Impish is rather an overused word to describe Ian Hislop, but elfin and elvish don’t quite cut the mustard, so maybe Puckish will have to suffice. So, the Puckish figure of Ian Hislop features heavily in video clips all over this small but nearly perfectly-formed exhibition of objects of dissent, subversion and satire, peering atobjects, drawings and manuscripts through a large magnifying glass. Although sometimes the reasons for producing such objects were deadly serious, some with extreme prejudice, most display an extraordinary sense of the ridiculous and ingenuity in the face of such oppression. Hislop was commissioned by the British Museum to go behind the scenes of this bastion of the establishment and ferret out ‘objects of dissent’, that he could assemble into an exhibition of around a hundredobjects that would endorse his belief that there was subversive material that challenged the official version of events. Luckily for him, there was. It has long been asserted that history was written by the winners, but this show unearths the protestors, the downtrodden and the activists, and gives them a voice.
Some of the prints are old friends, like those of James Gillray, George Cruikshank and William Hogarth, while their French counterparts, Charles Philipon and Honoré Daumier, produced some audacious work in the face of even more stringent censorship laws. Philipon was a journalist, cartoonist and publisher of the satirical magazine Le Caricature, in which he lampooned King Louis Philippe. He was taken to court and he defended his right to draw the King as a pear. The French for pear, poire, is also slang for an idiot, but he lost his case of libel brought against him and was fined 2,000 francs and a six-month prison sentence, but the image of the King as a pear appeared in graffiti all over Paris and elsewhere in France. After depicting the future King George IV of England as a drunken, pox-ridden, gluttonous gourmand, with gambling debts and stinking breath, in A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion, Gillray’s palm was greased to the tune of £200 a year to produce prints in favour of government policy and attacks on the royal family became less vehement and vitriolic. Richard Newton kept his nerve and has two prints, one from 1798 with John Bull farting at a print of George III, with William Pitt shouting, ‘This is Treason, Johnny,’ and the other with the two severed heads of Pitt and the King on a platter. It seems likely that he would have faced prosecution, but sadly died of natural causes shortly after their publication, aged only 21. Hogarth is represented by a wonderfully busy scene in Hudibras encounters the Skimmington, which apparently was a folk custom practised all over Europe and known as ‘charivari,’ which was a mob-scene and noisy procession that acted as a corrective to moral behaviour, in this case adultery by a shrewish wife. Cruikshank is represented by a Bank Restriction note, produced in oppostion to the Bank of England’s draconian laws, making forgery a capital offence. His mock forgery includes a line of bodies hanging from a gibbet, Britannia devouring an infant, four ships transporting convicts, a noose in the shape of a pound sign and the chief cashier’s signature replaced by Jack Ketch, the notorious seventeenth century executioner.
During the Reformation, objects were produced to subtly conceal Catholic support in defiance of Protestant legislation, one elaborate example being the Stonyhurst Salt, a cellar made of silver-gilt, rock crystal and adorned with rubies and garnets, which, to the cognoscente, represented Christ’s purity and drops of blood. The radical Whig politician John Wilkes published a magazine called the North Briton, and in issue number 45 contained an attack on King George III’s speech in Parliament, which Wilkes called the ‘the most abandoned piece of ministerial effrontery ever attempted to be imposed on mankind,’ and the ministers responsible were ‘the foul dredges of (Lord Bute’s) power, the tools of corruption and depotism.’ He was immediately slung in the Tower, but released under ‘Parliamentary Privelege’ as he was an MP. After printing more seditious material, he was expelled from Parliament and, had he not been unable to attend his trial, he would have been imprisoned and sent to goal, instead of which he legged it to France, where he remained for four years. When he arrived back, he was mobbed by ‘Wilkites’, who latched onto the number 45, which began to proliferate on badges and on doors. The object on display is a Worcester porcelin teapot, with 45 contained in a cartouche at the base of the spout.
Hislop’s co-curator, Tom Hockenhull, is in charge of The Department of Coins and Medals, which is home to one of the world’s finest numismatic collections, comprising about one million objects, so it no surprise than many of the objects in this exhibition, come from his own department, some more interesting than others. A 1937 florin, bearing the head of George VI, has been stamped with a crude (back-to-front) swastika using the letter ‘L’ and the word NAZI, possibly because the King’s elder brother, Edward VIII, was an alleged pro-fascist sympathiser. A 1903 penny has been defaced with the suffragette slogan ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’. Bank notes were also a target for political dissent in the form of hidden messages at the printing stage. In a parliamentary democracy, it is hard to imagine a world without free speech, so button badges are hardly at the cutting edge of dissent, and yet there is a large collection of badges, mostly American from the period since 2007 on display. Far more interesting is the so-called Strangford Shield, a third century Roman copy from the twelve-metre high gold and ivory statue of Athena, that once stood within the Parthenon. Pheidias was the most important sculptor to work in classical antiquity, being employed by the Athenian statesman Pericles to work on the Parthenon. The copy is about a tenth of the size of the original, and Pheidias flouted convention, and secretly sculpted not only himself, but Pericles as well, as warriors in a mythical battle between the Greeks and the all-girl Amazons. The writer Plutarch suggested that the sculptor was betrayed through professional jealousy by a fellow artist because of his friendship with Pericles, and, in another Draconian measure, he was thrown into prison, where he died after an illness.
Amongst many fascinating objects, there are three that are worth highlighting: a Roman oil-lamp depicting Queen Cleopatra having intercourse with a crocodile; a Zippo lighter from the Vietnam war, with the inscriptions, ‘Let me win your heart and mind or I’ll burn your god damn hut down,’ ‘we are the unwilling led by the unqualified to do the impossible for the ungrateful,’ and fighting for peace is like fucking for chastity’; an artwork by Banksy secretly installed in the British Museum, with a mock caption, for three days before it was ‘discovered’, but only after an on-line admission, challenging the public to try and find it. This is the ultimate, and funniest of all the protest objects, trying, and succeeding, to dupe the very institution in which it now hangs.
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