Ian Hislop at the British Museum Image Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

A splendidly intricate carving of door panels two metres high depicts everyday scenes in the life of Nigeria’s Yoruba people. Women balancing baskets on their heads, men hunting, beating drums and, on their motorbikes, colonial administrators sporting pith helmets going about their business to keep the empire running smoothly with their attendants balancing on the cycle mudguards.

What was not evident to the visitors who admired its craftsmanship at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 — designed to celebrate ties between Britain and its colonies — was that the figures were depictions of a Yoruba deity who plays tricks, enjoys jokes and mocks authority.

The mischievous mudguard riders are just one of the examples of satire, sedition and mickey-taking in I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent at the British Museum in which the editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye and curator Tom Hockenhull have scoured the museum for artefacts and drawings which testify that opposition to authority and to injustice has been expressed for centuries by the eloquent, the angry and the ordinary, indeed anyone with a talent to amuse — and abuse.

A papier-mache depiction of a Mexican factory owner for Day of the Dead Image Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Hislop, journalist, historian and broadcaster, writes in the catalogue: “There are some items that have posed a genuine threat to authority and other ones that are much sillier. But they all merit a second look because they show people questioning the status quo and refusing to accept what they are being told. They may have been hoping to overthrow the state, been letting off steam because they could not keep silent any more, or simply been trying to amuse each other.”

There is a pleasing randomness about the selection but few items reflect satirist Jonathan Swift’s adage that his art existed ‘to cure the vices of mankind’ better than the 18th century caricaturists such as James Gillray, George Cruickshank and Richard Newton who mercilessly lampooned a monarchy that was hated and a market which was only too eager to lap up such sedition. Quite a contrast to today when satirical programmes and magazines are in short supply.

Gillray’s savage representation of the Prince of Wales, later George lV, in “Voluptuary, under the horror of Indigestion” shows the well-stuffed royal heir surrounded by the litter of his excess — empty bottles of port and brandy, an overflowing chamber pot, a coat of arms with crossed knife and fork and a scattering of horse racing betting slips. A louche lifestyle, all at the taxpayers’ expense.

Less subtly, Richard Newton has a jolly John Bull breaking wind with some ferocity into the face of an affronted George III while George Cruickshank takes savage aim at the cruel punishment meted out to the poor caught with forged bank notes.

Cruikshank was shocked by the sight of two women hanging from a gibbet because they had been found guilty of using the notes, a capital offence in early 19th century. With his collaborator William Hone he reproduced “The Bank Restriction Note” with a line of men hanging from the gallows, Britannia eating a child, and four ships sailing under the banner ‘Transport’. If they weren’t going to prison or to be hanged the guilty would be sent to Australia. The signature of the Bank of England’s chief cashier’s is replaced by J[ack] Ketch — a notorious 17th- century executioner.

The note was sold for one pound and earned Cruikshank and Hone around £700. Ironically, many of the mischief makers such as Gillray had their savagery blunted by government sponsored handouts. Perhaps bribes is a better word because, as Private Eye might point out, every idealist has his price.

These were upfront attacks, no punches pulled, but a porcelain teapot sweetly decorated in blue and picked out with gold with red flowers — what can that have to do with the clamour of protest?

Look under the spout, there’s a discreet 45.

The number went viral in 1760s England after the radical politician John Wilkes savaged the Tory parliamentary supporters of the hated King George III in his magazine Great Briton as the ‘the foul dregs of power, the tools of corruption and despotism.’

The edition of the magazine? Number 45.

The government ordered copies of the magazine to be burned but a mob saved them and thereafter 45 was sported on brooches by his supporters who chanted it at meetings and daubed it on hundreds of doors.

James Gillray
James Gillray (1756–1815), A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion, UK, 1792 Image Credit: © Trustees of the British Museum

Wilkites would stop carriages and demand the passengers toast their hero. When the Austrian ambassador refused, he was dragged from his carriage and suffered the indignity of having the number four embossed on the sole of one shoe and the number five on the other.

Like the caricaturists in their prime, Wilkes was a high profile, sophisticated fighter for justice (and his own advancement) but there is something nobler about the dissent by unknown agitators. One can only wonder in admiration at the unknown woman in 1913/14 who defaced scores of British pennies — much bigger than today’s version — with the suffragette slogan Votes for Women. Not for her a quick jibe online, or a swiftly contrived photo-shopped image, no, she spent months with a hammer and a letter punch to get her message across.

As Hockenhull, an expert from the museum’s coins and medals department, says: “Coins were a popular and simple means of protest but as many were quickly confiscated maybe it was as much about expressing rage as actually achieving anything.”

