Private Eye: The First 50 Years

Art galleries are rarely the place to find comedy, yet a new exhibition at the V&A in London offers giggles aplenty, as it looks back at the first 50 years of satirical magazine, Private Eye…

Art galleries are rarely the place to find comedy, yet a new exhibition at the V&A in London offers giggles aplenty, as it looks back at the first 50 years of satirical magazine, Private Eye…

The exhibition, which opens tomorrow, focuses especially on the cartoon art within the magazine, a key element of the publication from the beginning. “It’s one of the things about Private Eye that is often overlooked,” said editor Ian Hislop at the press view this morning. “In all the talk about the journalism, the trouble and the courts and the writs, people often forget that every fortnight Private Eye presents about 25 beautifully drawn jokes, and the cartoonists will tell you that, essentially, is why people buy Private Eye.”

Cluff, 1990

Michael Heath

Hislop sees the Private Eye cartoonists as part of a great history of British satirical art stretching back to Hogarth. Since its beginning, the magazine has promoted and published the work of more than 90 artists, including Willie Rushton, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Michael Heath and Nick Newman. One wall of the exhibition celebrates this with a display of work by 50 Private Eye cartoonists, each represented by one drawing. There is also a short documentary showing Ken Pyne creating a cartoon for the magazine.

James Hunter, 2002

Simon Key, 2008

Elsewhere, the cartoons are split into themes, covering cartoon strips, political cartoons, and a wall of drawings that demonstrate Private Eye’s ability to superbly sum up, and send up, the fashions and trends of the times. Shown above are two more recent cartoons, mocking our obsessions with the internet and London’s bendy buses, respectively.

No. 75, 30 October 1964

No. 594, 21 September, 1984

No. 1147, 9-22 December, 2005

Opening the exhibition is a wall of Private Eye’s trademark front covers (detail of the wall, shown top). Hislop has picked one cover for each of the last 50 years, and the display demonstrates how little the magazine’s design strategy and production techniques have changed over the years.

Display of notes and pages from the magazine, revealing the design techniques once employed by art director Tony Rushton, before he switched to using a Mac

The editor’s office

Other displays offer deeper insights into the working life at the magazine. In one, art director Tony Rushton’s early design methods are revealed, while another corner hosts a recreation of the Private Eye editor’s office, the place where the main joke-writing team at the mag get together to bash out their collective spoofs.

Current issue of the mag, featured on the editor’s desk

Notes for the current issue cover

Notes for a story that appears inside the current issue of the mag

The first ideas and sketches for the stories are written out in longhand on pink paper, and delightfully, the editor’s desk in the exhibition contains the notes for the latest issue, which focuses on the travails of Dr Liam Fox and his travelling companion Adam Werrity (described in the notes above as ‘Twitty’). I am assuming these are the genuine notes, and it would certainly be a nice touch if these were updated in the exhibition with each issue.

Detail from the editor’s office

Detail from a display of Private Eye memorabilia, much of which is focused on legal letters and court judgements. The cartoon above reads. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a superinjunction!”

The exhibition pays homage both to Private Eye’s comic and artistic brilliance, but also its resolute devotion to print. “We hear a lot now about how print is dying, it’s on its way out,” said Hislop at the opening. “I refuse to believe that, obviously. One of the reasons is whoever got that pleasure of seeing a pen and ink drawing on a screen? It doesn’t happen… it’s about the material and it’s about the craft and it’s about the skill. That’s why I think it will continue to be important to have print on print. That’s partly what this is a celebration of.”

Private Eye: The First 50 Years opens at the V&A tomorrow and continues until January 8. Admission to the exhibition is free. More info is at

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