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Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent – A long history of human insubordination

James Gillray's A Voluptuary under the horror of digestion, 1972. Image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum. - Credit: Archant

Richard Holledge​ on a new exhibition at the British Museum which takes in thousands of years of defiance.

A porcelain teapot prettily decorated in blue and picked out with gold with red flowers. What can that have to do with the clamour of protest? Look under the spout. There’s a discreet number 45, and it means trouble.

The number went viral in 1760s England after the radical politician John Wilkes savaged the Tory parliamentary supporters of the hated King George III in his magazine Great Briton as the ‘the foul dregs of power, the tools of corruption and despotism’.

The edition of the magazine? Number 45.

The government ordered copies of the magazine to be burned but a mob saved them and thereafter ’45’ was sported on brooches by his supporters who chanted it at meetings and daubed it on hundreds of doors.

Wilkites would stop carriages and demand the passengers toast their hero. When the Austrian ambassador refused he was dragged from his carriage and suffered the indignity of having the number ‘four’ on the sole of one shoe and the number ‘five’ on the other.

The treacherous teapot is just one of the examples of satire, sedition and mickey-taking in the exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent, at the British Museum, in which the editor of Private Eye and curator Tom Hockenhull have scoured the museum for artefacts and drawings to prove that opposition to authority and to injustice has been expressed for centuries by the eloquent, the angry and the ordinary, indeed anyone with a talent to amuse – and abuse.

Hislop writes in the catalogue: ‘There are some items that have posed a genuine threat to authority and other ones that are much sillier. But they all merit a second look because they show people questioning the status quo and refusing to accept what they are being told. They may have been hoping to overthrow the state, been letting off steam because they could not keep silent any more, or simply been trying to amuse each other.’

The result is not a thesis or an argument but rather an amiably random collection of voices off and unexpected objects.

Few items reflect Jonathan Swift’s adage that satire exists ‘to cure the vices of mankind’ and while satirical programmes and magazines are in short supply today – apart from Hislop’s own organ – the vices of the 18th century were mercilessly lampooned by caricaturists such as James Gillray, George Cruikshank and Richard Newton.

Gillray’s savage representation of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, in Voluptuary, under the horror of digestion shows the well-stuffed royal heir surrounded by the litter of his excess; empty bottles of port and brandy, an overflowing chamber pot, a coat of arms with crossed knife and fork and a scattering of horse racing slips. A louche lifestyle, all at the taxpayers’ expense.

Less subtly, Newton has a jolly John Bull breaking wind with some ferocity into the face of an affronted George III while Cruikshank takes savage aim at the cruel punishment meted out to anyone, invariably the poor, found with forged bank notes.

Cruikshank was shocked by the sight of two women hanging from a gibbet because they had been found guilty of using the notes, a capital offence in early 19th century. With his collaborator William Hone he reproduced The Bank Restriction Note with a line of men hanging from the gallows, Britannia eating a child and four ships sporting flags reading ‘Transport’. If they weren’t going to prison or to be hanged the guilty would be sent to Australia. The signature of the Bank of England’s chief cashier is replaced by J[ack] Ketch – a notorious 17th century executioner.

The note was sold for one pound and earned Cruikshank and Hone around £700. Ironically, many of the mischief makers such as Gillray had their savagery blunted by government sponsored handouts. Perhaps bribes is a better word because, as Private Eye might point out, every idealist has his price.

In their prime, the caricaturists were high profile, sophisticated, fighters for justice but there is something nobler about the dissent by unknown agitators. One can only wonder in admiration at the unknown woman in 1913/14 who defaced scores of British pennies with the suffragette slogan ‘Votes for Women’. Not for her a quick jibe online or a swiftly contrived photo-shopped image, no, she spent months with a hammer and a letter punch to get her message across.

As Hockenhull, a numismatist, says: ‘Coins are a simple means of making a protest but they had a short time in circulation before they were confiscated so maybe it is as much about expressing rage as actually achieving anything.’

In 1797 the Pope hanging from the hangman’s gibbet was carved into a penny, in 1937 a swastika and the word Nazi was scratched over the head of George VI – a second best choice, since his brother – who is said to have actually had Nazi sympathies – never had his own coins struck.

