The Social Cartoons of Punch

Punch’s ‘social’ cartoons record the vast shifts in life over the 19th and 20th centuries, capturing the impact of rapid technological and social change. Their ability to encapsulate multiple references to key issues in historical research have long made Punch’s ‘socials’ important documentary sources. Here we profile a few of the great illustrators who gave Punch its reputation as a repository of the best in humorous art.

John Leech (1817–1864)

Leech joined the fledgling Punch team in August 1841 and soon became its star turn, his prolific and fluid pen dashing off acerbic political cartoons and witty ‘socials’ with equal skill. Praised by John Ruskin for his gentle but acute observations of all classes of society, Leech’s Pictures of Life and Character came to epitomise mid-Victorian England. However, many of his cartoons like ‘Substance and Shadow, Cartoon No. 1’ of 1843 and ‘A Court for King Cholera’ of 1852 reflected the early magazine’s preoccupation with social problems. As his old friend William Thackeray cried in 1854: ‘Fancy a number of Punch without Leech’s pictures! What would you give for it?’ – though his fellow contributors at the magazine did not thank him for saying so.

1855 – Last Refuge of a Banished Smoker. First Juvenile Swell. "Jump in, old fellah!" Second Ditto. "Where are you going?" First Ditto. "Oh! Nowhere! I've only hired him to have somewhere to smoke!"

Charles Keene (1823–1891)

Called ‘the greatest English artist since Hogarth’ by Whistler, collected by Degas, and praised by Pissarro, one of the great mysteries of the Victorian art scene is why Charles Keene never became a household name. Although Keene was contributing to Punch from 1851, he was too modest to acknowledge the work as his until 1854. In 1860 he was invited to join the Punch Table and in 1864 assumed the mantle of John Leech as a social satirist. His superb drawings taxed the skills of the wood block engravers who heroically tried to reproduce his complex lines. But jokes were never Keene’s forte and he often resorted to using gags provided by friends like Joseph Crawhall Sr, father of the painter Joseph Crawhall.

1866 –  The Sewing-Machine. Draper. "A most wonderful invention, indeed, mum, and it really executes the work so efficiently and quickly that, 'pon my word, I think there's nothing left for the ladies to do now but to improve their intellects!"

George du Maurier (1834–1896)

The exquisite satirist of the pretensions and pomposity of high society, George du Maurier was perhaps lodged in that role by Punch’s editor Mark Lemon after he joined the magazine in 1865. Du Maurier himself wrote ‘I have generally stuck to the ‘classes’ because C.K. [Charles Keene] seems to have monopolised the ‘masses’’. One of the era’s most celebrated illustrators and a member of Victorian High Bohemia, in later life, his eyesight deteriorating, du Maurier began writing novels, most famously Trilby with its immortal character, Svengali. Perhaps his most famous cartoon was True Humility of 1895 which introduced the term ‘a curate’s egg’ into the English language.

1875 – Acute  Chinamania. May. "Mamma! Mamma! Don't go on like this, pray!!" Mamma (who has smashed a favourite pot). "What have I got left to live for?" May. "Haven't you got me, mamma?" Mamma. "You, child! You're not unique!! There are six of you — a complete set!!"

H M Bateman (1834–1896)

Henry Mayo Bateman’s celebrated series ‘The Man Who…’ first appeared in Tatler in 1912, but Punch was the lucky recipient of many of the most famous examples, most notably ‘The Boy Who Breathed on the Glass in the British Museum’ of 1916. Australia-born Bateman was hugely successful, illustrating for many of the major magazines and advertisers of the day. Master of the multi-image cartoon story, his characters insouciantly breech social conventions to the horror of onlookers, or exude a barely suppressed rage.

1930 – The Man Who Paid Off His Overdraft

Fougasse [Kenneth Bird] (1887–1965)

The art directors’ favourite, the unique stylish shorthand of Kenneth Bird’s drawings epitomise the period between the two world wars. His first cartoon appeared in Punch in 1916 while he was convalescing from wounds received at the Battle of Gallipoli. Trying to differentiate himself from the cartoonist W. Bird (the Irish artist Jack Butler Yeats) whose work was already appearing in Punch, Bird assumed the pen name ‘Fougasse’ – a type of landmine of unreliable explosiveness. Appointed art editor of Punch from 1937, Bird became the magazine’s editor in 1949 – the only cartoonist to hold the post. He updated the look of the magazine and nurtured a new generation of cartoonists. Outside Punch, Fougasse was perhaps best-known for the cartoons he drew for Careless Talk Costs Lives, the series of propaganda posters produced by the WWII Ministry of Information, for which he worked unpaid.

