From Thatcher to Cameron via Blair and Bush: Steve Bell's Bell Époque takes over London's Cartoon Museum

By Culture24 Staff | 23 May 2011
An image of a cartoon of two political leaders in suits on the phone
Iraq War (Guardian, March 3 2003)© Steve Bell
Exhibition: Bell Époque – 30 Years of Steve Bell, The Cartoon Museum, London, May 25 – July 24 2011

In 1977, at the age of 26, Steve Bell veered off on a satirical trajectory to genius, fuelled by “the advantages of a kept man with a wife and the married person’s tax allowance”.

He’d tried his arm teaching art in Birmingham, but an inability to tuck his shirt in and resist “telling uppity students to p*** off” left the Middlesbrough College of Art graduate restless.

Fortunately for Bell and fans of his scathing political wit, he hit the jackpot two years later with Maggie’s Farm, a strip in Time Out and City Limits showing Margaret Thatcher as the keeper of a “demented menagerie of animals and politicians”.

An image of an illustration of a woman on a screen
If… 1987 Election Campaign (Guardian, May 18 1987)© Steve Bell
Since 1990 he has produced his signature large-scale, full-colour portrayals of parliamentary leaders for the Guardian, from John Major wearing his underpants over his trousers to George W Bush as a chimpanzee.

Monty Python creator Terry Jones calls Bell a “genius” with an “uncannily accurate eye” which reflects his indignation and the “injustices, foolishness and mendacity of our political world”.

Vitally, his viewpoint is one which takes the consternation of his audience and elucidates it in cartoons which are outstanding works of art in their own right, showcased here in more than 200 cartoons crossing the Falklands War, the death of Princess Diana and the War on Terror.

An image of an illustration of a shark attacking a pink creature on a sea
Big Idea, Big Society (Guardian, February 8 2011)© Steve Bell
Bell also has the sensitivity to capture the grief and conflict witnessed among those themes with unsentimental poignancy.

Along with all those depictions of David Cameron’s head sheathed in a condom, his graveyard mourned the London Underground’s loss in the aftermath of the public transport bombings in 2005, a year when he added the Cartoonist of the Year, the Channel 4 Political Humour Award and the Political Studies Association Best Political Satire Award to his accolades.

“He is in the true tradition of Gillray,” says St Trinian’s creator Ronald Searle, placing Bell in a firmament of caricature provocateurs who know no fear.

An image of an illustration of a graveyard
London Bombings – 7 July 2005 (Guardian, July 8 2005)© Steve Bell
“He is a madly lucid and brilliant satirist in a merciless battle to expose the cynical, the hollow, the pretentious and double‐faced immorality in politics and society – wherever it may lurk.”

  • Open 10.30am-5.30pm Tuesday-Saturday (12pm-5.30pm Sunday). Admission £3-£5.50 (free for under-18s).
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