University of Rochester Library Bulletin: George Cruikshank, Caricaturist

Volume XIV · Autumn 1958 · Number 1
George Cruikshank, Caricaturist

George Cruikshank was the founder of pictorial journalism. Although his eighteenth-century predecessors, James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, had ventured in this field to some degree, Cruikshank's drawings were the first to make the columns of a newspaper. There were virtually no illustrated papers or magazines at the time. There are, to be sure, some isolated examples of woodcut illustrations from the earliest days of newspaper publishing, but illustrated journalism did not really begin to appear until the advent of the Penny Magazine in 1832. The bright-colored prints in the print-sellers' windows were the newspaper of the day for the "man in the street" who usually could not read.

No other book illustrator and caricaturist worked over such a long period and with such great variety as Cruikshank. His pencil ranged from Napoleon to temperance -- a cause which he espoused with fervor in his later years and which some critics claim was his downfall as an artist. The quantity of work turned out during his most prolific period (1820-1830) is prodigious. Every week produced a caricature, broadside, or portrait-political, theatrical or fanciful -- to attract the crowd to the shopkeepers' windows. Etchings, often crude and hasty, but with a touch of genius in their uncompromising realism, are still vibrant records, despite the more than one hundred years that have elapsed since their making. Many of the more than five thousand subjects -- war, peace, and economics, for example -- are as applicable to the present as they were then.

No mean reporter of the local scene, Cruikshank saw life in the raw, and his sketches prove that he saw it -- at the foot of the gallows, at Greenwich Fair. Coal heavers, dustmen, tavern brawls, and prize fights all were grist to his mill. With his caustic pen he portrayed, with lifelike brilliancy, all sorts of men and women, their foibles and peccadillos, drawing a broad and penetrating picture of contemporary English life. Gifted with a reporter's nose for news and a reckless spirit of adventure, he roamed the byways of London, jotting down, like Hogarth, the absurd faces he saw, on his fingernails, which he transferred to notebooks before washing at night or the next morning.

Master of many moods, particularly the comic, he had a fine eye for homely landscapes. His pictures show a wealth of detail bearing on those household furnishings which are today collectible antiques.

In 1840 his good friend and generous admirer Thackeray published a review of his work in the Westminster Review (vol. 34, p. 7) in which he said "there must be no smiling with Cruikshank. A man who does not laugh outright is a dullard, and has no heart. . . . And there are some of Cruikshank's designs which have the blessed faculty of creating laughter as often as you see them." His work is virile, his drawing precise, faithful, and even in his crusading years, when he was pointing a moral, keen and witty. It was best seen in the exhibit on display in the main lobby of Rush Rhees Library this spring. The Library's collection of Cruikshankiana, which filled twenty cases, comprises over a hundred items-books, many of them first editions; lottery puffs, handbills and wrappers; chapbooks; and a wide variety of colored and uncolored etchings and woodcuts, all of which were the handiwork of the man who has been called "the satirist and moralist of all time."

Included are several copies of Oliver Twist, with twenty-four superb etchings illustrating the novel by Charles Dickens, which first appeared in monthly issues of Bentley's Miscellany Vol. I-V, published in London in 1837-1839; and a first edition in book form (London, 1838) presented by Robert Bruce Lindsay. Of special interest are four original letters from the Charles A. Brown Autograph Collection, written by Cruikshank between 1846 and 1866, and two very handsome volumes bound in brown levant leather with Cruikshank's portrait and signature embossed in gold on the covers, containing Thackeray's article from The Westminster Review and many examples of Cruikshank's drawings.

There are also copies of the History of Dick Whittington, a chapbook printed about 1814, parodying the old nursery rhyme; The Political House that Jack Built, a satire which went through fifty-three editions, largely because of the popularity of Cruikshank's woodcuts; a first edition of George Cruikshank's Omnibus, Illustrated with One Hundred Engravings; a hand-colored copy of Illustrations of Time and several issues of The Comic Almanack. . . Adorned with. . . "Righte Merrie" Cuts. . . by George Cruikshank.

