to a series of stunning and memorable covers in the 1970s featuring caricatures of political, show business and royal personalities that have never been bettered. And while a reader complained to the Press Council that one of Trog’s Daily Mail cartoons was ‘grossly discourteous to the Queen’, his depictions of Elizabeth II for Punch seemed always affectionate.  Trog’s later work for the magazine included a succession of brilliant caricatures of the celebrities of the day in the 1980s for the regular feature Passing Through. Among Trog’s many achievements were the cartoons he drew for the long-running comic strip Flook and his parallel career as a jazz musician playing clarinet in bands with Humphrey Lyttelton and George Melly.

1976 – Punch (Front cover, 29 September 1976)