Private Eye Editor, Ian Hislop, special-guest curator for the British Museum says of his coming exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent that “… from ancient civilisations through to our own, there are extraordinary objects bearing witness to someone questioning the authorised version of their times and deciding to make a small, though often lasting protest”.
Defining stories of dissent, subversion and satire have been found hidden within the vast collections of the British Museum, plus others have been borrowed from all corners of the globe. They include everyday objects, which will be showcased alongside finely crafted works of art.
So, if you are planning a trip to London you will be able to secure entry before leaving home.
A hoax, an ‘ancient’ piece, called Peckham Rock, returns to the Museum on loan.
It is some 13 years since it created an uproar, placed in one of the galleries by the anonymous graffiti-artist where it lay undiscovered for three days alongside its mock information label. This time it is on display with the Museum’s permission.
Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer, said “We’re thrilled to be working with Ian on this fascinating and important exhibition. Ian is one of the most recognisable satirists in the country and for over 30 years has dissented against the British establishment as editor of Private Eye. There is nobody better placed to help us find the stories of dissent often hidden within the British Museum’s collection. …We are grateful to Citi for their long-term support and for making this exhibition possible” he said.
Items on show, also include a pair of owls – an innocuous painting created by an artist in response to the persecution they suffered after their previous work of a single winking owl was interpreted as a harbinger of doom by monitors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.
The works showcased span three millennia – from ancient Mesopotamia in 1300BC to the 2016 Presidential election – demonstrating how humans have always subverted concepts of authority.
The exhibition also plays into a time when as Hartwig Fischer reminds us “… politics and social issues are more fractured than ever, (he’s been observing what’s happening in Australia). This is the perfect time to highlight the important role objects play in challenging established narratives and ideas”.
An Edwardian coin has been defaced with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ by a suffragette. This can be seen in the same context as a late eighteenth century British print by James Gillray of George, Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, as an obese, uncouth, louche loving man with a passion for banqueting, booze and notoriously, bedding married women.
At this time, the depth of social feeling against the royal and political establishment produced some of the most biting social satire Britain has ever known.
Cartoons by James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson were famous for their savagery and sexual innuendo. Radical writers and editors loved to libel the Prince of Wales. After all, London was a democracy.
James Gillray was an important aspect of the world of the so-called Romantics and Revolutionaries, which had its ugly side, defined by a powerful sense of social trauma, economic crisis and gathering political anger.
Thomas Rowlandson whose art verged on caricature, excelled at works outstanding in the vitality of their outline. They provided a running commentary on human weaknesses.
In 1811, Luddite weavers, who broke up newly mechanized looms, terrorized the north of England. Finally subdued by the army from 1815 3/4 of a million wartime veterans with an appalling loss of limbs, were jobless and frequently homeless.
From 1817, high post war taxes, bad weather harvests, bank collapses and business bankruptcies was cause for alarm and in May, 1812, the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of England, was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons.
In 1819 the massacre of the families attending a rally for parliamentary reform, became known as Peterloo, because it took place on Peter’s Field near Manchester.
Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s satiric poems, were all about protest and mockery. Shelley, secure in Italy, wrote his furious Sonnet – Defining England, 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race who flow
Through public scorn – mud from a muddy spring
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow, -
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field, -
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two edged sword to all who wield, -
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion, Christless, Godless – a book sealed, -
A Senate, – Time’s worst statute unrepealed, -
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.*
For Shelley, ‘Time’s worst statue’ was the unreformed and unrepresentative House of Commons. His ‘glorious Phantom’ Liberty herself, imagined as a beautiful mother with a child in her arms. This for him was English Liberty and was, despite everything, a profoundly patriotic ideal that defined patriotism and national pride’.
This was demonstrated clearly by the popularity of Admiral Lord Nelson’s huge victories. Great crowds in the streets cheered when he destroyed Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1799). They turned out again to weep openly when he died.
The cult and rhetoric of patriotic heroism becoming an iconic symbol of the times. In 1822 by a ladies only national subscription, a naked statue of Achilles, modelled in honour of the Duke of Wellington by Sir Richard Westmacott, was erected at Hyde Park Corner, London.
It’s still there, as is Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square 1814 while all over England Wellington and Nelson pubs sprang up, more than any other names in England
Other objects convey a concealed meaning. This is because they have been produced in environments where dissent or going against authority has been dangerous.
These would include items such as an especially elaborate silver-gilt salt cellar made during the English Reformation at a time when anything Catholic was dangerous.
Practicing your religion secretly was in defiance of Protestant legislation at the time
Then there are the traditions surrounding the Salt, which are extensive.
During the ceremony of eating important guests were placed according to their rank ‘above the salt’ which was to the right hand of the host and if you were ‘below the salt’, you were not in favour
They arose during the Tudor age and the object itself, exemplified the belief complexity can be as virtuous as simplicity. This is a belief we would find very hard to accept today, because our aesthetics are conditioned by the need to economize.
Being the land of James Bond, there are sure to be a lot of people turning out to see the Mexican Day of the Dead figure. It is a papier-mâché skeleton of a factory owner, revealing the public mockery of authority figures only permitted during Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, which so dramatically started the James Bond film, Spectre.
Seems to me this will be an exhibition if you are a local, or visiting London, well worth seeing!
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
September 6 – January 20, 2019
British Museum, London
*Source: The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume Two Seventh Edition (2000)