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Gillray’s Ghost

Nestled next to the British Museum and free with an art fund card, this celebration of the bicentennial of James Gillray’s death is a gem of an exhibition and is well worth the five minute walk.

Packed into two rooms, the motley collection of satirical cartoons are presented broadly chronologically; the notable exceptions being panels deemed to directly influence one another. Set side by side, the rehashing - and occasional downright theft - of Gillray’s compositions and witty maxims perfectly illustrates the endurance of his legacy some 200 years after his death. His most recognisable work, ’The Plum-Pudding in Danger’ is shown to be reimagined countless times, as a baked bean, a football and memorably, Steve Bell’s unsavoury ‘bum-pudding’.

Combining humour with message, the works are easily accessible and highly engaging. Yet, even when the images fail to entertain, the average gallery goer’s reaction doesn’t disappoint. Blending reminiscence with a propensity to use the exhibition as a obsolete politician pop-quiz, there is certainly humour in watching dignified Chelsea pensioners giggle like children at the bawdy and scatological panels.

In a more scholarly vein, it would be worth the trip just to have a good squint at the penmanship of Steadman and Scarfe's originals, though antiquarian tastes are also catered for in a brief curatorial aside covering the caricatures of Annibale Carracci, Bernini, Goya and Hogarth. Not lacking intellectual clout, the lampooning gives way to profundity as the layout of the exhibition draws one to a dispiriting conclusion; the reuse of imagery seems to imply a monotonous cycling of scandals, wars and general misconduct little changed in 200 years. It is a testament to the curators and cartoonists then, that drawings of exaggerated noses, towering wigs and cat’s anuses can inspire such reflection.

This article was written for the December/January edition for the paper. It features content appropriate to the intended date of publication, and hence it might not be possible to visit or see the events/objects mentioned anymore. We apologise for the delay in the publication of the article.

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