1947 – "We shall very soon have to do something to cope with the changes brought about by the advent of the horseless carriage." "I absolutely concur - we certainly shall."

Pont [Gavin Graham Laidler] (1908–1940)

Graham Laidler had drawn just over a dozen cartoons for Punch when in 1934 he began the series that was to be the source of his enduring fame and enormous popularity: ‘The British Character’. The magazine soon realized what a jewel they had and when Graham Greene’s new magazine Night and Day tried to poach Laidler in 1937, Punch immediately put the illustrator on a then unheard-of exclusive contract. ‘Pont of Punch’ was born. His pen name came from the contraction of a family nickname ‘Pontifex Maximus’ – probably acquired after a youthful visit to Italy and an enthusiasm for Roman ruins. Although Pont long suffered from TB and spent much of his time living abroad, his sudden death from polio in November 1940 at the age of only thirty-two was the tragic loss of a major talent.

1937 – The British Character. Love of Keeping Calm

David Langdon (1914–2011)

After working as an architect, London-born Langdon sold his first cartoon to Time and Tide in 1936 and the following year was invited to contribute to Punch by its art editor, Kenneth Bird. Once described by the Evening Standard as ‘the greatest comic artist of our time’, Langdon became one of the magazine’s longest-serving cartoonists. Joining the London Fire Service at the outbreak of WW2, he later became a squadron leader in the RAF. Despite the demands of war service, he still produced scores of cartoons, as well as a famous series of cautionary advertisements aimed at London Transport passengers called ‘Billy Brown of London Town’ which soon became part of popular culture. Famed for his prolific output and wry slant on current affairs, Langdon claimed to have introduced the ‘open mouth’ into humorous art to indicate which character is speaking.


Norman Thelwell (1923–2004)

The term ‘Thelwell pony’ entered the English language after the runaway success of the artist’s cartoons for Punch recording the exploits of small girls and their stout (and disobedient) ponies. He joined the magazine in 1952, but it was his first pony cartoon in 1953 that struck a chord. He recalled in his autobiography: ‘People telephoned the editor and asked for more. Suddenly I had fan mail. So the editor told me to do a two-page spread on ponies. I was appalled. I thought I'd already squeezed the subject dry.’ An outstanding artist, Thelwell contributed over 1,500 cartoons to the magazine, including dozens of covers. Though best-known as a brilliant recorder of the countryside scene, Thelwell’s range was far broader. While he claimed to have ‘no axes to grind and no torches to bear’ his sensitive cartoons on race and immigration and more passionate responses to the increasing degradation of the environment show this was not entirely true.

1970 – "Hello! We can't be far from civilisation."

Ronald Searle (1920–2011)

Ronald Searle has been hailed as one of the greatest cartoonists of the twentieth century. His work for the magazine after WW2 had a tremendous impact and, as with Pont and Rowland Emett, Punch was to put Searle on an exclusive contract. He began contributing following his return to Britain after spending the war in the notorious Changi prison camp. Searle soon became famous for his illustrations for the St Trinians books and for Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth (which had first appeared as a series in Punch). Though his bread and butter were the hundreds of magnificent caricatures he drew for the magazine’s theatre column, Searle produced the brilliant series The Rake’s Progress, biting political cartoons, a clutch of some of Punch’s memorable colour covers, the spectacular colour inserts Heroes of Our Time featuring celebrities of the 1950s like Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, Bertrand Russell, Princess Margaret and Sir Malcolm Sargent. Searle’s collaboration with Alex Atkinson in Punch, The New Mayhew, based on Henry Mayhew’s famous survey London Labour and the London Poor, showed the breadth of his work – Mayhew was one of the founders of Punch in 1841.

1954 – The Rake's Progress : The Trade Union Leader

Michael Heath (b. 1935)

Perhaps Punch’s greatest postwar recorder of the zeitgeist, the du Maurier of the mid-twentieth century, Michael Heath focused his sharp eye on fashionable London – its demi-monde, chattering classes and brash City wide-boys. Heath was first published in Punch in 1958. By the mid-Sixties he had found his niche as satirist of the neuroses, fads and sexual politics of the age. Heath continued to contribute to Punch until it closed in 1992 and in later years even had a desk in the office where he sat for hours drawing continuously. Many of his best cartoons illustrated ‘Metropolis’, Alan Brien’s column on London. Heath always contributed to other publications, both magazines and newspapers, but his longest association has been with Punch’s rival Private Eye.

1981 – "We warned you about smoking when you were pregnant, Mrs Roth."