Political cartoonist Cold War Steve: 2021 was a relentless year for material

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  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
  • Cold War Steve
    Nom de plume of Christopher Spencer, a British collage artist and satirist

Cult internet artist Cold War Steve has described 2021 as a “relentless” year for a political cartoonist.

Real name Christopher Spencer, Cold War Steve’s satirical Photoshop collages draw inspiration from Dutch Renaissance painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, depicting public figures in dystopian settings and often taking part in scandalous acts as a nod to real-world news.

Reflecting on a political year of a pandemic, resignations and controversy, Mr Spencer called 2021 “terrible” but said being able to make art has been a therapeutic process.

“It’s never-ending, isn’t it? I’m glad I’ve got this outlet because otherwise, I think I’d go mad,” he told the PA news agency.

“It has just been relentless and I’ve been doubling down on that, really. I know what I do isn’t going to make a difference in what’s happening at the top, but it makes me feel better and I think others as well.”

The artist’s 2021 oeuvre includes depictions of those following strict lockdown measures juxtaposed with a Downing Street Christmas party – with one work showing an elderly man with a walking stick alone in his bedroom, beside another image of politicians such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson engaging in cartoonish frivolity.

Cold War Steve Christmas party image
Cold War Steve depicted staff at Downing Street celebrating at a Christmas party while others were under strict lockdown restrictions (Cold War Steve/PA)

He produced the work after allegations that No. 10 staff broke coronavirus rules with a festive party last December, one of many similar allegations in the political sphere in 2021.

“There was the whole incompetence of Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings – then you think there’d be a bit of a respite and then images come out about the Christmas parties they were having at Downing Street when everyone was kept apart from their loved ones,” Mr Spencer said.

“It’s one way of processing what’s going on, I mean, the range of emotions with what’s happening, from anger to dismay. I can channel that into one image. (I am) trying to convey that.

“The feedback that I get is that it helps (people) to feel that they’re not alone in feeling the way they do.”

Cold War Steve
Mr Spencer depicted Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and other Conservative MPs standing in sewage during the Cop26 climate summit (Cold War Steve)

The artist gestured to Glasgow’s Cop26 climate summit in October with an image of Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other members of the Cabinet standing in sewage as the White Cliffs of Dover behind them suggest the country has sunk.

Mr Spencer admitted some of his work can be “really crass” and “nasty”, often placing careless-looking politicians in intensive care wards or even placing body bags on the grass of the Downing Street garden in one piece.

However, he said his work is justified by politicians’ actions, adding: “At the start of the pandemic I was very wary of satirising it, I was unsure whether or not to even make light of what was happening, but the Government ballsed it up that much I had to.

“There is always that period before I press send to release it into the world, where my finger might hover over it for a bit. Some I take right to that line of being acceptable or not.”

Cold War Steve
The Duchess of Sussex surrounded by male journalists in a depiction by Cold War Steve (Cold War Steve/PA)

In February, Mr Spencer dedicated an image to the Duchess of Sussex’s High Court privacy claim win against the publishers of the Mail On Sunday, over a “personal and private” letter she had written to her estranged father.

The piece shows the duchess surrounded by male journalists while the Duke of York sits away from the group.

The artist spoke about the nuances and small details in his artwork, such as the avocado in front of Meghan – a nod to the suggestion by some British tabloids that her “favourite avocado snack” is “fuelling human rights abuses, drought and murder”.

“There’s lots of little symbolisms that people pick up on and (can) interpret themselves,” he said.

Mr Spencer considers the reaction of his more than 360,000 Twitter followers as part of the art itself.

“I really like people to know that if (the artwork) was in a gallery, the pictures would be two metres wide and, underneath, a scrolling screen of all the comments that people have written – because it definitely enhances the experience of it.”

Cold War Steve
One of Cold War Steve’s pieces shows Boris Johnson’s head Photoshopped onto the body of Louis XVI, king of France (Cold War Steve/PA)

One of his recent works shows the Prime Minister’s head superimposed on the body of Louis XVI, king of France, as Tory backbenchers Steve Baker and Andrew Bridgen approach with baseball bats in hand, and chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty is tied to a chair.

Both MPs were critical of Mr Johnson’s Covid restrictions and made headlines when Mr Baker removed Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries from a WhatsApp conversation after defending the Prime Minister over the resignation of Lord Frost.

“I like to have that element of humour and anger and grotesqueness, a kind of dark humour which gets the point across in a more dramatic way,” Mr Spencer added.

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