Graphic Works of George Cruikshank
One impression of ordinary English life from the mid-eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth is that it is thronged by an ever-increasing crowd of grotesque bodies, sprawling in their energetic vulgarity or skinny in their dramatic misery. The overwhelming impression is of a crowd bursting with involuntary imaginative and moral life, in the pathos, absurdity, and animality of the flesh. I refer not only to what we have had from novelists but, of course, to the caricaturists especially and masterly graphic artists, like Hogarth, Rowlandson, Gillray, and finally Cruikshank. In the last, the sense of the crowd becomes at times mythical and animistic; Napoleon is seen early in Cruikshank’s career standing on a vast pyramid of crowded skulls; in the “Hungry Forties” a giant mincer is seen turning thousands of sewing girls into the coins of the Capitalist’s profits; as London expands crowds of steel spades looking like devilish Martians are tearing up the countryside without human aid; at the Great Exhibition, England pours its whole population—so that a city like Manchester is left empty—into Piccadilly; the tender triumph of Cupid packs the drawing with clouds of babies.
But after the Great Exhibition the free-for-all calms down, the country turns from its disaffections to self-satisfaction and gentility, and now Cruikshank’s reign as the leading humorist and caricaturist of the time begins to decline. The middle-class respectability of Punch, for which he refused to draw, is established; low life is “out” or is seen as “a problem.” Cruikshank’s genius did not decline, but he was less prolific, narrowed his field to propaganda against the evils of drink, and indeed changed his style.
Now Richard A. Vogler gives us a scholarly selection of 279 of Cruikshank’s etchings and drawings taken from the five or six thousand he is known to have done. Each of them has a short and expert commentary and there is a long introduction expounding the techniques, changes of process, and other influences of his trade on his genius. There also is a serious defense of popular comic art, which has been neglected by art historians, and indeed of the essentially anarchic nature of comedy. Vogler protests against regarding Cruikshank in a belittling way purely as an illustrator of books.
Little is known about his daily life beyond the fact that he was a perpetual worker who liked jolly and Bohemian company and avoided High Society when he rapidly became famous. In person he was celebrated for the originality of his fantastically designed whiskers and for the ingenious pattern of his hair style: the strands were artfully held into place by concealed elastic bands. He could be said to have etched his hair.
Born in 1792 he was the son of a graphic artist who had migrated from Scotland to London and settled in the jungle of poor streets that lie between Pentonville and Camden Town—the deeply Dickensian maze. He and his brother and sister took up the father’s craft, working for newspapers and booksellers, i.e.,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.