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The best thing in Ian Hislop's new British Museum show

Blog | By Harry Mount | Sep 04, 2018


There are all sorts of extraordinary satirical objects on show at Ian Hislop's new exhibition at the British Museum, 'I object' – from pornographic depictions of Cleopatra to the pussy hats worn by Trump protesters.

But the finest, most elegant, sharpest piece of satire is James Gillray's famed 1792 picture of the feet of the Duke and Duchess of York. Its full name is Fashionable Contrasts;—or—The Duchess's little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke's Foot. The Duchess was famed for the delicacy of her tiny feet.

I'm all for outrageously scatological or sexual satire – and there's plenty of both in the marvellous Hislop show. But the best comedy is more subtle than that. As Billy Wilder said about his films, 'If you let the audience work out the joke in their head [rather than hit them over the head with it], they'll thank you for ever.'

The same is true of this cartoon: all utterly decorous and unshocking in its essential ingredients – just two pairs of shoes; all shockingly funny when your mind immediately works out what's happening a little to the left of the picture.