Alan Coren was on fire. Or, at least, smoking. He was also ablaze with enthusiasm. In due course, the cigarette was extinguished. The enthusiasm was not.
It was 2004 and he had come to see the archives of Punch, which the British Library had just acquired. Coren had worked on the magazine since the early 1960s and been its editor between 1978 and 1987. After he left, it went into a terminal decline, ceasing publication in April 1992. The title was eventually purchased by Mohamed Al Fayed and relaunched in 1996 but finally sank in 2002.
Not, however, without trace. Apart from the magazines themselves, a monumental run stretching over a century and a half, all sorts of flotsam and jetsam were left floating above the wreck. Over its lifetime Punch had accumulated a huge array of physical artefacts. These too had come to the Library, and a colleague and I now had the pleasure of reacquainting him with them. We began on the Library’s terrace, where the statue of Mr Punch, based on a drawing by Sir Bernard Partridge, had been re-erected. This had once graced the façade of the magazine’s Bouverie Street building, its prominent stomach leading this to be known as the Paunch Office. Alan Coren was entranced. ‘What bliss. The first sight of Britain foreigners will have on arriving at St Pancras is Punch’s arse!’
And so into the stacks. Amidst the array of portraits of former editors beginning with Mark Lemon – Punch, it was joked, was nothing without Lemon – and plaster busts of distinguished Punch figures such as Thackeray and Tom Taylor, not to mention various Punch costumes and Sir John Tenniel’s pipe bowl, he was particularly pleased to find an oil of a benign Mr Punch by Leonard Raven Hill, who drew for Punch between 1910 and 1940. The artist had given it to one of the proprietors but it had gone adrift. Coren, who was fiercely protective of the magazine and its history, had discovered it at a Ch
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