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The Wonderful World of Harry Furniss

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Art, Exhibitions, History, Outreach, Politics

This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.


Over the next few months, if you find yourself visiting the Palace of Westminster and you're in the vicinity of the Norman Porch, take a moment to have a look at our latest display that celebrates the genius of nineteenth century cartoonist Harry Furniss.


the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

So who was Harry Furniss? He was born in Ireland in 1854 inheriting artistic genes from his mother who was a miniature painter. A prodigious talent shone from an early age and while still in college he had cartoons published in the Irish satirical magazine Zozimus. The country of his birth couldn't sustain his ambitious nature and by the age of nineteen he had moved to London. Soon after, he joined Punch magazine where he displayed an independent streak by insisting on working freelance rather than taking up a post as a full-time member of staff.


Drawing of Harry Furniss, from "Interiors and Exteriors No.: The Royal Commission" for 'Punch', 27 Apr 1889, Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/112/283


He made his name drafting Parliamentary illustrations that were titled Essence of Parliament, showing a pictorial flourish that perfectly encapsulated the idiosyncrasies of the politics of the time. One of the most famous caricatures that Furniss created was that of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone who was parodied by the use of overtly exaggerated collars. Other politicians such as Charles Stewart Parnell and Campbell Bannerman were presented to the reader with comical beards or jovial sketches of expansive paunches or pretentious monocles. Over a fourteen year period he would create over 2500 drawings that never sought to stipulate his own political beliefs.

Sketch of William Ewart Gladstone, c1880s-1890s, Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/112/102

Such was his popularity that he toured the country giving lectures on The Frightfulness of Humour, these events also allowed Furniss to publicly display his gift for mimicry. By the 1890's relations with Punch had greatly deteriorated over copyright issues so he decided to start a new magazine titled Lika Joko. However, by leaving Punch he lost his Parliamentary gallery ticket. This loss of accessibility to the chambers of the house meant the new tome lacked the political acerbity that defined his previous work and the publication ceased production after a relatively short period.

In his biography, Confessions of a Caricaturist he wrote, 'Caricature pure and simple is not the art I care for or succeed in practicing as well'. Despite these personal ambivalences his fabled career was adorned with a Royal Academy exhibition and diverse collaborations with the likes of Lewis Carroll and American inventor, Thomas Edison. Always renowned as a man about town in Victorian London he chose for a place of retirement the quieter environs of Hastings and it was there that he passed away in January 1925.

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