Gerald Scarfe's controversial Margaret Thatcher cartoons on show

Gerald Scarfe Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption Margaret Thatcher was portrayed by Scarfe as everything from a queen to a handbag

Margaret Thatcher was a gift to political cartoonists and perhaps no-one portrayed her as memorably - or as negatively - as Gerald Scarfe. Now, on the eve of the general election, an exhibition exploring their relationship has opened in the north-east of England, where her legacy remains deeply controversial.

During a career spanning decades, Scarfe's vivid caricatures of politicians have been a regular sight in national newspapers and magazines.

He has attacked leaders from across the political spectrum, but his portrayal of Thatcher made the most impact. "Extremely provocative" and "no holds barred", his cartoons depicted her in a range of striking and shocking guises, from a shark to a handbag to a bloody axe.

"I didn't agree with her values, but she was amazing material," says Scarfe. "I always gave her a stabbing, aquiline nose, drooping eyes and a small mouth, full of bloody incisors.

"I could depict her as anything cutting, stabbing, slicing, biting, aggressive - like a dagger, a knife, an axe or scissors.

"She grew progressively more scythe-like and cutting over the years that I drew her."

Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption Scarfe describes his Thatcher pieces as "a bit like theatre, where the villains are the best ones"

Although still loved by her supporters who cite her role in turning around Britain's economy and her election successes, Thatcher remains hated by many in the North East. During her time as Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she oversaw the closure of dozens of coal mines, leading to thousands of job losses and the year-long miners' strike.

"We see her as a complete megalomaniac and someone [who] was determined at all times to get her own way," says Greville Worthington, freelance curator at the Bowes Museum, County Durham, which is exhibiting Scarfe's work.

Milk Snatcher, Gerald Scarfe - The Thatcher Drawings, explores her time before, during and after being in power and takes in such themes as the miners' strike, the Falklands War and her relationship with the United States.

It allows visitors to see them in their full scale - much bigger than one might imagine beyond their normal confines in the pages of the Sunday Times.

"The exhibition is a timeline... it looks at her legacy when she was in power and then really, through the eyes of the artist, her descent to madness at the end of her time in power," says Worthington, a former Turner Prize judge.

Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption Scarfe has turned his satirical gaze on Thatcher's successors on the world stage

"I think this exhibition keeps a very close and critical eye on the reign of Maggie Thatcher and does it in a humorous, highly skilled, tongue-in-cheek, provocative and at some points, absolutely outrageous way."

Simon Thorp, co-editor and cartoonist on the North East-based satirical magazine Viz, says he was inspired by an exhibition of Scarfe's drawings as a student.

"I think Gerald Scarfe's an absolutely brilliant cartoonist," he says. "He's able to turn his hand to anything - caricatures, sculpture, animation, book illustration, theatre design, reportage. He can just do the lot, and better than anyone else.

Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption Scarfe's first drawing of Thatcher in Private Eye depicted her as "top bitch" at Crufts

"You might hope that Mrs Thatcher wouldn't have liked being depicted as a giant clockwork robot stamping on the populace, but since she actually was a giant clockwork robot stamping on the populace, she was probably too thick-skinned to care. "

So what did Thatcher think of them? Her former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham insists she was unaffected.

"I don't think she saw much of them at all, thank God," he says. "She did not expect to be portrayed sympathetically."

Conservative peer and former Teesside MP Lord Bates said Thatcher's legacy in the North East was less clear-cut than some might think.

"As a North Easterner, when I think of Thatcher in the North East the image I remember is Nissan and her walking across a derelict part of Teesside.

"She turned this country around in 1979 and in the North East.

"A cartoonist's role is to provoke and Scarfe is a talented cartoonist. Although some of them were more inaccurate than others, he was doing his job.

"They [cartoonists] like to portray her how they wish, but I think Thatcher was a big enough character to not to be defined by those cartoons."

Mr Worthington said one part of the exhibition delves into the issue of unemployment, something Scarfe was "extremely sympathetic" towards.

"In the exhibition she really comes across as a completely heartless, megalomaniac figure coming down on the unemployed with absolutely no sympathy whatsoever - merely treating them as cannon fodder in her battle to turn around the economy.

"I think that people when seeing this, and maybe there are some people visiting the exhibition who really directly suffered, will find this exhibition to be sympathetic to the tremendous struggles that they went through in dealing with the rule of Maggie Thatcher, which was extremely unsympathetic to them."

Mr Worthington said the run-up to the general election was a "good time" to reflect on Thatcher and her legacy.

Unlike the "bland" characters of John Major and David Cameron, Scarfe said himself: "I shouldn't be saying this, but talking from a cartoonist point of view, she was very, very good material."

Milk Snatcher, Gerald Scarfe - The Thatcher Drawings is on display at The Bowes Museum from 14 March - 7 June

Image copyright Gerald Scarfe
Image caption Renowned for his vivid, often cruel caricatures, Scarfe rarely pulls punches when it comes to depicting public figures such as Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown

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