In two of the few references to current political shenanigans, a Bank of England £20 note had ‘Stay in the EU’ stencilled rather halfheartedly on it in June 2016 while in Greece, tiny figures drawn on to five euro notes look as if they are throwing themselves into perdition in protest against the Greek government debt crisis.

These were for public consumption but many artefacts of protest were kept secret, for fear of reprisal and also because they were intended mainly for the amusement of the makers themselves.

The temple workers of the city of Naukratis in northern Egypt were banned from using the temple and, understandably, spurned the elegant imagery of the God Horus who was celebrated within.

Instead, from 620BC to about 200BC they made their own versions, irreverent and bawdy, which were found outside the temple complex. Crudely carved, they show a couple having sex, one playing a harp, another clutching an amphora of wine.

They lay undiscovered for centuries like the head of the Roman emperor Augustus, which was cleaved from his body in about 25/24BC after a rebellion against Roman rule in present-day Sudan. The statue was knocked down and the head of the emperor buried under the entrance to the victory shrine where he lay, trampled on by his enemies.

Augustus himself was not above trashing reputations. He and his spin doctors did their utmost to blacken the reputation of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra who had been as a threat to his ambitions. One fragment of a marble relief shows a man and a woman, assumed to be Cleopatra and her lover and Augustus’s rival, Antony, having sex on a boat while a carving on a terracotta oil lamp has a crocodile, the emblem of Egypt, with a phallus attached to its tail upon which sits a naked female, presumed to be Cleopatra.

And even the most vindictive 21st century troll would be hard put to match the vitriol of Assyrian king Ashur-bel-kala (1074/3–1056BC) who commissioned several statues of Ishtar, goddess of war, fertility and love. But instead of a shapely, beautiful creature for his subjects to admire this version is distinctly dumpy and unattractive. Contemporary theory has it that the figure was a caricature of a princess or courtesan who had betrayed the king so how better to shame her by distributing copies of this cruelly unflattering statue round the country. Revenge porn indeed.

There are also echoes of today’s digitally driven protest movements, whether by the anti-Trump Pussy hat marchers or the #MeToo phenomenon. In Sudan, a Sufi holy man, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the redeemer of the Islamic faith and by 1885 had ousted the British-backed Ottoman-Egyptian government and established a Mahdist state.

His followers identified themselves wearing a ragged jacket of wool and cotton. They looked poor and helpless but their scruffy clothes were a covert means of knowing whose side they were on and above all a statement of their united front against the enemy.

In Hong Kong, a row with Beijing over its interference with the 2014 elections sparked protests which were beaten back by police using pepper spray and tear gas. Demonstrators found that the umbrellas not only protected them but, thanks to the drawings of artist and illustrator Fong So, became a symbol of the protests. The Umbrella Movement was born.

These were signals for those in the know and essential if the protagonists were not to end up in prison or worse. Subtlety had to be the order of the day as a carving of door panels illustrates. A masterpiece of craftsmanship showing everyday scenes in the lives of the Nigerian tribe, the Yoruba, depicts women holding baskets, riding donkeys and hunting and also, images of colonial administrators in their pith helmets riding motorcycles.

Attendants stand on the motorcycle mudguards but what was not evident to the visitors to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, where the panels were displayed to celebrate ties between Britain and its colonies, was that the figures on the bikes were not loyal workers who knew their place in a colonial hierarchy but a Yoruba god known for playing tricks and mocking authority.

The British Museum itself was subject to a jape when in May 2005, the graffiti-artist Banksy installed a hoax cave painting in one of the galleries. Stuck on with Velcro, it shows a stick-like figure pushing a shopping trolley and was accompanied by a mock, but very realistic, label which read: ‘This finely preserved example of primitive art dates from the Post-Catatonic era… The artist responsible is known to have created a substantial body of work across the South East of England under the moniker Banksymus Maximus…’

Now it is back on the museum walls as an example of the ‘silliness’ which Hislop relishes. He writes: ‘Not only does it mock the pomposity of the whole process of collecting and exhibiting old artefacts, but it also suggests that you can stick anything in the Museum and no one will even notice for days.

‘Very funny – though I am not entirely sure the Museum thought so at the time.’

I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent is at the British Museum until January 20

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