Jeffrey Archer: An unlikely cartoon hero

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Jeffrey Archer, who has been the subject of plenty of political send-ups himself, tells Charlotte Cripps why he wants to give his collection to the nation

When Jeffrey Archer's wife, Mary, made him remove all the satirical artwork from the walls of their home, she may have provided a gift for Britain. The best-selling author and former politician has been collecting political cartoons for 25 years and he wants to give them to the nation.

"The collection is very special to me," says Archer. "The problem was that the collection of Impressionists grew and my wife wanted to make space for them on the walls. The cartoons had to come down. I'm not quarrelling with that."

Obama Beheading Osama, by Christian Adams, depicts Osama bin Laden as part of a multi-headed serpent, with a feeling that al-Qaeda is lurking. "We got this cartoon the day after Bin Laden was assassinated," says Archer. Accident to the Axis, by EH Shepard, from 1941, shows a defeated Mussolini clutching at Hitler's coat after the first major Allied offensive of the North African Campaign, which destroyed the Italian Tenth Army.

"This is the man who drew Winnie the Pooh," says Archer, "but it's often forgotten that he was a Punch cartoonist. When this cartoon came up for sale we knew we had to have it in the collection."

A cartoon by Sir David Low shows leading Nazis at Nuremberg, on trial for war crimes. "Goering is pointing out in the cartoon that there is a lack of pomp for such a special occasion," says Archer.

Archer has selected 50 cartoons to be shown to the public for the first time, at a gallery in Wales, as a trial run before a larger London show and in the hope that an art establishment will give them a permanent home.

"At the age of 70, I've decided that I would really like to give the entire collection away, which is around 200 pictures," he says. "And I'm still building. I think it will be nearer 300 when I've finished. It's been a lifetime's collection. But I want to find the right place to donate them to. Most of these cartoons I've had 15 or 20 years."

Archer's collection is an important one and it features many of the great political cartoonists – including Low, James Gillray Max Beerbohm, Gerald Scarfe, Giles, Sir John Tenniel and Ralph Steadman. It provides a satirical look at political life in Britain and America through three centuries. But as any collector knows, it is very hard to draw a line underneath a collection. Gaps need to be filled.

"It's not easy searching for the ultimate cartoon that depicts a particular event," says Archer. "We are currently looking for the one that sums up the financial problems of Britain and America since the US public debt was downgraded from AA to A+."

Archer's collection features cartoons of prime ministers and presidents. Honourable Insults by John Jensen, for example, is from the cover of a book about political putdowns, and features caricatures of Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and John Major.

Since the first cartoon was purchased, Archer has had the help of a close friend, the art dealer Chris Beetles. He is curating the show.

Beetles says: "The Jeffrey Archer Political Cartoon Collection is becoming an important and comprehensive accumulation of original artwork – we have avoided prints – which spans 250 years of political and socio-economic activity, as seen and recorded through cartoonists' eyes. We hit on the idea together – now it's a vast historical document. It's a national treasure."

Archer and Beetles buy only five or six cartoons every year. "We get fussier and fussier," says Archer. "There are other people going around claiming they have great collections. The difference with this collection is that they are the originals. These are not cut out of your paper and kept for 30 years."

Archer says he is not holding back even one cartoon for himself. Although some of the cartoons were purchased for a few hundred pounds, they are now, he says, worth anything from "£2,000 to £20,000".

A watercolour, Consequences of a Successful French Invasion...Or... We Fly on the Wings of the Wind to Save the Irish Catholics from Persecution, by James Gillray, is a colourful and lively depiction of the rioting and disorder that would ensue if the French were to invade. It was published in 1798.

"It is almost impossible to get an original Gillray," says Archer. "They come up for sale once every 10 years. It's probably the most important cartoon in the collection. He is the first great popular political cartoonist and original works of art by him, outside of his prints, are rare."

How does Archer react to cartoons about himself? "Of course I've been a victim of a political cartoon but there will be none of mine in the collection," he says. "You've got to take it with a laugh when it happens. It's very flattering to even be in a cartoon. But this is not a vanity project. I have one cartoon that I love on my loo wall, by Chris Burke, of John le Carré, and myself preparing to shoot to each other, which is great fun. It is beautifully drawn but it's not really a political cartoon. It's when John le Carré, and I were fighting for the top spot in both the American and British best-seller lists, about 30 years ago."

Archer and Beetles intend to show the whole collection in two or three years' time and to tour it nationally. A book will be written jointly.

"We just don't want these cartoons in cupboards anymore," says Archer. "We want the world to see them."

Images of Power: From the Jeffery Archer Political Cartoon Collection, Monnow Valley Arts, Hereford ( www.monnowvalleyarts.org) 3 September to 30 October

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