The red sign topping the Palace Hotel was glowing ‘ALACE’ through the night rain by the time I ran for the last train in Manchester last Thursday. The missing letter was apt after a long day spent learning to take the ‘p’, one way or the other.
Nine hours earlier, I’d travelled into Manchester to catch the Altringham tram to Sale where a cartooning workshop had been organised by the Waterside Arts Centre. I’ve never attended a single workshop in all the years I’ve been drawing cartoons and I can’t say I would normally have joined this one, even at the ridiculously cheap price of £5. Yet it promised to be more than a normal workshop. This was chance to cartoon with Martin Rowson.
His name might or might not be familiar to you but Rowson is still the best reason to read The Guardian. His work is different to the usual fare of political cartoonists, as amply demonstrated by his recent cartoon about the Middle East which depicted a twisting nightmare of snakes consuming themselves. It was one of those seminal cartoons by which all cartoons could and should be measured.
Now, that might sound like an overstatement but it isn’t. All cartoonists exist on the axes of artistry and humour. Quite a few have the artistry but aren’t very funny. Fewer still are funny but their skills are lacking. Only the greats of the industry have both the artistry to match the humour. Rowson has both but belongs to an even smaller club where skill mutates with anger and intent to produce artwork with a unique potency.
That potency is hard to explain to anybody that doesn’t live or breathe satire. To understand satire is understand anger and spluttering fury. It means understanding how difficult it is to push through the miasma of outrage which prevents any sensible person saying something meaningful in the face of gross stupidity. Political cartoonists live in that moment of history when there’s a small window in which to express yourself. You have an hour to think of something funny to say about the headlines: the EU referendum, a storm, a gymnast breaking two vertebrae, and a Deepcut death… It’s rarely easy. That Rowson manages to do it as often as he does is a greater testament to his skill than any line he draws.
At the Waterside, I was welcomed by the girl working the front desk. There was a smile and a kind offer to make me a coffee. It felt so different to the Cartoon Museum, which I visited a year or so ago and left feeling astonishingly lucky to have chanced upon a Ralph Steadman signing but underwhelmed by the London aloofness. Coffee kindly declined (my trusty Zojirushi was in my bag) I went through to the back where there was a small gallery with tables where I could sit and work, which I did for half an hour before I saw a trilby walk through the door.
I follow few dictums but accept the one says that only interesting people wear trilbies. I could not resist taking a look and a moment later I was shaking Martin Rowson’s hand. I realised in that one handshake that I was safe. His bark is the proper sort, directed towards the powerful and not the powerless. We chatted briefly and he scorned my digital ways as other students arrived and also began to scorn my digital ways.
The workshop began uncomfortably with my sitting staring at a stranger across from me. He was staring back. Sounds easy except social norms get in the way. It’s impossible to stare at a stranger without feeling that you need to look away. It was a good lesson. It reminded us that looking at a person is not a passive act. It is transgressive and drawing them does feel like you steal something from them. It therefore became a strange dance of half-glances as we proceeded to draw each other with predictably uncomfortable results. He drew me all nose and eyebrow (nailed me, as they say) whilst the body attached to that nose and eyebrow floundered badly. There were only eight of us at the workshop but the others were working illustrators and art students with talents to match. Their challenge was to throw away the techniques they’d learned over the years. My challenge was to discover any modicum of technique.
Rowson’s theory is that by identifying three recognisable features about a face, you can capture a likeness of your subject. That was our task as we drew the person within increasingly diminishing periods of time: a minute, thirty seconds, and then ten seconds. My nervous efforts were lamentable but I wasn’t there to master the trick as much as to learn how to use it. Realising that I couldn’t make a bigger mess than I had already, I was more relaxed as we headed into the second hour, which began with a quick David Cameron caricature. It’s a face I’ve been drawing for the past five years so my effort wasn’t too bad but the neck too thin for Rowson’s liking.
We then cartooned as a group and soon decided on a NHS theme. We were tasked with drawing a conveyor belt carrying young doctors past Jeremy Hunt as he sucked out their blood. As the only self-confessed cartoonist (or maybe, just the only one foolish enough to admit as much) I got lumped with drawing Hunt, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Even if I couldn’t remember how I did it, I knew I’d drawn him before. A couple of minutes of figuring it out and I’d decided on the three key features: the small chin, narrow v of a top lip, and scalloped cheeks. In the end, I let Hunt off too lightly but I could at least relax. I’d not completely shamed myself.
The workshop drew to a close, photographs were taken, and I got my copy of Rowson’s Gulliver’s Travels signed. Learning about my mild obsession with Ronald Searle, he then showed me his dip pen with a Searle crowquill, which left me with a stab of regret that I’ve moved to digital. With that I said my goodbyes and that should have been the end of my day since I hadn’t bought a ticket for the night’s lecture.
Yet I knew there was no way I was going home. Manchester can be an awful place to escape at night, with the last train leaving at some ridiculously early hour, but I decided to risk it and bought a ticket. That meant that I had two hours to wait so I went back to the gallery to do some drawing…
I’d barely sketched Boris Johnson’s buttocks when a figure loomed at my side and things suddenly became surreal. It was Martin Rowson inviting me for a meal. Yes, these crazy things do happen. I’d arrived hoping he might sign a book. Now I was about to share a curry. So much for all the wit and clever talk that rattles around in my head. My brain rushed to hide in my boots and left me a blubbering shell of mental reboots and spilled pencils. Yet I managed to hold myself together enough to eat, talk, and listen. About an hour and a half later, I’d learned more about cartooning than is probably legal, even in some Scandinavian countries. Not the techniques but the mindset, the anger, the indifference to insults. It was a masterclass in being thick skinned and delighting in the opprobrium of others. It was also wickedly funny.
The theme of indifference Rowson picked up again in his lecture that evening. Beginning with cave paintings, he explored the thesis that political cartoonists are a safeguard in our culture. Laughter is the way we stop our societies being dominated by any one alpha or group of alphas. It means that political cartooning has everything to do with attitude as much as scatology. It has nothing to do with being fair or even logical. It also has very little to do with the political affiliation of the cartoonist or even their higher moral regard for their victims. The role of the political cartoonist is to prick the skin of the powerful. Ad hominem attacks are as valid as any because there is a real intention to hurt the subject. That is not merely consequential. It is vital to the way that political cartoons work. That might seem wrong to you but it made sense to me as Rowson demonstrated his theory through the works of William Hogarth, James Gillray, David Low, Victor Weisz (Vicky) and, of course, Rowson himself.
It took me back to that lesson learned at the beginning of the afternoon’s workshop. Looking at others, we are also looking at ourselves. We are all homo sapiens that eat and defecate and the pretentions of the vainglorious, the lofty, the self-important are simply that. The real skill of the cartoonist is in looking past the pretentions and drawing the reality. This last weekend I’d hoped to do just that and drew one cartoon (yet to be painted). In that time, Rowson has produced two great pieces for The Guardian, one of which had Jeremy Hunt transformed into a shredder. In a way, if felt like the workshop hadn’t ended and it was a gentle reminder that I must try harder…
Rowson photo: greydogphotography.co.uk