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A Fine Rough English Diamond

Graphic Works of George Cruikshank

selected and with an introduction and notes by Richard A. Vogler
Dover Publications, 168, 279 illustrations pp., $7.95 (paper)

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., publishers, as caricaturists and illustrators. Cruikshank rarely left London or his district in the eighty-five years of his working life though he once did a Cockney trip to Boulogne for a few days and (because he was something of a singer and actor) appeared in one of Dickens’s amateur theatrical ventures in the North.

Ainsworth, Dickens, and others found him delightful company but distinctly quirky and stubborn in working arrangements. (In old age he claimed that these novelists owed many of their best touches to him, a matter which is hotly disputed: one trouble is that his work was copied and recopied without further pay from the booksellers and he strongly resented this.) Still, he did pretty well, married twice. Though it is thought he had no children, there is a suspicion that he had a secret family of nine or ten to whose mother he left a substantial legacy. Some of his impish illustrations of children’s books suggest that he had strong philoprogenitive feelings.

There was one dramatic change in Cruikshank’s life. It happened when he was forty-seven. The convivial fellow who had once begged Dickens to walk home with him because he feared what his wife would say about his unsteady condition, suddenly gave up the bottle for good and now spent as much time speaking at temperance meetings as he did at his work. He became a fanatical propagandist and some critics, especially Ruskin, said this had a dulling effect on his work. Mr. Vogler does not agree with this conventional view. Cruikshank gave up drink when he reached the age at which his father had died after a drinking bout: the conversion may owe something to superstition.

A more important argument surely is that hard-drinking is incompatible with the minute and delicate demands of the etcher’s art. Equally important was Cruikshank’s long-frustrated ambition to equal the great Hogarth who was his master and to do a series of pictures that would bring Gin Alley up to date. Finally, Cruikshank was a man of strong will with an individualist’s social conscience and a professional sense of the topical. The formidable temperance movement had begun.

In a well-known essay Thackeray called Cruikshank “a fine rough English diamond” and “diamond” is the sparkling word that sticks in the mind. Baudelaire wrote that his special merit lies

in his inexhaustible abundance of grotesque. A verve such as his is unimaginable…. The grotesque flows inevitably and incessantly from Cruikshank’s etching needle, like pluperfect rhymes from the pen of a natural poet.

The perceptions of the comic genius, even when they are directed to the vulgar or ordinary, are almost always poetic. Vogler speaks of “the anarchic power of comedy”: Cruikshank was neither a radical nor a conservative—he satirized universal suffrage; he did not agree with Dickens that the sole causes of the appalling evils of drink in the Victorian age were poverty and misery. There were others. His object was “to cleanse by mirth” and strip away “smugness.” And on his defense of Cruikshank as a popular artist, Vogler says,

an artist like Cruikshank became the nineteenth-century exponent of a visual tradition in European religious and secular art which relates symbols and language in a unique way. Pictorial traditions tend to survive more pervasively in popular art forms like caricature than in almost any other kind of art…. The recurrent use of a dunce’s hat in Cruikshank goes back to the basic iconology available to artists from the time of the Renaissance. Cruikshank is a late but direct inheritor of a very complex visual language that has steadily lost its power over the modern world.

He is also very literary. These lines are written to stir the art historians. Let us look at Cruikshank’s early graphics done during the Regency. One notices at once the bite and grace of ingeniously placed detail. Byron takes his romantic farewell to England in a boat full of luscious adoring ladies, but the comments of the vulgar seamen are rudely offhand; Napoleon’s soldiers are not simply stuck in the Russian snow, they are up to their elegant cocked hats in it. The remnants of the Grande Armée are skeletons, their uniforms are in ridiculous rags. As for royalty at home—George IV is a balloon of flesh. A fat couple are stuck in a doorway of a crowded and fashionable drawing room. The appalled eyes, the pursed apologetic little mouth of the lordling who has trodden on a lady’s trailing skirt are a subtle composite of the grimace and speechless abuse that will twitch on a polite face for a split second. Notice the man’s clawed hand, notice also the young couple having a peaceful chat in this melée of colliding bellies.

In “Villagers Shooting out the Rubbish” the coarse villagers are pushing out the be-wigged clergyman and the gentry in wheelbarrows. In “Effects of a Heavy Lurch on board an East India-man” the artist catches every bizarre angle into which arms and legs can fall, every shape of a shouting mouth, while an undisturbed seaman grunts, “Hang on by your eyelids.” Note also the Hogarthian variety of detail, down to the upturned dog biting a passenger’s leg; and, of course, a stout lady with her legs in the air as the centerpiece. She has just given a whack on the nose to a gentleman who is trying nervously to pull back her leg into decency. There are cracks at illness: gout and the colic are celebrated by gangs of devils—surfeit is a joke. There are the parades of monstrous fashions at Brighton. And if the Radical Reform has a death’s head it is leading the scum of the prisons, the sword of constitutional Britannia is buckled and becomes putty. Cruikshank hated revolution; on the other hand, the English Borough-mongers are pouring out bribes and sinecures from a water mill, while the poor lie dying under the pillars of Parliament.

