The Inking Woman
250 Years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain, Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate, Myriad Editions
How many British female cartoonists can you name off the top of your head? My pathetic answer is one: the estimable Posy Simmonds, whereas any number of male names come surging in, from Rowlandson to Steve Bell.
So when I spotted The Inking Woman in my local bookshop it went straight to the top of the list of possible birthday presents (for myself!) and I got lucky.
The book is based on the exhibition of the same name at the Cartoon Museum in 2017 – an event that, shamefully, seems to have passed the dames by. The publication is far more than simply a catalogue of the images exhibited. After a range of images and well-researched articles that give a historical overview taking us from the satire of the eighteenth century to postcard art, via the representation of the women’s suffrage campaign, the book divides into two sections: Women in the Press’ and ‘The Graphic Novel’, with, again, short essays on the diversity of cultures within these two strands, such as feminist publishing and zines. So you can read and learn – or you can simply browse hundreds of images that elicit anything from a belly laugh to a wry smile to genuine anger.
The earliest cartoonist featured is Mary Darly, who married a printer in 1759, threw herself into the business, and soon opened her own print shop round the corner from his. Punters greatly appreciated her images of Augusta, Princess of Wales, and the pleasure she took in the ‘broomstick’ of Prime Minister George Bute, who was rumoured to be her lover. Others found them less appealing and the vicious attacks she suffered made her turn to satirising types rather than individuals, capitalising on the fashionable enthusiasm for caricatures, inspired by Grand Tourists’ encounters with this genre in Italy.
While we might not automatically consider suffragette imagery as belonging to the category of cartoons, their blend of text and illustration justifies their inclusion, as do their ‘punchline’ tactics, aiming to startle and disrupt to get their political message across, as in Emily Harding Andrews’s poster, published by the Artists’ Suffrage League in 1908.
With a very different focus, postcard art served the enormous commercial market for this form of communication at a time when there were five postal deliveries a day. Mabel Lucie Atwell, whom I remember more for her illustrations of children’s books, developed an unmistakeable – and highly sentimental – style that went on to be popularised through all manner of merchandise (crockery, dolls, nursery equipment).
Looking through the ‘Women in the Press’ section I realised I had come across several of the artists, but sadly their names had not stuck, among them Jacky Fleming, and Annie Lawson with her stick figures that animate both men’s and women’s weaknesses. Many of the images satirise men’s supposed incompetence (such as Jackie Smith’s immaculately detailed image of the classic bachelor pad complete with three weeks’ washing up and boots on the table), but equally there are those that are just a good gag, no matter what you identify as, like Kathryn Lamb’s at the top of the review.
This is just the quickest of glimpses into this illuminating and entertaining book, and for once the claim ‘hours of fun can be had’ is no exaggeration, Christmas is coming, so this is definitely one recommendation for your list.