Born in London, September 27, 1792, of Scottish parents -- a Lowland father and a Highland mother -- Cruikshank grew up in the streets of London, amidst scenes which fired his imagination. It was there that his remarkable genius budded and blossomed, until, by 1838, he was the busiest illustrator of books in the city. His father, Isaac Cruikshank, was a fairly well-known water-color painter and etcher of popular subjects. But his talent as a caricaturist was limited and his habits far from abstemious. As a result he eked out a rather dubious living with potboilers -- lottery tickets for which there was a steady demand. Almost as soon as their baby fingers could hold a tool, George and his brother, Isaac Robert, were apprenticed to their father, who continued his etchings on copper, while his wife, Mary, colored the plates, pressing her sons into service to carry them to the printer. Mary was a hot-tempered but frugal, industrious wife and mother who boasted that she saved a thousand pounds while bringing up her children in God-fearing ways -- a boast which the wild antics of her sons did not quite bear out. Even her husband found her a trifle too strict and escaped nightly to the nearest pub where he spent more time and money than was good for him or his family. Once Mary's Highland temper got the best of her. A tradesman had sent her two bad eggs. She told the boys to return them and throw them at the rascal's head, an admonition which they were only too delighted to heed to the letter.

Robert (he had dropped the Isaac) was a spirited worker, probably on a par with his father, but the handsome, bright-eyed youngster, George, with a keener sense of observation and surprising humor, soon developed a distinct and strong individuality. During his long career, he provided illustrations for a great many of the popular books of the nineteenth century. In his prime he illustrated Oliver Twist, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, Baron Munchausen, Peregrine Pickle, Robinson Crusoe, The Waverly Novels, and other classics.

Robert went off to sea but, when he returned, he joined George, who had made astonishing progress during his absence. Although they had no formal training in art, the brothers, after the death of their father in 1811, took over the entire field of caricature, supplying nearly all the colored etchings on copper for which there was such a demand. About 1820 they parted company as business partners, and Robert devoted himself to portraiture and miniature painting. He died in 1856.

Even in his teens, when he had his daily bread to win, George had become a designer of Twelfth-night characters and lottery tickets, a rough illustrator of popular songs, and a pictorial delineator of any event or exhibition which excited public attention. The earliest of his drawings known is dated 1799, when he was only seven years old, and by the age of fifteen he was comparatively distinguished. His first paying job was illustrating penny books for various children's book publishers. He was the first important artist to earn his living this way.

Like many of his predecessors and some of his contemporaries, he enjoyed a full set of bad habits, which may be one reason why he was able to interpret so graphically the raucous and dissolute life around him. He led the life of a man about town, in company with his brother Robert and other kindred souls, burning the candle at both ends, working all day and seeing "Life in London" all night. But unlike those who had preceded him, he became a reformer. In The Bottle, published in folio form in 1847, his sound, if vulgar, characterization of the awful downfall of a respectable family as the result of drink received astounding success. The Drunkard's Children, which followed it, met with no such response. It was apparently too maudlin and too absurd even for the reformers and had a short-lived popularity. It is hard to believe that the same man, who, in his youth painted the town red, in his later years took the chair at temperance meetings and called tobacco "the poison of the devil."

His most famous illustrations are those he made for the immortal story of Oliver Twist, depicting with humor and pathos the manners, pleasures, and vices of the Dickens characters. Unfortunately this was the last work he did for Dickens. He had begun his association with Dickens in 1836 by illustrating the author's first published work,Sketches by Boz, which had appeared earlier in periodicals and which brought fame to both author and illustrator. But he was obstinate and conceited, and quarreled with the authors and publishers for whom he worked. When he tried to tell Dickens what to write, that was the end. Only Thackeray remained his friend, listened with amusement at his ravings on the value of water as a diet, and when Cruikshank had fallen upon evil days, befriended him with both purse and pen.

As a political caricaturist, he hit hard, with satirical comments on public events, and although he was no respecter of persons -- kings and dustmen he treated alike -- there was a feeling of sympathy and understanding underlying all his creations. It is by the first half-century of his life that his work must be judged, for it was during that period that he earned the title "greatest comic etcher that ever lived," and, dying at the age of eighty-six, he left behind him a vivid record of extravagant aristocrats, provident and improvident middle-class people, and petty criminals. He had a long life and, for most of it, a merry one.