When the news broke of Charles Schulz’ retirement from cartooning in 1999, followed by his death the previous year, a little bit of my childhood died with him. Admittedly, I’d not read a Peanuts cartoon for a long time, and the ubiquitous application of the Snoopy motif to anything and everything in the late 70s had tarnished the charm of the brand a little, but the original cartoons still hold a special place for me. As a kid, I envied my pal Duncan’s stash of those little Coronet paperback collections, and set about building my own. Even then, and quite apart from the extensive number of books published in the UK, I used to wonder at the references to the original US collections, which hinted that what we were seeing was just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, in my naivety, I’d no idea that this was a comic strip that had run daily and at weekends throughout the 50s and 60s, and that Charles Schulz was churning out new strips continuously (17,897 of them to be exact).

My window into the world behind the Peanuts cartoons was opened when I picked up a copy of the 60th anniversary collection, which told the story of how, as an aspiring commercial artist in post-War America, Schulz had harnessed all his own memories of childhood in small town Minnesota, including a central character who reflected all his own youthful insecurities, and a dog at least as bright as his own pet, in what started as Lil’ Folks and, when he realised that title was taken, quickly grew into Peanuts (though the new title always struck him as pejorative). The book was full of examples of how the drawings themselves, the characters, and the themes had evolved, and so it was exciting to hear that a large collection of Schulz’ original work, along with other Peanuts memorabilia and merchandise, had made it to London’s Somerset House for an exhibition devoted to the world of Charlie Brown.

When you’re used to seeing cartoons in their newspaper-sized published format, it’s always a thrill to be reminded that the artist’s original was many times the size, and Schulz’ economy of line is all the more evident when you can examine his work close up, complete with occasional corrections and the pasted-on header slips. There were lots of them, along with examples of his earlier work and influences, illustrating the subtle techniques he used to bring his simple characters to life – lettering styles, the use of bolder strokes and letter sizes for emphasis, and the freehand style that brought movement to a still drawing. Although his tools were unsophisticated – basically a series of different nibs, black ink, and colouring pens for the weekend editions – he chose them carefully and stuck with the same selection throughout his career, meaning that the cartoons of later years had the same overall look as his first strips.

The characters themselves evolved, though, and the exhibition brought out the differences between the core cast of the 1950s and their later incarnations, both subtle and more radical, such as his decision to allow Snoopy to walk on two legs. Though steeped in US small town tradition, Schulz was progressive by nature, and we were reminded how new characters such as Peppermint Patty and Franklin broke with traditional molds in cartoon characters, the latter reflecting Schulz’ concerns over introducing a black character to his neighbourhood without appearing patronising. I was struck, too, by the depth behind some of the familiar themes, including how Snoopy’s World War One influenced adventures echoed Schulz’ discomfort with America’s role in the Vietnam conflict, and how his careful treatment of issues surrounding depression, religion, feminism, and even abortion, reached a level of consideration belied by the lightness of handling.

Although, for me, the Peanuts-influenced artworks that bookended the exhibition didn’t have the same appeal as the original material, it was striking how widely Schulz’ work had reached, and it was refreshing to see his own take on the merchandizing that grew out of the brand, pointing out that cartooning for newspapers was, in itself, a commercial occupation which meant that it could hardly be set on a higher plane than commercialisation of the work itself. On that note, the shop was, as you’d expect, full of tempting goodies, from high quality collections of the cartoons themselves, to prints, clothing, models and the like – all the sorts of things you’d have found in the 1970s. I lingered over some lovely reproductions of political campaign buttons but instead decided to take home to Mrs M what the 1970s me could have afforded for the 1970s her – a Snoopy eraser and a pin badge. But I’ve still got those cherished Coronet paperbacks stashed safely away…

The exhibition runs through the 3 March, so you’ve still got time to see it. Whether it will move on elsewhere afterwards, or whether the collection will return to its permanent home in Schulz’ former studio, I’m not sure, so don’t miss your chance! Details can be found here.