The Pleasures of Melodrama

George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art

by Robert L. Patten
Rutgers University Press, Volume 2: 1835-1878, 658 pp., $75.00

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…

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