diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Cartoon Museum

Location: 35 Little Russell Street WC1A 2HH [map]
Open: daily (10:30am - 5:30pm) (not Mondays) (from 12 on Sundays)
Admission: £5.50 (kids go free)
Brief summary: comic sketches & animated displays
Website: www.cartoonmuseum.org (facebook) (twitter)
Time to set aside: maybe an hour

It's five years old now, this repository of the visual arts down Bloomsbury way. The Cartoon Museum lives in the shadow of its much greater neighbour, the British Museum, and survives by attracting visitors who wander into the wrong sideroad one street back. Quite what foreign tourists make of the Cartoon Museum I'm not sure - this is a distinctly British attraction, so most of the displays would mean little to someone brought up abroad. But if you're a fan of sketches, caricatures, graphic art or general pictorial humour, then your five pounds fifty may be better spent.

The front of the museum looks like a small shopfront, which is precisely what the front of the front of the museum is. Wander inside to find a mini giftshop of books, cards and artful gifts (tastefully done, I thought, so I reckon I've already got one Christmas purchase idea sorted). Only if you pay up do you gain entrance to the rooms beyond - a rather more spacious interior of three rooms down and two rooms up. On the way you'll pass a handful of witty black and white rectangles, the better sort of newspaper cartoon, pinned up in frames for your brief delectation. More of the same coming up.

The main permanent gallery skips through a history of British cartoonery, from Hogarth to Scarfe and all points inbetween. Biting social satire like The Rake's Progress, that's where it all kicked off, with the realisation that many a political point is best made pictorially with humour. Especially important when your audience can't read, or when they'd not got time to read some lengthy polemic - Gillray and Cruikshank slipped the message home anyhow. Noblemen and politicians were often a figure of fun, facial features emphasised, hidden agendas revealed. Punch magazine made all of this more mainstream, long before dentists' waiting rooms were ever invented, and were responsible for appropriating the word "cartoon" in the 1840s. It wasn't all serious - there are Heath Robinsons here and a Thelwell, for example - although the final burst of almost-modern artwork does have a more Westminster tinge.

At the heart of the building is the temporary exhibition gallery, which at the moment features a retrospective of Doctor Who In Comics. That's a good excuse to take pages from old copies of TV Comic, and other fan fiction, and display them with annotations around the wall. You don't get much chance to deduce the story from a single sheet, merely to soak up the atmosphere of the pen and ink drawings and relive an entire sci-fi era in black and white. There's plenty to see here, the exhibition's been meticulously curated, including a specially commissioned illustration of all eleven Doctors lined up in an imaginary identity parade. Might leave you cold, or might be a fascinating Hartnell to Smith geek-out, you'll know which. If the latter, get here before the end of the month before they take the whole lot down.

Upstairs, comics! The display runs the gamut of ages from pre-Dandy to post-Viz, this time with the opportunity to enjoy full one-page stories. An entire Beryl the Peril, a complete Dan Dare, even the scary saccharine world that was (and thankfully no longer is) Bunty. Look past the words to admire the talents of the cartoonist, be that the anarchic panache of Leo Baxendale, or the skill with which an entire tale can be told in only four panels. Did Jane really take off quite so many clothes to keep the War effort burning, and how has Dennis The Menace's spiky hair updated over the last sixty years? Should you fancy a sit down there's a table covered with back issues of the Beano and the Dandy to flick through, but watch out because they're all fairly recent so don't expect a bout of armchair nostalgia.

Children are well catered for, with an artists' gallery on the upper floor encouraging them to create, sketch and draw some mini-masterpiece of their own. Downstairs is a tiny room devoted to animation, more specifically to Peppa Pig animation - a fine example of the genre. And kids get into the museum free, remember, so there's a half-term idea for you. Admission was also free at the weekend to any soul clutching a Bloomsbury Festival programme, for which I deeply apologise. The Cartoon Museum isn't funded by government so relies on entrance fees to stay afloat, and I contributed precisely nothing to their upkeep on my lookaround. The least I can do is nudge a few of you towards their compact two-dimensional showcase, hopefully with a smile.
by tube: Tottenham Court Road

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