Ask anyone who is at least a little bit keen on cartoons to name some 20C practitioners and almost certainly HM Bateman will appear on their list. Henry Mayo Bateman (1887 – 1970) was famous for his series of “The Man Who…” cartoons, usually a person who’d made an unpardonable social gaffe with dozens of people around goggle-eyed and agape with shock. It all started in 1922 with a drawing of a guardsman who dropped his rifle on parade. This very picture features in the current exhibition which celebrates the cartoonist’s works at the Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street.
The popularity of this cartoon sparked the series which made Bateman cartoons synonymous with incorrect social behaviour. But the “man who…” cartoons remained concentrated in the 1920s and are but a fraction of Bateman’s body of work which stretched from the first decade of the 20C right through to the 1950s.
Born in Australia of English parents and returning with the family to England virtually as a baby, HM Bateman knew from a very young age that he wished to be a cartoonist. Egged on by his mother and with the artist Phil May as a mentor, young Bateman trained at the Westminster School of Art and the Goldsmith Institute. He was first published when 17 and went on to be a regular artist for – among others – Tatler, Punch, Strand Magazine, London Opinion and The Sketch.
One might criticise Bateman for being formulaic: taking a stereotype and exaggerating it. But then, that’s what most cartoonists did during that era. What put Bateman above the others is that without being overtly cruel, his depictions had the genuine stamp of misanthropy about them. And his exaggerations were more acute than the others’ and yet somehow remained realistic in a way. Although his cartoons were very much about middle-class mores, they simultaneously had everyman appeal. He genuinely disliked authority figures, mistrusted bureaucrats, was suspicious of modernism, in particular modern art. Attacking these easy targets wasn’t mere lip-service: for Bateman it was heartfelt, and it shows, for the results are very funny indeed.
He could tell a story in one huge explosion of a drawing, or patiently tickle out a narrative over dozens of panels. There are over 120 original HM Bateman works in this show, each one a treasure. It may be a long while before such a rich assembly reconvenes, don’t miss it!
The Man Who Went Mad on Paper runs until 22 July at the Cartoon Museum. There are three evening talks associated with the show on 30 May, 20 June and 27 June. Entry to the museum is £5.50 (Free Art Fund members, Friends of the Cartoon Museum; £1 discount London Historians)