Miles Kington: At last, a showcase for our national treasures

In the country that first invented the cartoon and gave it its name, there was no official gallery, no national collection, nothing
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The Independent Online

I have a cartoon original hanging in my bathroom at home, drawn (and painted) by de la Nougerede. It shows an old prune next to a bright young plum, and the prune is saying to the plum: "You just wait till you're my age..."

When I first bought it, I identified with the plum. Now I'm getting more of prune's-eye view. What was it that Frank Crumit used to sing? "No matter how young a prune may be, he's always full of wrinkles; we get wrinkles on our face, prunes get 'em every place . . ."

I bought the drawing from the gallery run by the late lovely Mel Calman, in Lambs Conduit Street in Holborn. I don't buy cartoon originals half as often as I would like to, but it was there that I also bought a cartoon by Larry, which showed a car parked at the side of the road. Inside the car is the dim shape of the driver , leaning over the steering wheel, and clearly displayed in the back window of the car is a sign saying "PLEASE PASS - HAVING A CORONARY".

"You're lucky to get that," Mel told me. "We have sold it once already."

"You mean, it's not for sale?"

"No, no, it's for sale all right. But when the man who bought it last week took it to his office, his colleagues thought it was in such bad taste that they made him bring it back again and get his money back."

Now, I didn't go to Mel Calman's expressly to buy these two drawings. I didn't know they existed till I saw them. The point is that Calman's was the only place in town where you could go and browse among real cartoons. In the country that first invented the cartoon and gave it its name, there was no official gallery of cartoon art, no museum, no national collection, nothing.

Mel Calman's gallery is long gone, alas, though you can still find dealers who specialise in cartoons. If you go to Ryder Street in St James's, you will find a much more opulent modern equivalent of Calman's, the Chris Beetles Gallery. Many years ago Chris Beetles was a doctor (and an accomplished cabaret performer), but his passion for the illustrator's art led him to abandon both medicine and the stage, and go in for collecting (and buying and selling) the cream of British illustration, which meant everything from Arthur Rackham and Myles Birket Foster to Ronald Searle and Quentin Blake. I seldom go there, for fear of coming out bankrupt, but the treasures you can see lying in stacks or crammed on the walls even on a random visit are wonderful.

However grand, the Beetles gallery is still one man's enterprise, and there is nothing in Britain which rivals the cartoon museums you can find in other countries. Angoulême in France, for instance, has established itself as cartoon city, and there is a temple to the graphic arts there called the CNBDI (Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l'Image), which is a huge repository of the history of the comic strip.

The French, of course, take graphic art much more seriously than we do, which is maybe why Robert Crumb went to live there, and if you have to ask who Robert Crumb is, I am afraid that proves that the French do take it more seriously than we do.

But suddenly there is some hope.

This week a cartoon museum opened in London.

In fact, it is not a cartoon museum. It is The Cartoon Museum.

It is at 35 Little Russell Street, which is a little back street opposite the grand entrance to the British Museum, and at the opening party on Wednesday night it looked pretty stunning. I have purposely not told you much about it now, so that I have an excuse to tell you more about it some time next week, but if I were you, I wouldn't wait - I'd just go and explore it now.