It pays to use a magnifying glass on many of Cruikshank’s smaller graphics and Vogler’s notes are enlightening both on Cruikshank’s fancy and on his topicality. So the Sunday in London series (1833) was undertaken as a humorous protest against an attempt to introduce a Bill in Parliament which would impose strict observation of the Sabbath—Dickens wrote an indignant pamphlet on the same subject. There was an attempt to close Sunday street-trading—a long-standing London liberty—during church services. The bill was an attack on the lower classes: the servants and delivery boys of the wealthy were exempted from restrictions! In “The Pay Table,” a drunken workman comes up for his wages, while a tavern keeper stands by the employer in order to deduct the man’s drinking debts from his pay. One sees the common crowd brawling cheerfully as they are being turned out of gin palaces, at church time, and the series ends with the high order sitting smugly in church. In contrast, in an illustration of Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, Captain of Knockdunder is seen defying the preacher by smoking a foul pipe in church. Another sketch—an example of Cruikshank’s jolly anthropomorphic fancy—shows a preacher in the shape of a weeping crocodile.

Vogler’s book includes the pictures relating to “The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman”—a popular song which was one of Cruikshank’s party turns. Bateman, the “ruler” of Northumberland, traveled to Turkey, was imprisoned, but was set free by the Sultan’s daughter to whom he promised marriage. He got away, was about to marry “another,” but the Turk’s daughter rushed over to claim him—a delightful ballet—for Cruikshank was an incurable dancer.

Mr. Vogler notes the use of language and punning symbols in his drawings. In “The Fall of the Leaf”—in which half a dinner party is thrown to the ground when the leaf of the table collapses—there is a dim picture of Niagara Falls on the wall and on the floor there is a copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Overdoing a joke? No. Echoes and repetitions extend the farce. Whether Cruikshank adds these glosses or is closely following “things” that are tucked unannounced in a text he is illustrating, we see he is one artist complementing another. I go back to that overwhelming Victorian sense of the crowd: it is a crowd not only of people but of fantasies. They are like the charivari of gargoyles and imps on the Gothic cathedrals, a Gothic revival. Cruikshank’s picture of himself in “Reverie” shows him sitting smoking his pipe and puffing out thousands of passing delineations of people; in his “Temptation of St. Anthony” the saint is surrounded by a primitive bestiary most of which can be traced back to fantasies not unlike those of Bosch.

The best-known illustrations are those done for Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist. To the last—except for Nancy—Cruikshank has been the classic guide. (So magical has been the picture of “Oliver asking for more” and so strong the literary tradition among cartoonists, that an American cartoonist used it in connection with the request of Congress for more tapes in the Watergate scandal.) In the pictures of Fagin and Sikes it is noticeable that a preoccupation with strangulation and hanging slips in; the picture of Sikes’s dog, faithfully following him to the roof from which Sikes jumps to hang himself by accident, is as chilling as it is in Dickens.

Yet Cruikshank could move with ease to the theatrical thunder and lightning of Ainsworth’s histories. Some readers—and I was among them when I was a boy brought up on late-Victorian conventions—have felt that Cruikshank’s fantasies were at disconcerting variance with the realistic images we imposed on the text; but this showed our blindness to the essence of the imagination of both artists. Also we had failed to accept the Gothic self-imagination of that escape from grim work into the dream-life of a riotously inventive and expansive age at grips with its conscience, its conviviality, its crimes, and the contrasts of rich and poor in the streets. Cruikshank was as prolific as the first half of the century was, and his sense of so many public scenes being, at heart, a brawl or a fight, albeit caught with robust laughter or an irony as sharp as the etcher’s acid, turned hard times into phantasmagoria.

His anti-drink drawings for The Bottle are plain, realistic confrontations: the sober become comely in their domestic virtue, the sinners go step by step downhill as in the plain moralizing manner of Hogarth, dragging decency down into the unanswerable pathos of the home destroyed before us. The feverish care of the artist is still there; his wonderful command of details of people in their scene is unabated, though the crowd has gone, and the private moral life and the sinister figures who prey on individuals replace myth. Victorian drinking was indeed ruinous to the poor and Cruikshank’s The Bottle, like Zola’s L’Assommoir, was an inescapable social document.

The strange thing is that, in this austere period of his life, Cruikshank made a hero of the great legendary figure of Falstaff who is still a bursting wine-skin but who looks like a benign, rather cleaned up Henry VIII. In this portrait Cruikshank indeed standardized the Falstaff of theatrical productions for several generations. One can account for this only by Cruikshank’s love of historical subjects and their clothing and the fantasies of the unreal world of the Victorian theater. And that brings one back to an essential in his art—his constant, even theatrical eye for staging his scenes, whether they are large or minute, tragic, pathetic, or comic, and for the hundreds of ways the dressed-up body can behave when taken unawares. Human beings are clothed doubles; they stand in a room or the street, yet in their minds they are also standing elsewhere in the passions of the moment. Standing? Not quite—something in them is on the move.

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