The fact that the Bank of England possesses a collection of cartoons and caricatures will come as a surprise to most people. Why on earth would any institution bother to acquire material which merely pokes fun at its activities and its personalities? Perhaps it is because these pieces of art represent an inescapable facet of the institution’s history reflecting the thoughts, questions and comments of a particular time or event.
Although the earliest examples in the collection date from the first quarter of the 18th century it was not until fifty years later that, as far as the Bank and its activities are concerned, the most pertinent specimens began to appear during what has been described as the Golden Age of caricature – the period dominated by the work of James Gillray (1757 - 1815).
On 22 May 1797 a cartoon by Gillray entitled ‘Political Ravishment or the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger’ went on sale at Mrs Hannah Humphrey’s print shop in St James’s. It caused a mild sensation on the streets and in the clubs of London with its sharp attack on the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and his perceived misuse of political power to gain access to the Bank’s reserves. This key cartoon, in which the Bank is personified as an old lady, gave the earliest known instance of the Bank’s nickname appearing in print. Since then, the Bank of England has been referred to as ‘The Old Lady’ and illustrated as the apotheosis of the maiden aunt with the nest egg, a tradition continued during the 19th and 20th centuries by artists such as Sir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914) and E H Shepard (1879 – 1976) amongst many others.
In more recent years, the image of an old lady has tended to be dropped in favour of specific Bank targets. Modern-day satirists such as Steve Bell, Richard Cole, Chris Duggan and Andy Davey have regularly featured the Bank, whether as their central subject or as a key player in significant newsworthy issues.
This exhibition presents an immediate and compelling illustration of the Bank’s history and of the world events, political circumstances and characters which have shaped and affected its work and its changing place in society.