George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art
It is hard now to realize how famous Cruikshank was in his own time, as caricaturist, illustrator, and artist. That fame began early and lasted throughout his long life (he was born in 1792 and died in 1878). He had virtually no formal training in art, but learned how to etch and design by working with his father, himself a cartoonist and illustrator. In Robert L. Patten’s account he began to establish his reputation as “Britain’s leading satirist” before he was out of his teens; in his twenties he became “the most potent of Regency caricaturists,” and before he was thirty “the premier caricaturist in Europe.” In the 1830s he shifted increasingly from caricature to illustration, and his etchings for Dickens’s Oliver Twist and the books of the now-little-read novelist Harrison Ainsworth became the pattern for other early Victorian illustrators to follow.
Even when he was old, and his art was getting a dated look, he was a venerated figure, “immortal George.” In 1863 the lawyer and journalist John Paget judged that he had been for fifty years “the most faithful chronicler of the ways, customs, and habits of the middle and lower classes of England”; and in the year of his death a publisher’s circular declared, “To omit the name of George Cruikshank from the history of England in the nineteenth century would be to leave out an essential factor from the story of the passions, merriments and moods of the people.”
What is more, his style, his subjects, and his outlook shifted to match the changing spirit of the age with a tidiness not often found in real life. His early work displays a manifest kinship with the late Georgian comic art of Thomas Rowlandson and above all of James Gillray, exhibiting a robust, blowsy Hanoverian vulgarity in design, and sometimes a gross, scatological bawdiness in its themes: women drive a windmill with the farts from their huge buttocks, John Bull shits gold coins, gentlemen drunks puke into their hats. It is not easy to put into words how the style that he evolved in the 1830s differed from his earlier manner. Often, but not always, he renders larger areas of the picture black or dark, the figures are less exaggerated, the drawing spikier, and the compositions simpler, as he becomes less often anxious to crowd every square millimeter with detail or activity. It is a style that we recognize at once as “early Victorian,” but this is perhaps because of the influence it had on others. Cruikshank was not to illustrate any of Dickens’s books after Oliver Twist, but Hablot Browne (“Phiz”), who illustrated most of them, carried on the Cruikshank manner, with less flair.
Meanwhile Cruikshank’s way of life changed too. In his Regency youth he was a riotous carouser, but in Victoria’s reign he metamorphosed into a passionate teetotaler and an evangelist for the temperance cause, both in his pictures and on the lecture platform. His political attitudes followed a similar pattern of evolution. In the age of Peterloo, the Queen Caroline scandal, and the Cato Street Conspiracy, he flayed the King and the government, working with and for the radical publisher William Hone. His “Bank Restriction Note” etching, satirizing the ease with which paper currency could be forged and the savage penalties for making or passing a false bill, is often said to have given a strong impetus to the reform which abolished the death penalty for counterfeiting. But in the middle of the century he would be depicting the crowds flocking to the Great Exhibition in the spirit of Frith’s Derby Day—a vision of communal solidarity and mass enjoyment, exuding a contented patriotism.
Because he is so enmeshed in the spirit of his age and because he adapted to the changes in that spirit, Cruikshank is a particularly good candidate for a “life and times” such as Patten has provided. His two volumes are a formidable achievement. His industry has been immense, and he draws on a huge mass of material (he reveals that about eight and a half thousand letters to or from Cruikshank survive, preserved in several hundred different places). He has made his task all the greater by his resolve to relate his hero to the political and social life of his times; this is admirably done, with a sure and unemphatic understanding of the nineteenth-century English milieu. He also discusses the character and quality of many of Cruikshank’s pictures sensitively and with scrupulous attention; his assessments do not compel agreement in every case, but they always command respect, and to follow his analyses is to be educated in looking exactly.
However, to sustain a study of anything across one thousand pages is a stern test of both subject and author; the reader may feel a hint of anxiety furrowing the brow as he embarks upon so large an odyssey. Will Patten have strength and style enough for the longue durée? He begins like this:
George Cruikshank was accustomed to rising early and working hard. He would dress with care, putting on a clean shirt and buff waistcoat, selecting slim gray pantaloons and a broad-lapeled blue swallow-tail coat. He took pride in being the last man in London to give up wearing Hessian boots with tassels. Many thought him a bit of a dandy and laughed at his elaborate coiffure, which in later years was held in place by an intricate network of elastic bands webbing the thinning locks of auburn hair. Pardonably vain, he made the most of his short, thick-chested frame, large head, penthouse brows, and hawk nose.
