This blog was written by Katie Widdowson, Assistant Archives Officer.
If you have the opportunity to visit the Houses of Parliament over the next few months, you will be able to see a Parliamentary Archives exhibition on satirical cartoons of the Victorian age. Find out how to visit Parliament here.
Part of the exhibit focuses on Harry Furniss, a well-known artist whose works frequently featured in Punch Magazine. You can read our blog about Harry Furniss at https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2018/03/01/the-wonderful-world-of-harry-furness/
The other part of the exhibit features the beautifully detailed cartoons of Tom Merry.
Tom Merry was the pen-name of William Mecham. Merry was born in Southwark in 1853 and appears to have lived in the South-East until he died in Essex in 1902. Merry was known for his full colour, centre spread cartoons which featured in the magazine St Stephen’s Review. He was also known for his ‘Lightning Performances’ where he would draw cartoons of famous figures from memory as music hall entertainment.
Prior to this exhibit, the thirty-four cartoons held by the Parliamentary Archives were not catalogued as individual items. Instead, the collection was catalogued as a whole, providing the little information about Merry’s life that is known as well as how the cartoons came into the possession of the Parliamentary Archives.
The decision to catalogue the cartoons individually was made to improve their visibility within the Parliamentary Archives catalogue and to make them more accessible to the public.
The main challenge with cataloguing satirical cartoons is that the message, and indeed the humour, comes from recognising the political figures and understanding the social and political events of the time.
Some cartoons were easy to describe, such as the one below of Queen Victoria seated on a beach with the heraldic lion and unicorn from the Royal Coat of Arms. It can be assumed that the beach location and the title ‘Royal Arms Jubilant’ refers to Britain’s success in expanding its Empire under Queen Victoria.
MRY/1/25, Lithograph: The Royal Arms Jubilant, 25 June 1887, Parliamentary Archives
Others were significantly more challenging, such the cartoon ‘Our Infant Hercules’ which features the likenesses of a number of contemporary politicians, of which only a few were easily identifiable.
Thankfully, Tom Merry did try and make it easier for readers who might not be as familiar with politics, as well as for 21st century archive staff! In some cartoons, the name of the politician was written somewhere on the cartoon. In one case, the heads of politicians were drawn attached to the bodies of pigs with their name helpfully written on the pig’s back. In many of the cartoons, he used well-known and easily recognisable traits to identify the politicians. Thus, Gladstone was always depicted with high collars while Lord Salisbury was depicted with a big, white beard and Randolph Churchill with a handlebar moustache.
Now that these cartoons are individually catalogued, and therefore more accessible to customers, we are hoping to enhance the catalogue descriptions over time by adding more politicians’ names and providing more of the political context. So, if you recognise someone, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us @UKParlArchives.