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.
This cultural unity was to dissever in the later nineteenth century, as high art and low art increasingly went their own ways. Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Grossmith produced fiction that has remained popular from their age to this, but they seem a world away from novelists of the high seriousness of Meredith or Henry James. Sir Arthur Sullivan, England’s leading composer of operas and oratorios in this period, is the exception that tests the rule: he deigned to dash off some operettas, but it was always to be understood that they were diversions from his true vocation. Yet posterity has continued to delight in The Mikado, while it has forgotten Ivanhoe and The Golden Legend.
Sullivan kept his “lowbrow” talent completely apart from his “highbrow” one, to the detriment of his more serious works; others with a “lowbrow” bent suppressed it more thoroughly. The finest caricaturist of the Victorian age never published a caricature. Burne-Jones might appear from his serious work to lack a sense of humor altogether, but his comic drawings, dashed off for the amusement of himself and his friends, display a verve and wit, expressed with the utmost economy of line, that none of his contemporaries can match. They have a pulsating life and movement in them, too—something one would never guess from his paintings of languid ladies drooping beautifully.
In an age when the approach to art was becoming one of reverential solemnity (rather like being in church—no riot, no raucousness), the aged Cruikshank was a venerable relic, but a relic nonetheless. The fashionable illustrators were the young Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott. In a sense they aimed to appeal to a simpler taste than Cruikshank usually did, since much of their most brilliant work was devoted to illustrating nursery rhymes. But it is evidently in the most refined nurseries that these books belong, to be perused by cultivated infants dandled upon an aesthetic knee. (Caldecott’s illustrations of Cowper’s comic poem, John Gilpin, however, are clearly influenced by Cruikshank’s illustrations of the same work, done some forty years earlier.)
Yet it would not quite be true to say that Cruikshank transcended the bounds between high and low culture. Dickens did. His art has a popular, almost a folk quality; it grows from the English soil—perhaps one should say, since his was, like Cruikshank’s, so much an urban imagination, from between the cracks of English paving stones—yet it was plain from early in his career that he was a giant among novelists. Dickens and Cruikshank had much in common, in both their strengths and their weaknesses: a prolific vitality, a lusty but inventive humor, a feeling for the texture and detail of common life, a kind of clumsiness shown especially in an inability to handle sentiment convincingly, and even, in their private lives, a passion for amateur dramatics.
And Cruikshank, too, did not lack for literary admirers. Lockhart and Palgrave praised him; Swinburne extolled his dramatic power; Thackeray, who had trained as a painter, wrote an acute “Essay on the Genius of George Cruikshank”; Ruskin even declared that his best etchings were inferior only to Rembrandt’s, and in some respects not even to him. Yet amid the commendations of these gentlemen admirers a sense of de haut en bas is seldom absent, recalling the tone in which T.S. Eliot celebrated the art of Marie Lloyd: the enthusiasm is perfectly sincere, to be sure, but we catch just a hint of cultural slumming. If Dickens was not treated quite like this, perhaps the difference, tacitly or unconsciously recognized, was that he had genius, and Cruikshank had talent. For his periodical, George Cruikshank’s Omnibus, the artist invented Mrs. Sarah Toddles, a short, stout Cockney character with an umbrella and a coal-scuttle bonnet. As Patten observes, she looks like a prototype for Dickens’s Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. But whereas Sairey Gamp is among the immortals, an original of monstrous vitality, Mrs. Toddles, though good fun, remains merely picturesque.
If we turn from a literary to an artistic milieu, we find again that Cruikshank stands apart from the official culture of his time. The period of his maturity is the age of Turner, Constable, and Cotman, possibly the finest three painters England has ever produced. But though all three were from modest backgrounds—Turner indeed from one humbler than Cruikshank’s—they seem to belong to a different world. Indeed, there was a hierarchy among historical and landscape painters themselves, so that a provincial like Cotman who worked mostly in watercolor was undervalued. (Most remarkably, this aesthetic class-consciousness persists to this day, so that third-rate oils by dull Victorian Royal Academicians often fetch much more in the auction room than first-rate work by far better men who achieved less status in their day.) But if Cotman or De Wint were below the salt, Cruikshank was barred from the hall altogether. With poignant humility, he enrolled at the age of sixty-one as a student at the Royal Academy in the hope of turning himself into a history painter, but the experiment was not a happy one.
If he had received an academic training in his youth, might he have succeeded as a weighty, serious painter? Surely not: his was at root a comic talent. This consideration is brought out by one of Patten’s few discoverable mistakes. In the mid-1830s Cruikshank was invited to contribute to an Anglo-French edition of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with illustrations in the form of engravings by notable artists. He was assigned the less solemn, wild or romantic subjects; as the French preface observed, the “scenes of domestic life and humor” had been “entrusted to the spiritual brush of the celebrated Cruikshank”—or so Patten would have us believe. But “spiritual”? Surely no one ever thought Cruikshank was quite that. A glance at the notes at the back of the volume reveals, as expected, a mistranslation of spirituel—“witty.” Patten reproduces his picture of Jeanie Deans and the laird of Dumbiedikes from The Heart of Midlothian; the figure of the virtuous heroine is stiff and characterless, but her inept wooer is a wonderfully vivid portrait of absurd and pathetic lust.
