This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The comic genius of Rowlandson and Cruikshank

Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Illustrators, London on Thursday, 20 February 2014

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about British art first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 560 published on 7 October 1972.

Vauxhall 1732,  picture, image, illustration

Vauxhall 1732 by Thomas Rowlandson

Ridicule is a powerful weapon. James Gillray discovered this when he followed William Hogarth as a major British cartoonist. The period which came after them was one of the richest and liveliest in the history of caricature. Like all important epochs, the period was memorable for a very large number – about fifty or sixty – of very competent practitioners, and one or two giants who bestrode all the rest like giants. And the two giants who followed after poor James Gillray were Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank.

Thomas Rowlandson was the son of a London merchant. He had a straightforward art education at the Royal Academy and in Paris. With the kind of talent he had for recording the English landscape, young Tom might well have been remembered alongside Gainsborough and Constable. But, as in so many cases, including the case of Hogarth, he turned to commercial draughtsmanship to keep himself fed and clothed. Also to support his passion for gambling, which was nearly his ruination.

In his political cartoons, he consciously aped the style and bite of Gillray; but, unlike the earlier master, he was not a politically-minded person; he was an observer of the passing scene of life about him, and this he recorded with honesty and affection.

Do not look to Rowlandson for an insight into the obscure and involved political set-ups of the late eighteenth century; but, rather, for a pictorial journalist’s view of the rollicking life of the taverns and the docks, and in dance halls and pleasure gardens. His pen dealt with a wide cast of people, particularly women, whom he loved dearly: all kinds of women, from overblown fishwives, to delicate misses in crinolines. He drew them all, even at their most outrageous, without any venom.

He had a masterly eye for a crowd scene. He would have made a splendid film director. This shows best in his large drawings of processions, and in his coloured drawing of an evening entertainment in Vauxhali gardens – surely his tour de force.

Not himself an etcher like Gillray, he worked in ink and a reed pen, delicately shading in tone and colour. The drawings were then passed over to another artist to be etched on copper, afterwards to be aquatinted by an engraver. Rowlandson’s prints, most of which were put out by the art publisher Ackermann, were enormously popular and fetch very high prices today. His original drawings are the pride of private collectors and national galleries of art the world over.

Not so successful a caricaturist as Gillray, he was, nevertheless, the better artist when it came to realistic comment on contemporary life and manners.

While drink was in the process of driving him to a relatively untimely grave, Gillray had many unfinished drawings lying around, and some of these were completed by the brothers George and Robert Cruikshank. Robert was a competent caricaturist, illustrator and miniature painter; but no genius. George was something very close to genius rank.

Not a man with any strong political leanings, George Cruikshank was ready to adopt any sort of attitude to sell his prints. His brutal “Life of Napoleon” lampooned the French emperor with a frankness that would have brought a blush to the cheek, even, of the acidulous Gillray. He contributed to a publication called “The Scourge” (the title suggests its editorial approach), in which he made attacks upon the Prince Regent and members of the government that would have earned him considerable terms of imprisonment for criminal libel in these more protected days.

It seems probable that Cruikshank’s abandonment of this extreme form of political caricature, was, in fact, brought about by pressures from the Establishment, and possibly from the royal family. In any event, he dropped the genre in favour of book illustration. It was he who etched the pictures for Charles Dickens’ early success, the immortal “Oliver Twist.” Our mental pictures of Fagin, Bill Sykes, the beadle Mr Bumble and the rest – they were all given to us by the genius of George Cruikshank, as much as by the genius of Charles Dickens. It was the last book upon which the two men collaborated. Cruikshank had a quirky and quarrelsome disposition, and Dickens was convinced that he was mad. He may indeed have been a little mad.

Cruikshank never had the benefit of a formal art education (he scarcely had time: by his teens, he was already a popular and successful caricaturist), and he was first and foremost an etcher, possibly one of the finest etchers this country has ever produced.

In addition to his political cartoons, and contributions to satirical magazines like “The Scourge” and his book illustrations, he also published his own books of comic and satirical drawings: “George Cruikshank’s Omnibus” (1841) “George Cruikshank’s Table Book” (1845), and his “Comic Almanack” (1835-53). Keep these titles in mind when you browse in second-hand bookshops: they turn up more often than you would think, and quite cheaply.

There are a few names to remember among the fifty or sixty of the rank-and-file who were living and working in the Rowlandson-Cruikshank era.

Henry Kingbury was a Royal Academician, a portrait and landscape painter who produced caricatures from time-to-time, in the manner of Rowlandson. Robert Dighton was a prolific etcher of very individualistic prints depicting the social life that he observed about him. Philip Dawe is interesting: he made some very lively mezzotint engravings lampooning the extravagant male fashions of the “Macaronies” (Macaroni style ran to outlandish wigs and absurd accessories; as when Yankee Doodle, in the American Revolutionary song, stuck a feather in his cap and called it Macaroni).

Henry William Bunbury doubled his career as equerry to the Duke of York with that of social caricaturist. His work was engraved by others.

George Murgatroyd Woodward was highly regarded in his day, and the best of his caricatures recall Gillray. James Sayer proved the might of the pen when, after attacking Pitt’s political opponents with his prints, he was given a sinecure by Pitt when he became prime minister.

Henry Alken produced satirical prints, though he is better known as an etcher of sporting subjects. Frederick Marryat, a captain in the Royal Navy, was a comic draughtsman of considerable worth – as well as being the author of “Mr Midshipman Easy” and “The Children of the New Forest.”

Under the pseudonym of Paul Pry, William Heath composed elaborate pictorial allegories on sociological problems of his time – most of which, it has to be said, are largely incomprehensible to us today.

They all served, these men, the greater and the lesser, in holding up a mirror to their times. It is more than possible that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would have ended very differently without the force of their influence. The force of the mighty pen.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.