Who better to guest curate I Object, a British Museum exhibition on the subject of dissent, than Ian Hislop?
27 September, 2018 — By Jane Clinton
Ian Hislop explores the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery. Photo: J Fernandes / d hubbard © Trustees of the British Museum
As the dignitaries drove along the road it seemed that every house was No 45. Were their eyes deceiving them? No, there it was again: No 45 daubed on door after door. Then it dawned on them. And this small act of rebellion left them seething. For the number 45 in the 1760s was not merely a random number but clever shorthand for dissent.
The dissent in question was edition No 45 of the magazine The North Briton, published by the radical Whig politician John Wilkes on April 23, 1763. In it there was a robust attack of the King’s speech to Parliament made on April 19, 1763, particularly with regard to the recent peace with France which Wilkes believed was too soft.
Unsurprising King George III ordered Wilkes’s arrest. He was released a week later under “Parliamentary Privilege” but went on to reprint the issue as well as other pamphlets. In breach of “Privilege”, he was expelled from Parliament and no longer protected by immunity. In February 1764 he was found guilty of printing seditious material. A duelling injury meant he could not attend the trial and he later fled to France.
Copies of The North Briton No 45 were ordered to be publicly burned but the mob saved them from the bonfire. Wilkes, meanwhile, was struggling with debt in exile. He decided to return as an outlaw to London and to run for Parliament. His return to London was greatly applauded and a collection of “Wilkites” followed him wherever he went wearing their “No 45” badges.
This simple number can also be found nestling, almost imperceptibly, at the base of the spout of a teapot which is one of around 100 items in the British Museum’s new exhibition, I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent.
When Hislop, best known as editor of Private Eye as well as team captain of Have I Got News For You was asked to guest curate this exhibition his first question was: “Have you got anything good?” Three-and-half-years later it would seem they have.
Pink Hat (Pussyhat), USA, 2017, knitted wool. Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
As well as the “in yer face” objects of dissent like the pink “pussyhat” worn during the Women’s march on Washington in January 2017 the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump (and acquired by the British Museum for this exhibition), there are the more quietly subversive protest objects selected by Hislop and British Museum curator, Tom Hockenhull.
Many items are on display for the first time and they come from societies as varied as Egypt in the 11th century, 16th century England and 20th-century Afghanistan.
We see the wit and ingenuity of people who pushed against authority in the subtlest of ways and often not without danger.
One such example is the ornate silver-gilt Stonyhurst Salt, a salt cellar made during the English Reformation which conceals Catholic religious imagery, in defiance of Protestant legislation at the time.
Hislop admits he encountered “a treasure trove of dissent” and had a lot of fun selecting pieces for the exhibition (which was also the subject of a BBC Radio 4 tie-in series called I, Object!).
Some of his favourite pieces include the 18th-century John Newton print depicting John Bull breaking wind at a portrait of King George III. If Newton had not died aged just 21 just after publication of the print he would have surely been prosecuted.
Then there is the ostracon (stone fragment) found in Egypt which dates back to the Ramesside period (1307-1070 BC). It has an erotic drawing that parodies Pharaonic art with hieroglyphics that read: “A satisfied foreskin means a happy person.” It would seem the puerile humour of the construction site goes back a long way.
Some of the finest examples of satire can be found in the 18th-century prints on show in this exhibition. There are contributions from James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson’s as well as Hogarth’s depiction of the wonderfully named “skimmington” – essentially a riotous village procession against a wrong-doer.
Edward VII penny, 1903, defaced with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’. Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
Defacing money with a message of dissent was another surefire way of getting your message out there. There is the Edwardian coin with “Votes for Women” scored into it. Or the more sophisticated “message” hidden in plain sight on the Seychelles 50 and 10 rupee notes of 1968 where the words “SEX” and “SCUM” can be made out, hiding in plain sight in the design.
Banksy’s Peckham Rock, UK, 2005. © Banksy courtesy of pest control office
Even the presumed bastion of the powerful and the victorious, the British Museum, is itself not above censure: in the form of a Banksy work. It is the hoax piece that Banksy secretly “installed” in the museum in 2005 and went undiscovered for three days when Banksy revealed his prank on his website.
Called Peckham Rock, it is a piece of stone showing a cave art-style figure pushing a shopping trolley past a bison. Its official-looking caption described it as dating “from the Post-Catatonic Era”.
For Hislop, it is the enduring appetite for protest that continues to this day that has impressed him most. “I have taken an incredibly cheery message [from this exhibition]: that however bad you think your time is, throughout human history there is a consistent thread of people willing to take the risk whether it is to let off steam, to try and change the world or just to amuse their friends to say ‘no, not for me’.”
• The Citi exhibition, I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent is at the British Museum until January 20, 2019. See britishmuseum.org
• I, Object! can be heard on the BBC radio iPlayer.