‘Peanuts’ tribute wowing crowds at London’s historic Somerset House

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Humans are mortal, but cartoon characters can live forever. And so it is with Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang who are finding fresh cachet these days as subjects for international artists, featured alongside the original works of Charles Schulz in an international tribute at London’s historic Somerset House.

The exhibit, titled “Good Grief, Charlie Brown,” opened at the renowned international art and learning center overlooking the River Thames in October, and will continue until early March.

“You run into people who are great fans and have loved ‘Peanuts’ all their lives, but then you don’t know how widespread that is,” said Schulz’s widow, Jean, during a recent interview at the Schulz Museum, which opened to fans here in 2002.

The “Peanuts” newspaper comic strip by Charles “Sparky” Schulz made its syndicated debut in 1950. Eight years later, Schulz settled in Sonoma County, where he wrote and drew every panel until his death in 2000.

At its height, the “Peanuts” strip ran in as many as 2,600 newspapers, and reprints still run in about 2,000 papers, including The Press Democrat.

Add to that decades of TV specials and animated movies, stacks of related books and merchandise of all kinds, from plush toys to lunchboxes, and it’s clear the impact of “Peanuts” has been immense.

When the Schulz Museum was approached in March 2017 by Claire Catterall, senior curator for the Somerset House Trust, about a tribute exhibit, Schulz got new evidence of the lasting and far-reaching influence of “Peanuts.”

“The curator, who is very low-key and very British, but very enthusiastic, said she became intrigued with ‘Peanuts’ because at Somerset House they have maybe 80 artists of different sorts who they give studio space to, and she began to notice that many of them were using the ‘Peanuts’ characters in their work,” Schulz said.

Performance art

The exhibit includes work by some of those artists — including pictures, installation art and even performance art — as well as 84 original “Peanuts” strips, plus related artifacts, on loan from the Schulz Museum.

For example, artist Steven Claydon pays tribute to the perpetually dusty character Pigpen with a portrait titled “Trom-pen (replicating, corpuscle), made from resin, aluminum and wood.” One of the installations is a mockup of Lucy’s famous “Psychiatric Help 5 Cents” booth, staffed by a rotating roster of experts prepared to answer questions on a wide variety of topics.

After the first contact between Somerset House and the Schulz Museum, the trust’s director, Jonathan Reekie, came to Santa Rosa in early 2018, followed a couple of weeks later by Catterall herself.

“You could tell that Claire knew her business, and had a take on ‘Peanuts,’ ” Schulz said. “So I felt we were in good hands with her.”

In the opening pages of the catalog for the Somerset House exhibit, Catterall wrote, “Today, as a generation of artists who grew up during the ‘golden age’ of ‘Peanuts’ come to prominence, its presence in the ideas and ambitions of contemporary art seems more powerful and relevant than ever.”

The Schulz Museum staff participated in the selection of items to loan, and composed the text to accompany the exhibit, which Schulz reviewed. The Somerset House leadership had some specific requests for their exhibit.

“They wanted to do the Great Pumpkin,” Schulz said. “So then you have a panel on the Great Pumpkin, and some text on how Sparky thought about it. He said, ‘What if somebody got his holidays mixed up, and thought the Great Pumpkin was coming instead of Santa Claus.”

Schulz, who is part owner of Sonoma Media Investments, the parent company of The Press Democrat, wrote in her blog last year that she was initially concerned about the size and shape of exhibition space the venerable Somerset House set aside for the Schulz show: “... it had no classic rooms or even a large space that would lend itself to temporary walls. Rather, it was more akin to a long cylinder, with some side ‘pockets.’”

Changed opinion

But when she attended the exhibit in London last October, she changed her mind, noting that “stepping into the exhibition I had a completely different opinion. The space makes the museum offerings feel more interesting, as though you are an explorer stepping through the history rather than just reading about it.”

When asked why “Peanuts” has been so popular for so long, Schulz invariably replies that it’s the characters themselves that people love and that the strip’s themes — friendship, loyalty, loneliness, the need for fun — were more universal than topical.

“When you read the strips, it’s amazing how relevant they are today,” she said.

Catterall’s essay for the exhibit catalog sums it up this way: “‘Peanuts’ is more than just a charming comic strip. For many, it became an important part of our daily lives, a cast of friends accompanying us on life’s journey of love, laughter, fears and tears.”

The characters in the strip’s large cast have their own strongholds of loyalists scattered around the globe, Schulz said. For example, Canadians particularly love Snoopy when he skates and plays hockey, just as Charles Schulz did growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. In Japan, the favorite is often Peppermint Patty’s serious assistant, Marcie, whose straight black hair and big round eyeglasses make her resemble one of the nation’s wildly popular anime or manga characters.

While the “Peanuts” characters are known all over the globe, they’ve rarely graced a venue as distinguished and significant as Somerset House in London.

The original Somerset Place, as it was known then, served as the residence of the future Queen Elizabeth I during the reign of her half-sister, Queen Mary I, during the 1500s. It was demolished in 1775 and construction began on the present Somerset House, established as a center for arts and learning.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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