“Boris u r a poo”; “Boris Johnson you bloody carrot”; “Get down the toilet Boris!”
These are just some of 200-plus responses from children across the UK to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the pandemic, currently on show in The Covid Letters: A Vital Update at London's Foundling Museum (until 17 January).
The works, gathered by the artist Jonny Banger, who also owns the subversive brand-mocking fashion label Sports Banger, are made from the letters sent by the prime minister to every household in the nation at the start of lockdown, urging citizens to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.
When Banger saw the letter, he immediately posted a social media call-out, instructing the nation’s children: “If you’ve received a letter, design a poster.” The rules were simple, entrants had to be under 16 years of age, draw straight on to the letter and not use digital means. “That letter was a joke to me so I put it in the hands of kids to see what they thought of it. I was just happy to let them have a voice.”
The ensuing outpouring of Downing Street missives customised by the nation’s youth ranges from scribbles and slogans to drawings, paintings and collages. And the sentiments of what Banger describes as “little anarchists spreading joy” are loud and clear. Some are supportive of the NHS, others highly critical. There are many rainbows, a lot of swearing, some heart-rending messages (“Thank you NHS for saving my brother”) and, naturally, an abundance of poo.
Poppy, aged 11, from Liverpool made her letter into a face mask emblazoned with: "Make masks, not letters!’. While fourteen-year-old Rory from Derbyshire depicted Johnson and Trump as a meticulously rendered Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Jack, aged five, from London tore up his missive and fed it to the family wormery. And three-year-old Kit from Bristol simply dipped his bottom in paint and then—in an instinctive homage to Yves Klein—sat firmly on the letter.
As Banger posted the works onto Instagram they were noticed by the artist Jeremy Deller, who considers the customised letters to be “the best art to come out of lockdown". "They were just doing my head in—it’s the perfect art for this moment: funny, naughty and angry in equal measure.” Deller is a patron of the Foundling Museum and it was quickly decided that this historic building, which contains works by William Hogarth, would be the perfect place to show the Covid Letters.
“The story we tell at the Foundling Museum is of adults acknowledging young people in distress and trying to make their lives better. But our collection is very much a representation of the adults who made the decisions to help the lives of children and there’s been very little space to hear from the children themselves,” says the museum’s director Caro Howell. She regards the Covid Letters “as a vibrant, uncensored and emotional time-capsule of a time when the lives of children have been immeasurably affected”. She adds: “The Foundling Museum seemed the perfect place to bring the children and their voices to a wider public to hear them talking about the situation—and especially alongside William Hogarth who was a great satirist and spoke to truth to power. If Hogarth were alive he would have loved the Covid Letters!”
True to the philanthropic spirit of The Foundling Hospital, funds from the sale of specially designed Sports Banger merchandise as well as a limited-edition print will directly support both the Christmas food bank run by Sports Banger as well as the Foundling’s ongoing pioneering work with disadvantaged young people.
The opening day of the show last Thursday happened to coincide with the UK government voting in Parliament against providing free school meals for disadvantaged children during the Christmas holidays, thus rendering some of the more scatalogical messages addressed to the prime minister especially apposite.