The arc of the political cartoon, from a golden age tarnished by bigotry to today
Collector Anthony J Mourek tells dealer Will de Búrca about the history of the artform
How to Cut by Peter Schrank: a detail from the cartoon representing Obama’s, Cameron’s and Cowen’s budget cuts in 2010
“Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.”
William Magear “Boss” Tweed (1823-1878), US politician
Anthony J Mourek is a property manager and political art collector from Chicago. Fascinated by political cartoons and the use of art in political discourse since the late 1960s, he collects original drawings of political cartoons, prints, oil paintings, sculpture, and related books.
The last time I met Anthony was in a Dublin restaurant in 2019. He brought several books he has written or contributed to. After the waitress takes our order, he begins to enthusiastically educate me about the origins of the political cartoon. As one of America’s leading collectors, he shares some of his most treasured items, as well as a history of the origin, progression and present-day decline of the political cartoon.
“The English-speaking world’s political cartoon tradition is the oldest and the most sophisticated. Many other traditions exist, but most have been influenced by the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The first political cartoons were single sheet copperplate engravings that were often beautifully hand colored. They were principally aimed at the literate political elite in London and widely distributed, affecting opinion throughout the British empire. James Gillray is often called the father of the English political cartoon, although considered as a bigot against Catholics, Irish and foreigners”.
In Britain, Punch Magazine became a staple for the growing middle-class, reflecting their conservative views and in doing so played a significant role in the development of satire. Shortly after Victoria took the throne in 1837, a new era of moral high standards in printed publications followed. The personal attacks Punch jabbed at socialists, politicians and cruel caricatures of scandals rocking the British establishment were soon forgotten in favour of wholesome humour that was more fitting to the new queen’s sense of humour.
The power of the cartoonist grew tremendously during the 1860s, particularly in the US. Thomas Nast was America’s first great political cartoonist and considered “The Father of the American Cartoon”. German born, he is remembered for his strongly pro-Union Civil War cartoons for which Lincoln called him “our best recruiting sergeant”. Yet, Nast sometimes drew many bigoted cartoons, similarly to Gillray, attacking Irish immigrants, the Catholic Church and African Americans. In 1886 he left Harper’s Weekly and his career slowly declined. He died in 1902 of yellow fever as US Consul General in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Mourek started collecting as a child, when his father was on the board of a company that decided to create a Civil War collection with the help of book dealer Ralph Newman, who was based in Chicago. Newman took a John T McCutcheon cartoon from a large stack in his office and gave it to Mourek’s father. His father, in turn, gave it to him, and that became the first item in his political art collection.
Mourek grew up in a home fascinated by politics and political cartoons. At that time, Chicago had four major daily newspapers, each with at least one local political cartoonist. Every day these newspapers were delivered to his home, and each day his family discussed their political cartoons. From McCutcheon’s drawing of a long-forgotten Chicago mayor, his collection has grown into thousands of original drawings of political cartoons, 18th- and 19th-century British and Irish prints, posters, books, sculptures, oil paintings, political pottery and even woodblock prints of the Sino and Russo-Japanese Wars.
“Through this process, I grew to appreciate how art could be used as a weapon to attack, to defend and to comment on political figures and issues. But if not for a gift from my father, I may not have become a collector of original drawings.”
He has been a member of the Manuscript Society since 1968, currently serves on the board and is a past president. It was founded in 1948 at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library by collectors and academics who at first excluded dealers. At the height of the organisation’s influence, in the 1980s, there were over 2,000 members; today there are 700. In 1991 and 2002 Anthony helped organise the society’s annual meetings in Dublin and Belfast.
Art Young is Mourek’s favourite political cartoonist; he considers him America’s best in the period between Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. Nevertheless, Mourek believes Young was often wrong in his political viewpoint and rarely agrees with the sentiment of the cartoons. In his 60-year career (1883-1943), he moved from being a traditional Republican to being a left-wing socialist who was tried for sedition. In one of Art Young’s books, there’s a reference to John Butler Yeats at dinner with John Sloan and other members of the Ashcan School. Yeats spent nearly 15 years enjoying New York City partly funded by his sons and is buried next to his friend Jeanne Robert Foster in Chestertown, New York.
One of Mourek’s favourite hubs for collecting is New York’s Argosy Books located at 59th Street, a traditional bookstore that has an antiquarian section with collectable prints and maps. The bookstore is run by three sisters who are about Anthony’s age and have worked there their whole lives. The bookstore has a connection to Art Young, who died troubled and alone in the Irving Hotel in 1943, aged 77. His family, who weren’t close, tried unsuccessfully to sell his collection for years. One of the Argosy Books sisters, when she was a little girl in the 1940s, was at a summer camp with another girl from Art Young’s extended family and told her about the collection. She went home and told her father, who would purchase the entire collection. The collection was so extensive that they still have some of that stock available in their bookstore.
Twenty years ago, Anthony acquired a Jack B Yeats sketch book bought from a prominent Dublin bookseller. The backstory to the sketch book is most interesting. Yeats and Synge went to the west of Ireland as reporters for the Manchester Guardian, having been recommended for the job by John Masefield who became Britain’s poet laureate in 1930. It seems everyone at the time was connected. “Can you see Synge as the reporter and Yeats as the camera man,” Anthony laughs. “I do love that item. Originally it was a wedding gift from Jack B Yeats to Maurice Craig.”
In 2017 my father Eamonn and I attended the Yeats Family Collection sale at Sothebys, London. I thought I would treat myself to one of Jack’s palettes that was available at the auction. I figured Jack B Yeats would have gone through many palettes throughout his career – the estimate was £200-£300. I was prepared to go a little higher and had a vision of it getting knocked down to me and bringing it home to Dublin. It ended up fetching £9,375 (including fees), sold to a well-known British actor who was present on the day. Strangely, that auction was only half full, with most of the action taking place via internet or phone bidding, a scene that has become quite common of late.
Mourek has held two exhibitions – Famous, Infamous & Forgotten in 2013 at the Grolier Club and It’s Hell But Here We Are Again, featuring the cartoons of Art Young, at Loyola University of Chicago in 2016.
In the first, he provided insights as to how artists used literature and sociocultural symbols to depict political figures and define political issues.
“Cartoons often used literary references, Greek mythology and even movie themes to make political points. The use of cultural stereotyping was prevalent. One cannot appreciate the artist’s intent without understanding the historical perspective,” he says. The original drawings in his exhibition allowed the spectator to see the art in the same form and perspective that publishers and editors at the time experienced it. Until recently, the original art was often discarded or given away. As a collector, it was his mission to help with the preservation of this art form. The exhibition also included original Japanese prints and Cuala Press prints.
“The political cartoonist, like the writer, makes a political point,” says Mourek. “However, we can never truly understand what the artist intended or what the original viewers saw without historical knowledge. That knowledge will always be imperfect, subject to speculation and affected by our own beliefs.”
In the US there was a time when more than 2,000 editorial cartoonists were employed by newspapers – now that figure is maybe 20. The New York Times never employed cartoon staff, whereas Mourek’s native Chicago Tribune once had two dedicated offices with in-house cartoonists. Unfortunately, it is a dying art, with a lot of freelance cartoonists producing content for newspapers on iPads rather than original hand-made cartoons for which they may or may not get paid.
Will de Búrca works for De Búrca Rare Books