In 1797, the Pope hanging from the hangman’s gibbet was carved into a penny, in 1937 a swastika and the word Nazi was scratched over the head of George Vl — a second best choice since his brother who did have Nazi sympathies never had his own coins struck. In two of the few references to current political shenanigans, a Bank of England £20 note had Stay in the EU stencilled rather half-heartedly on it in June 2016 while in Greece, tiny figures drawn on to €5 notes look as if they are throwing themselves into perdition in protest against the Greek government debt crisis.

These were for public consumption but many artefacts of protest were kept secret, not just for fear of reprisal but because they were intended mainly for the amusement of the makers themselves. The temple workers of the city of Naukratis in northern Egypt were banned from using the temple and, understandably, spurned the elegant imagery of the God Horus who was celebrated within.

Instead, between 620 BC to about 200 BC, they made their own versions, irreverent and bawdy, which were found outside the temple complex. Crudely carved, they show a couple having sex, one playing a harp another clutching an amphora of wine.

They demonstrate what ordinary Egyptians felt about their religion by rejecting the official, elite representations and embracing their own, simple, direct concerns for fertility, health and wealth.

The carvings lay undiscovered for centuries like the head of the Roman emperor Augustus which was cleaved from his body in about 25/24 BC after a rebellion against Roman rule in present-day Sudan. The statue was knocked down and the head of the emperor buried under the entrance to the victory shrine where he lay, tramped over by his enemies, and then forgotten for centuries.

Augustus himself was not above trashing reputations. He and his spin doctors did their utmost to blacken the reputation of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra who was seen as a threat to his ambitions. One fragment of a marble relief shows a man and a woman, assumed to be Cleopatra and her lover and Augustus’s rival, Antony, together on a boat, another is a carving on a terracotta oil lamp with a crocodile, emblem of Egypt, with a phallus attached to the tail upon which sits a naked female, presumed to be Cleopatra.

As Hislop writes: “Smear campaigns are not an invention of modern politics and the methods deployed by political foes can resonate with our own times. Leaders are portrayed as weak, ineffectual, disrespectful of tradition, serial adulterers and financially irresponsible.”

Even the most vindictive 21st century troll would be hard put to match the vitriol of an Assyrian king more than 1,000 years BC who commissioned several statues of Ishtar, goddess of war, fertility and love. But instead of a shapely, beautiful creature, this version is distinctly matronly. Contemporary theory has it that the figure was a caricature of a princess or courtesan who had betrayed the king so how better to shame her by distributing copies of this cruelly unflattering statue round the country? Revenge porn indeed.

Peckham Rock - High resolution
Banksy, Peckham Rock, 2005 Image Credit: © Trustees of the British Museum

There are also echoes of today’s digitally driven protest movements, whether by the anti-Trump marchers whose pink Pussy hat is on show or the #MeToo phenomenon. In Sudan, a Sufi holy man named Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the redeemer of the Islamic faith and by 1885 had ousted the British-backed Ottoman-Egyptian government and established a Mahdist state.

His followers identified themselves wearing a ragged jacket of wool and cotton. They looked poor and helpless but their scruffy outfits were a covert means of knowing whose side they were on and above all a statement of their united front against the enemy.

In Hong Kong, a row with Bejing over its interference with the 2014 elections sparked protests which were beaten back by police using pepper spray and tear gas. Demonstrators found that the umbrellas not only protected them but, thanks to the drawings of artist and illustrator Fong So, became a symbol of the protests. The Umbrella Movement was born.

It was arguably more dangerous for the Syrian opposition to Bashar Al Assad to make its voice heard without dire consequences but an art collective called The Syrian People Know Their Way used social media — inevitably a bit player in this exhibition — to send digital files which could be downloaded as placards and used on marches.

So, umbrellas, treacherous teapots, flatulent John Bulls, all share the common aim of confounding their leaders and all have an eye for the wicked or the absurd.

The British Museum itself was subject to a jape when in May 2005, the graffiti-artist Banksy installed a hoax artwork mimicking a cave painting in one of the galleries. Stuck on with Velcro, it shows a stick-like figure pushing a shopping trolley, and was accompanied by a mock, but very realistic label which read: “This finely preserved example of primitive art dates from the Post-Catatonic era... The artist responsible is known to have created a substantial body of work across the South East of England under the moniker Banksymus Maximus...”

Now it is back on the museum walls as an example of ‘silliness’ which Hislop relishes. He writes: “Not only does it mock the pomposity of the whole process of collecting and exhibiting old artefacts, but it also suggests that you can stick anything in the museum and no one will even notice for days.

“Very funny — though I am not entirely sure the Museum thought so at the time.”

Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.

I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent is on at the British Museum through January 20, 2019.