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A visit to the Whitworth Art Gallery in April 2010 provided the unexpected kernel from which Cradled in Caricature blossomed. Mulling over a wallpaper design by David Shrigley on the train back to the home counties, it occurred to me that my interest in eighteenth and nineteenth century graphic satire connected to the concerns of my fellow humanities scholars through the notion of ‘caricature’.

But what, you may ask, does a satire on repetitious hyper-functionalist architectural design have to do with caricature? Well, for me, Shrigley’s design a deceptively elegant. Alongside a blunt critique of multi-purpose out-of-town commercial building projects he weaves a subversive study into what businesses do to become more than the box they inhabit. They no longer place ‘Chemist’, ‘Supermarket’, or ‘Pet Shop’ above the door, rather the marketing strategies they deploy play upon what we expect a ‘Chemist’, a ‘Supermarket’, or a ‘Vet Shop’ to look like to gain our attention, our custom, our money. In short, businesses play into stereotypes and caricatures about themselves, stereotypes and caricatures developed and understood through a process of conscious and unconscious social consensus.

To me then Shirgley’s wallpaper is funny (to paraphrase the art-historian Ernst Gombrich, I am aware that there is no better way to kill a joke than by explaining it) because it shows us a world where these stereotypes and caricatures do not matter, a world which is not cradled in caricature. However, as Cradled in Caricature explores, this world is not possible. The societies and cultures which humans have built positively thrive on prejudice, crude characterisation, visual association, exaggeration, and unreliable perception.

The phrase ‘cradled in caricature’ is sadly not of my own creation. It was in fact used by the great comic artist and illustrator George Cruikshank to describe his childhood. This is hardly a surprise. George grew up in the tumultuous decades after the French Revolution assisting his father Isaac in producing satirical designs for London’s foremost print-sellers. Graphic, imaginative, literary, and conversation caricature must have abounded in the Cruikshank household. It is then this multiple meaning of ‘caricature’ which the Cradled in Caricature project tackles, going beyond caricature as a comedic form of art to investigate the function of caricature (past and present) in literary works, political economy, high art, and web searches.

Pont (Graham Laider), The British Character: Patience in Adversity 1 December 1937  © The Cartoon Museum

Pont (Graham Laider), The British Character: Patience in Adversity 1 December 1937 © The Cartoon Museum

In June 2011 the Cradled in Caricature symposium (supported by the Graduate School at the University of Kent) brought together postgraduates from across the University of Kent to discuss explore these themes. This multi-disciplinary event attracted contributions from students studying history, literature, art, film, music, and law who tackled a range of issues touched by caricature – on-screen masculinity, Nazi enforcement of jazz, psychiatrists, super-heroes, and racial applications of legal structures.

Our forthcoming event (2012) invites scholars working in all disciplines to explore the notion of caricature at the University of Kent on 27 April. Confirmed speakers include Robert L. Patten, Lynette S. Autrey Professor in Humanities from Rice University, Texas, Dr Richard Taws from University College London, and The Comics Grid’s very own Ernesto Priego. Dr Oliver Double from the University of Kent will also be using his experience of running the Monkeyshine comedy club to offer delegates what promises to be a fascinating (and hopefully not too embarrasing) workshop on stand-up comedy.

Attendance at Cradled in Caricature is free of charge, and we invite proposals for papers, organised workshops, roundtable discussions, readings, posters, films or performance pieces to be submitted by 3 March 2012. Prospective delegates may wish to consider the following problems:

  • Why are societies framed by traditions of exaggeration and stereotyping?
  • How does fiction convey meaning through caricature and the categorisation of types?
  • How does political economy, psychology, and perception appropriate these processes?
  • How far and with what consequences does the web construct cultural bias?
  • Are all cultures (real, imagined; past, present) cradled in and constructed by caricature?

Please send proposals (circa 300 words) to cradledincaricature@gmail.com by 3 March 2012.

Further information and delegate forms are available on our website.

Travel bursaries, funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, are available to two postgraduate or early-career scholars of British Art speaking at the event. Details of this award can also be found on our website.

Proposals may also be considered for adaptation and publication in a special Autumn 2012 edition of Skepsi, the University of Kent’s Interdisciplinary Online Journal of European Thought and Theory in Humanities and Social Sciences. The deadline for submission of articles is 1 June 2012. Further information can be found on the event application form.

For further announcements, please follow us on Twitter @CinCaricature and #CiC12.

Cradled in Caricature is supported by the Faculty of Humanities, University of Kent, the Department of History of Art, University College LondonThe Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Graduate School, University of Kent.

About the author

James Baker has contributed 6 articles.

I am an Associate Lecturer in School of History at the University of Kent, Canterbury, Project Manager of the ESRC funded 'City and Region, 1400-1914' project, collaborator with the British Cartoon Archive, and lead investigator of 'Cradled in Caricature' (symposium June 2011; conference Spring 2012). In September 2010 I completed a PhD in Cartoons and Caricature at the University of Kent, Canterbury, the title of which was 'Isaac Cruikshank and the notion of British Liberty, 1783-1811'. My thesis explored liberty through fashion, gender and custom, and sought to apply economic and technological exigencies to our understanding of the processes of print production. My interests include Georgian visual satire, the Covent Garden old price riots of September 1809 to January 1810, diachronic themes with respect to the construction and communication of humour in graphic discourses between the seventeenth and late-nineteenth centuries, and the digital humanities. In what spare time is left I moonlight as a neurohumanities skeptic.