Some of Cruikshank’s contemporaries saw things differently. Blanchard Jerrold, who published a two-volume life of the artist in 1882, suggested that his “Rembrandt-like” etchings for Ainsworth’s The Tower of London showed that he could be rightly regarded as “a great historical painter who had lost his way,” and Ruskin lamented that his “tragic power” had been “warped by habits of caricature.” But this is to confuse the tragic with the grotesque. Patten remarks very appositely that “the risible and the terrible are not necessarily opposed,” but perhaps one should go even further. There is a kind of horror that draws its very force from the cruel sense of a suppressed comedy. Cruikshank was a master of this mood. Probably the most famous of all his images is the etching of Fagin in the condemned cell, from Oliver Twist. It is not tragedy that induces our fear and pity for this terrified figure but something close to its reverse; the edge is provided by our half-guilty half-awareness that mockery is still mingled with empathy, and the ghastliness grows from the sudden vision of a caricature monster as, after all, a human victim. And this is very close to the spirit of Dickens’s text; the comic stereotype of the wicked Jew persists, and yet the novelist blends in with it a sense of keenly realized anguish, in a dark mixture of gloating and compassion. “Melodrama” is commonly employed as a term of abuse, but in a case such as this it may suggest a literary or artistic mode with its own species of power.
A few years after Oliver Twist Cruikshank illustrated Ainsworth’s The Miser’s Daughter. In his etching “The Miser discovering the loss of the mortgage-money” we confront a complex of emotion similar to that in the picture of Fagin, though in this case it seems natural to look upon the balance of feeling from the opposite direction: whereas the picture of the condemned, suffering Fagin preserves a sense of caricature, the Miser is a caricature which Cruikshank has infused with horror and pathos. He has imagined obsession so strongly that we are seized with the intensity of the wretched man’s woe. He was not good at conveying happiness or innocence, but that deficiency has its own potency. Henry James recalled that Cruikshank’s images of goodness and comfort in Oliver Twist had seemed to him in childhood “more subtly sinister, or more suggestively queer, than the frank badnesses and horrors.”
That faint flavor of the macabre, felt sometimes at moments when it was surely not intended, fitted Cruikshank for depicting folk tales and fairy stories. Illustrations which ought to be innocuous can seem mysteriously unsettling, while, conversely, the monsters may extort an odd sympathy. When Cruikshank etched Hans of Iceland, a curious Caliban figure invented by the young Victor Hugo, he showed him squatting in a cave, scarcely more than hair, snarling teeth, and a pair of baleful eyes—cruel, bitter, yet also desperately lonely and unhappy. That was in 1825, when he was still young; fifty years later his last bookplate was to be the frontispiece for an insubstantial little tale called “The Rose and the Lily.” In it a scattering of female fairies flutter above a lake from which emerges a monster, the “Demon of Evil.” The monster takes the form of a hairy blancmange; only the top of its head is visible, a shapeless mass like vegetable matter floating on the water’s surface, and two haunted eyes, gazing upward. Perhaps we ought to be repelled by this creature, yet we are more likely to find in him (for, as Patten says, “something…genders it as male”) an obscurely archetypal expression of yearning, loss, and unattainable desire. The monster becomes curiously endearing; it is little surprise to learn from Patten that Maurice Sendak has said that he was impassioned with Cruikshank and copied his style.
Cruikshank was not a great artist; quite often he was not even a particularly good one. His warmest admirers conceded that he could not portray young women convincingly (another likeness to Dickens); his designs are sometimes muddy and often over-elaborated; his figures can be clumsy. Probably the finest social caricaturist that England has produced in this century was “Pont” (the pseudonym for Graham Laidler, a brilliant talent cut short by death at the age of thirty-two). His series “The British Character,” done in the late 1930s, can be compared to Cruikshank’s scenes of London life in My Sketch Book. But whereas Pont achieved wit through an economy of line (and masterly use of white space), Cruikshank was too ready to cram the picture space with figures, as though humor could be achieved by sheer quantity of caricature (Patten reproduces “Pit Boxes & Gallery,” an etching in which he counts “at least ninety-seven separate and different faces”).
Still, why is Cruikshank so little known today, when we might expect him to have profited from the modern fashion for all things Victorian? Perhaps because he lacks charm, a quality which seems to have come easily to the best illustrators of the late nineteenth century. One of his most admired etchings in his own time was “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” from German Popular Stories; it depicts a cobbler and his wife peering from behind a curtain at two dancing elves who have saved his business by doing his work for him secretly at night. Though supposedly a merry scene, it has the “subtly sinister” atmosphere that James found in Oliver Twist; the elves’ faces seem malicious, and their furious dance expresses exultation, but not joy. The picture is not in the least charming, as it surely would have been had the illustrator been Arthur Rackham, say, or Beatrix Potter, whose Tailor of Gloucester is a variant on the same story. But what it has is energy, a characteristic that Cruikshank possessed in superabundance; even his crouched, motionless Fagin has it, energy coiled and checked.
And Cruikshank has also that indefinable quality of being representative of his age, or ages. His pictures of contemporary life are full of observed detail, whether of people or objects, alive with the buzz and hum of English existence. Patten quotes a passage in which Thackeray praises the “conscientiousness of the artist,” his attention to the author he is illustrating, his “accuracy and forethought” in depicting the paraphernalia of a carpenter’s workshop: “We can see with what keen eyes he must go through the world, and what a fund of facts…this keen student of nature has stored away in his brain.” The care, the exactness, the multiplicity of fact and detail, the keen eye—these are the qualities that Patten in turn has brought to his two excellent books.
July 11, 1996