Roger Law at the Ashmolean Museum, May 3 2024


The notorious Roger Law talks to QUAD…

Published: 13 May 2024

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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‘Who the f*** are you then?’ he booms, silencing the congenial hubbub of a normal Friday lunch time in the Ashmolean’s rooftop brasserie.

Glaring at me, the man behind Spitting Image, the satirical puppet show that viciously caricatured public figures in the 1980s and was re-made for the Trump/Johnson era, slumps down into a big leather armchair and stares at me banefully.

Delayed by Oxford traffic, amidst incessant rain, he’s brought the catalogues for his joint exhibition with Li Jin (Simple Pleasures, Li Jin with Roger Law) so I’ve only just been handed one.

‘Have you read my essay?’ he asks, disbelievingly.

I’ve dressed up for this big occasion, even to the point of a dazzling silk pocket. I can tell he’s furiously disbelieving that too.

He starts by referencing George Grosz (1893-1959), the savage German satirist of Berlin after World War One. I know all about Grosz but there is no reason for Roger to know that I know.

Nor that I have read his essay via a pdf sent across in advance.

There’s more swearing. He’s a magnificent, cantankerous presence.

He’s suddenly riffing about how they articulated Trumps ass-hole, within the Spitting Image puppet skit, so that it crept out from underneath the bed sheets to pick up a mobile phone ringing itself to bits at the side of his bed, Melania in the background. The American commentariat went berserk, he says, because they couldn’t cope with that level of scabrous treatment of a then-sitting President.

That sets the tone for our chat, because the atmosphere for vicious satire has become far more hostile of late, with cancel culture and all that sort of thing.

‘I’m not misogynistic or racist, or anything resembling that sort of unpleasant crap…’


‘The point ultimately is to tell the truth…’

In a weird coincidence, I had the day before met the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove (LMH, 1985).

Roger reminds me that Spitting Image gave the puppet of Gove cheeks that appear to be testicles.

There’s a brilliant sequence in which the script writers mercilessly focus on Gove’s visit to a night club, once his marriage had foundered. He ends up being caught as a fish, wriggling on the hook full of nervous energy and drugs, and the skit ends with him being served up as a fish platter.

It’s essentially childish but like the best political satire it’s very funny, it sees straight through appearance and it locks onto physiognomy as vector for character. The script does the rest and the script is very, very good.

Roger’s wearing a hat with a red star.

He likes China and he worked in the ‘Porcelain City’ of Jingdezhen making ceramics, in the 1990s, when Spitting Image had run its course and Roger had upped sticks, initially to Australia where he operated a studio next to Bondi Beach (‘what’s not to like?’).

‘They will f****** bury us…’ he says of the Chinese. ‘It’s the work ethic…’ He tells me the story of himself, mid-70s, on a very hot and humid day in his workshop where he employed someone to work for him, in China.

‘I needed a walk, in truth I wanted to lie down.’ This guy says, ‘But you can’t do that you haven’t finished your work!’ ‘And I was employing him! What a work ethic.’

The same generation of Gerald Scarfe (b.1936) who did all those Pink Floyd covers and got into trouble for criticising Israeli President Netanyahu in 2013, Roger Law (b. 1941) notes in his essay for Simple Pleasures, Li Jin with Roger Law, that his own teacher at art school was Paul Hogarth (‘an old Commie’), and what that meant in the 1950s and 60s in an English art school was fashionable anti-Establishment.

Elsewhere in our chat he notes with disbelief the decision of the Guardian to chop their political cartoonist Steve Bell (b. 1951) last October.

Like Scarfe, Roger cut his teeth working for the newspapers as a cartoonist in the 50s and 60s, but then it was his genius to translate paper to puppets, thence to television.

Who would have thought that such a format could succeed? Yet it was syndicated to over fifty countries and turned Roger the artist into a collector as well as a creator, today to the benefit of Oxford’s Ashmolean.

Scarfe did Yes Minister as Roger did Spitting Image. It’s the same generation.

In the exhibition at the Ashmolean, the one that will open tomorrow, Roger’s own work partly consists of a pen and ink renderings of a fish banquet, superficially evoking a Chinese literati tradition but in truth it’s the world according to Roger Law inspired by George Grosz and Otto Dix.

The pink-hued Australian couple presiding over a grotesque fish look like pigs (shown, above). In another watercolour a Chinese man steps out of the traditional painting of a traditional Chinese ginger jar, to clasp hands with a naked woman who has turned towards him on the twinned jar, it’s wittily called ‘Sex Pots’ (2008) (below).  

Sex Pots (2008) by Roger Law

But let’s come back to the underlying issue here. I’ve already quizzed the brilliant curator Dr Yi Chen (Merton, 2006) over the politics of Li Jin’s New Literati style and the reality is that his most Grosz-like stuff is from the period before Xi, after which, as Roger puts it carefully, ‘things became pernicious.’

And broadly speaking that’s also when Li Jin goes abstract again, because otherwise you might get a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

And if I’m not mistaken Roger’s gone easy on his friend here, insisting that Li Jin’s depictions of everyday life result in a ‘witty parade’ rather than anything resembling a political commentary; or as Dr Chen puts it with a chuckle, ‘Li Jin’s Simple Pleasures need to remain simple.’

By his own estimation, Roger’s fun time in China was back in the 90s, ‘when Putin was still driving a taxi.’

In today’s climate he wouldn’t even get off the plane in China without being taken into custody, as a potentially subversive element.

Meanwhile, the 'old Commie' routine is only attractive as rose-tinted cosplay, something Roger seems to own because he ends his essay, which I had read, by remembering offering Li Jin ‘a plate of delicious green buds’ at a restaurant in China, which Li Jin promptly refused, saying ‘My family survived on leaf buds from the hedgerows during the Cultural Revolution. I never want to eat them again.’

Yet at the very moment when everyone below a certain age seems to be offended so easily, this is the moment surely to fly the flag for the scurrilous critique, whose roots are deeply entwined in British history long before Marx entered the British Library.

His eyes are twinkling now with revenge plots and take downs, but we’ve had fifteen minutes of superb F-word banter and it’s over. He flips my business card over and leaves it carelessly on the table, lurches up again onto his feet, and stumps back to his lunch party.

Genuflect to Roger.

Hope someone is listening somewhere because we need new Laws, new Scarfes and new Bells, the lifeblood of free speech and the right to offend.


Exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: 4th May – 17th November 2024.

Catalogue by the same title as the exhibition, published by Roger Law (2024).

Picture credit: Portrait of Roger Law: University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse; Detail from 'Back to Bondi,' (2008): Roger Law