Martin Rowson : Laughing at Tyrants
“Im addicted to drawing his (George Osborne’s) face. It looks like a balloon of sick – ready to pop!” exclaims satirical cartoonist Martin Rowson.
Speaking at The Alternative Magna Carta festival on Saturday 13th June, Rowson presented some of his favourite drawings and wordy snippets to a small group of scruffy Guardian readers in the attic of a rickety pub in Clerkenwell, London. The festival offered an afternoon of well-respected speakers from historians through to university lecturers, who discussed topics such as freedom, the arts, protest, digital rights and more. Martin Rowson ended the day with his talk “Laughing at Tyrants: A Graphic Guide to Visual Satire”. His farcical and shockingly gritty illustrations were explained in depth by the man himself, as the building rattled at four minute intervals with each underground train that passed by underneath.
Rowson’s illustrations for The Guardian newspaper have famously held those in power to account through ridicule. He strongly believes that the manifestation of laughter is one of the best forms of protest against the “hypocrites and parasites” that are in positions of power in Britain today. Rowson combines subtle puns from “fur-cup” to “fork oeuf” and “fair coffin dye”, with more toilet humour than you can shake an MP at, and language that would make even the most heartless cabinet minister blush to raise important issues and encourage raucous debate.
Speaking on Saturday, Rowson explained how historical pieces of visual satire have influenced his work. Hogarth’s ‘Gin Alley’ (see Image 3) and Gillray’s ‘Plum Pudding’ were used as examples. Both of which he has been able to reimagine using todays politicians in various states of disgrace. With this historical context, Rowson’s small but attentive audience were able to appreciate the continuing importance of disruptive political cartoons to deflate those in positions of power.
In the post-Charlie Hebdo climate it is even more important to remember the lasting legacy that satire has had on British political opinion – from Hogarth through to Punch, and beyond. Rowson’s talk took a bleak turn when he explained his predicament in January 2015 when given the choice to either depict Mohammed and risk his family’s safety, or to censor himself. Typical of Rowson, he decided to do neither! Instead he drew a self-portrait showing his indecision and fear at the prospect of risking his freedom for his beliefs in defence of free speech (see Image 4). Although he came under scrutiny from many of his fans, Rowson proudly stands by his decision to voice his opinion in a less confrontational and aggravating manner.
Martin Rowson’s talk at The Alternative Magna Carta was inspiring, hilarious and full to the brim with wit and filth. Long may he continue to grab onto the ankles of the elite and powerful so that they can not go deaf to our laughter, or blind to our finger-pointing mockery!