From its inception in 1841, Punch magazine built on the great tradition of English satire.
Its founders originally held meetings in the Edinburgh Castle Tavern on The Strand. However, when its offices moved from 13 Wellington Street in Covent Garden to 85 Fleet Street, the magazine’s editors also moved east, to the Crown and Sugar Loaf at 99 Fleet Street. So, when the architects Saville and Martin rebuilt the pub in 1894-95 with the Baker Brothers, as part of a public house boom, they changed its name to The Punch Tavern. Mr Punch’s sharp chin and nose can be seen above the door to this day, and the The Punch Tavern was listed in 1996.
By the 1920s, Punch magazine could boast that its advertising pages were booked months ahead. However, three decades later, Bradbury Agnew & Co, its publishers, could see that sales were in decline. Cartoonists had once been the scourge of politicians, but they had lost their bite in Punch and readers were being tempted away by new-fangled televisions. The response from Bradbury Agnew was to appoint a new editor, Malcolm Muggeridge, in 1953. He sacked the magazine’s lead cartoonist, EH Shepard, the Winnie the Pooh illustrator, who had held the position since 1945.
Within a year of Muggeridge’s editorship, in the issue of 3 February 1954, Punch pulled off a controversial coup in Leslie Illingworth’s 1954 sketch of Winston Churchill for the weekly’s ‘Big Cut’ cartoon.
The portrayal of an ailing prime minister – rather than the man who had epitomised the British bulldog spirit – with the caption ‘Man Goeth Forth unto his Work and to his Labour until the Evening’ upset friends of Britain’s wartime leader and the man himself. Churchill has been quoted as saying: ‘Yes, there’s malice in it. Look at my hands – I have beautiful hands … Punch goes everywhere. I shall have to retire if this sort of thing goes on.’
Illingworth had held down two positions right at the top of the cartoon world through the war, working for both Punch and the Daily Mail. As the British Cartoon Archive says:
It was noted in 1942 that Illingworth’s busiest time began on Thursday mornings, after the Punch cartoon had been commissioned the previous day. This was “Illingworth’s toughest period of the week…when he has a Punch cartoon and two Mail cartoons to produce before Saturday”, and he would often work through the night and into the next day to produce the detailed drawings. His wartime cartoons were very successful, and after the war a cutting of one of his Daily Mail cartoons – from 14 January 1944 – was found in the ruins of Hitler’s chancellery.
As the Political Cartoon Society points out, Churchill was deeply offended, but it was Muggeridge’s strategy to ‘make a loud nasty noise of the kind nobody associated with Punch‘. It quotes Muggeridge saying to a friend in late January 1954:
As he sprang from the train [Muggeridge] remarked with profound satisfaction that the issue of the magazine he had just sent to the press was ‘likely to get us all in a lot more hot water’
It also cites Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran: ‘There was something un-English in this savage attack on his failing powers. The eyes were dull and lifeless.’
Writing in the Journal of European Studies, Mark Bryant sums up his view on Illingworth in an article entitled ‘Crusader, white rabbit or organ-grinder’s monkey? Leslie Illingworth and the British political cartoon in World War II’:
If anyone deserved an award for his work in peace-time or war it was Illingworth. Praised by Sir Alfred Munnings, former president of the Royal Academy, he has been called ‘the last of the great penmen in the line of English social satirists starting with Hogarth’ and ‘probably the most outstanding cartoonist that Punch ever had’. Nicholas Garland has also described him as ‘the last of a great line of black and white draughtsmen … There is no mystery about his work. It is just superb.’ (1 September 2001, pp 345-366, vol 31, issue 123)
Even after that controversy, Muggeridge’s Punch did not leave Churchill alone. Ronald Searle set about the prime minister again in 1956. The photograph Searle depicted on the wall behind Churchill is of the PM at the Yalta conference with Stalin and Roosevelt in 1945.
The newspaper headline refers to ‘Stalin in disgrace’ and the titles of the books on top of the bookcase are ‘Roosevelt, the Truth’ and ‘Inside Roosevelt’, referring to criticism of the US president’s record that had emerged. Roosevelt’s death within months of the Yalta conference was met with shock in the US because his declining physical health had been kept secret from the public.
Muggeridge left his position after four years, probably because the Punch owners found him too controversial.
To see almost 500 magazine covers and pages, look out for my book, A History of British Magazine Design, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design