That is as good a beginning to a biography as any I can recall; we can relax, assured that we are in skillful hands. However, if it suggests that we are going to get an intimate portrait of the man, the impression would be misleading. The vice of so many biographers is to pretend an understanding of their subject’s inner experience that the evidence cannot justify. Patten does not make this mistake. Instead, he takes for one of his epigraphs the words of Mark Twain: “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself…. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” And indeed despite the quantity of documentation it does seem difficult to get close to the private Cruikshank (even the date of his first marriage is not known). Patten’s scrupulous objectivity gets us nearer than a more intrusively knowing biographer would have done. As the hundreds of pages of narrative pass by, we begin to gather from the accumulation of multiplied fact a sense of this awkward, hard-working, brave, pig-headed, quarrelsome, proud, generous, passionate man.
Patten’s opening sentences observe their subject from the outside, as a movie camera might. And they do beautifully set the tone for the stress throughout the book on how hard Cruikshank worked. After a paragraph on the man’s appearance, Patten goes on to give a picture of his day—breakfast at eight, and a pipe beside the fire before starting to sketch at nine. His working day, interrupted by breaks for meals and conviviality, would be prolonged until late in the evening, ending twelve hours after it had begun. If we are to understand Cruikshank, we must understand his business, and so Patten intersperses his account of a day in the man’s life with a plunge into the technicalities of the etcher’s craft—the exacting labor of preparing the copper plate, beveling the edges, rubbing the surface with a ground of pitch and wax, the transference of the traced design from paper to the ground, the strain on the eyes of furrowing the metal with the etcher’s needle. We see the artist as hero and as drudge.
Patten also brings out how Cruikshank had to struggle to keep above water financially; no matter how great his celebrity, money was a constant worry. This book is full of meticulous detail about his dealings with authors, publishers, and collaborators—far more detail, indeed, than most readers will want—but it serves a purpose in revealing the nineteenth-century illustrator’s conditions of life. Cruikshank’s position was somewhat like that of football heroes before the age of television, admired, even adored, but ill rewarded and subordinate in social rank. He was indeed every inch a professional, a craftsman, an artisan. He became a caricaturist and illustrator, as did his brother, because that was their father’s trade. Like a wheelwright or a furniture-maker, he went very young into the family business, learning on the job.
In some ways his status and conditions resembled those of a Renaissance artist more than those of the grander artists who were his contemporaries. A quattrocento painter might be instructed which saints were to be included in his altarpiece, and how they were to be disposed; and Cruikshank was ready to execute designs supplied to him by gentlemen amateurs. One of these collaborators was the adventure novelist Captain Frederick Marryat. Patten gives a couple of examples of Marryat’s pen-and-watercolor drawings for his comic sequence The Progress of a Midshipman, and the etchings Cruikshank made from them. These demonstrate that while Cruikshank used his skill to improve details of Marryat’s composition and to give life to his doll-like figures, the designs are indeed essentially Marryat’s own.
The term “illustrator” is hard to avoid, but it has the inconvenience of suggesting that the artist inevitably fitted himself to the writer’s requirements. The reality was more complicated, and more interesting. When Dickens first collaborated with him, on Sketches by Boz, Cruikshank, the older man, was in some respects the senior partner. “Boz is the CRUIKSHANK of writers,” declared the Spectator enthusiastically. That Dickens himself saw the work as a shared enterprise, a fusion of words and pictures, is indicated by the alternative titles that he proposed: Sketches by Boz and Cuts by Cruikshank or Etchings by Boz and Wood Cuts by Cruikshank. (Since Cruikshank intended to etch rather than use the more expensive wood technique, the latter title was ruled out.) Unfortunately, Cruikshank was to make a fool of himself later in life by insisting that he had given Dickens the idea for Oliver Twist, a claim that was to cause a good deal of ill feeling. The reality behind it seems to have been that the two men discussed their ideas with each other at every stage, and Dickens may well have been ready to adjust his text to fit with what Cruikshank thought pictorially effective. What Cruikshank’s work with Dickens and Ainsworth does suggest is the wholeness of early Victorian culture. Word and image act together, and create an art with an immensely broad appeal, attractive alike to the educated and to ordinary people.