With sales of more than 200,000 copies per fortnight, Private Eye started in the 1950s as a handmade satirical magazine entitled The Salopian. Created and compiled by a group of fresh-faced students from the dormitories of the renowned Shrewsbury School – an impressive establishment whose alumni included the likes of Charles Darwin. Officially catapulted into the public eye during October 1961, when it’s original founders Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton, Christopher Brooker and Paul Foot joined forces with Peter Usborne and Andrew Osmond at Oxford University. Armed with Letraset and a typewriter they set out to publish their own spin on topical current affairs and gossip, coupled with a myriad of hand-drawn cartoons by the likes of Rushton and Brooker. The magazine has become the self-styled "thorn in the side" of the British establishment, daring to publish stories the mainstream press won’t touch – for fear of libel suits and reprisals.
It seems apt then, that the V&A museum are showcasing the works of Private Eye’s highly regarded cartoonists for the magazine’s 50th Anniversary this week. The exhibition features 50 of the trademark speech bubble front covers, as chosen by reigning editor Ian Hislop, along with original artworks spanning five decades, and a recreation of the editor’s paper strewn office. Co-curator Julius Bryant explains why he thinks the magazine has continued to be such a success, despite its continued low-fi aesthetic and apparent refusal to change: “I’d attribute the Eye’s 50 years of popularity to its commitment to serious investigative journalism, its patronage of over two generations of Britain’s best cartoonists, and to the loyalty of its eccentric readership. The relative lack of advertising stops it getting fat and glossy – so instead it stays slim and focused without becoming dependent on business backers. From the very start, the cartoons have been the raisins and the spice in Private Eye’s cake; lightening the tone when the journalism gets tough.”
Private Eye: The First 50 Years is on display in the V&A's Studio Gallery from 18 October 2011 to 8 January 2012. Admission is free.
Suggested Reading: AnOther's interview with Private Eye "supermodel" Polly Bean.
Text by Leanne Cloudsdale