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The tradition of political caricature in Britain, whose classic phase was 1790-1832, is revealed by Ian Haywood’s Romanticism and Caricature, finds Jacqueline Mulhallen

Romanticism and Caricature

Ian Haywood, Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge University Press 2013), 237pp

The period 1790-1832 was one of rebellion and potential revolution in England, and savage repression on the part of the government. It was also a ‘Golden Age’ for political caricature, including two of the most famous caricaturists, James Gillray and George Cruikshank. Ian Haywood’s Romanticism and Caricature looks at some examples from 1790s England through 1819, the year of the Peterloo massacre, and up to the 1832 Reform Bill.

Other books have recorded and classified the wealth of caricature from this period – Haywood himself in an online interview recommends M. Dorothy George’s British Museum Catalogue of Satires (now online) but they do not give the prints the careful analysis generally accorded to ‘serious’ works of art. This suggests that the eighteenth-century distinction between the ‘fine arts’, the Grand Style and the Academic Rules expressed by Joshua Reynolds in his lectures, as against popular prints, still continues, although this might be just a question of the scale: there are so many caricatures. Romanticism and Caricature does analyse the prints in terms of artistic impact and the political message, which is sometimes ambivalent, but is revealed through this analysis of the art.

Disrespect for the public image of the ruling class could be expressed through caricature, and political events could be portrayed visually in the prints with an anarchic, scatological exuberance which defied the government’s repression and undermined its position. One of the techniques of caricature was to ridicule government ministers, royalty and other rich and powerful figures by portraying them shitting and vomiting, or as a colossus. The caricatures had a small print run but were passed from hand to hand and viewed in shop windows.

An early example of a mocking, and grotesque, caricature which made a political point was Gillray’s Sin, Death and the Devil in June 1792, showing George III’s consort, Queen Charlotte (Sin), coming between the Prime Minister, William Pitt (Death) and the Lord Chancellor Thurlow (the Devil). Pitt had dismissed Thurlow, who had kept his role in government through royal favour, after he should have resigned; the king is seen peeping out behind Death’s cloak. The references to John Baptist Medina’s illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost,and the versions by William Hogarth and Henry Fuseli which followed it, would have been very familiar to a contemporary audience. This audience would have understood how the reference endorsed a ‘levelling’ theme. References to classical works of art were also common; for example in some of the caricatures produced after the 1819 ‘Peterloo’ massacre which referred to Dürer’s ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse’. The queen’s scaly dragon’s tail and elderly shrunken breasts are savage and grotesque but Gillray was never prosecuted for it.

In 1797, Gillray was recruited by the Tory journal Anti-Jacobin, but, although he kept his £200 a year salary for this, he was dropped after a year, probably because he was unwilling to support government repression. The caricatures he produced for them, A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism and the Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency, undermined their ostensible message by exaggerating the ‘truths’ he was supposed to be declaring. His caricature, Midas: Transmuting all into Gold of March 1797 was firmly anti-government in response to Prime Minister Pitt’s issuing of paper banknotes supposed to aid the financial crisis caused by the war against France. The mass production of banknotes led to the cheapening of currency as Gillray suggests. His Midas is Pitt as a colossus astride the Bank of England into which he is shitting paper banknotes, his torso made up entirely of gold guineas. He wears a padlock and has attached to his finger the key labelled ‘Key of Public Property’.

The Bank of England’s notes were very easy to forge and often not even the bank officials could tell the difference. Nevertheless, they employed a team of lawyers to prosecute forgers, spending ‘more [money on prosecution] than was lost through forgery’ in 1819 (the year of Peterloo). From 1797 to 1821 there were 2,000 prosecutions and 300 executions. Most of these came after the end of the Napoleonic war when sailors and soldiers were demobbed, often without their wages, like the sailor Cashman who was owed five years back pay and who was hanged after the Spa Fields riot in December 1816. In response to this, George Cruikshank and William Hone produced their brilliant Bank Restriction Note (January 1819). This has a gallows with eleven corpses hanging from it, an insignia with a skull, and is inscribed: ‘During the Issue of Bank Notes easily imitated and until the Resumption of Cash Payments or the Abolition of the Punishment of Death’.

The caricaturing of the ordinary man in the street as John Bull was used by both Gillray and Cruikshank to comment on the ‘paper money’ crisis. In 1797 Gillray’s Bank Notes. Paper-money, French-alarmists-O, the Devil, the Devil!-Ah! Poor John-Bull!!! shows Pitt giving handfuls of money to a country yokel John Bull while Charles Fox (the leader of the Whig opposition) persuades him to take gold to make his peace with the French when they come (thus showing Fox as a Jacobin). Cruikshank’s 1819 caricature shows, as Haywood remarks, John Bull’s confidence after the growth of the reform and radical movements, when he points out how many people are deceived by the forgeries, including the bank.

Cruikshank and Hone achieved an ever greater success than this when Hone was prosecuted for ‘criminal libel’, or blasphemy, for his parodies in 1818. Hone was defending himself on the grounds that his target was politicians rather than the Bible, and he brought with him caricatures as evidence. One of them was a religious parody by Gillray, and, as it seemed to the jury that Gillray had not been prosecuted because of his ostensible Tory sympathies, Hone was acquitted. Meanwhile Cruikshank was busy at work on a series of prints on Hone’s trial. Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice, died within the year, his death hastened by the indignity of losing this trial.

As might be expected, being the period of the Napoleonic wars, there were numerous caricatures of Napoleon. Thomas Rowlandson showed him sitting on a drum, opposite the skeleton of death, on a cannon overlooking a battlefield (1815). This association of Napoleon with death was also made by Cruikshank in A View of the Grand Triumphal Pillar, a skeleton topped by an image of Napoleon flogging Justice.

The caricaturists had a field day when George IV, a notorious adulterer, attempted to divorce his discarded wife Queen Caroline for her adultery. Hone and Cruikshank produced two hilarious satirical series supporting Caroline and mocking the government and their feeble witnesses; her case was overwhelmingly popular since the hypocrisy was all too plain.

Just as Gillray, despite working for the government, cannot be definitely placed in the Tory camp, Cruikshank was not necessarily as radical as his productive collaboration with Hone would suggest. The government side often suggested that radicals were atheists or, nearly as bad, deists, since, whether they were or not, it was a handy way of countering the popularity of Thomas Paine and discouraging religious working people from radical politics. Richard Carlile, editor of the radical journal, The Republican, was tried in 1819 for selling Paine’s works. Cruikshank’s caricature showed a massive gibbet and guillotines with Carlile, supported by a devil, carrying a placard tied to a cross stating ‘Nothing but Tom Paine and Universal Suffrage’. Although his caricature The System that ‘Works so Well!! defended the Reform Bill, Cruikshank was not a supporter of universal suffrage and loathed what he considered the ‘extremism’ of such radicals as Henry Hunt. In 1821 he took a state bribe to retire and was to become the popular illustrator of Dickens.

Other caricatures show similar ambivalence such as William Heath’s H –t at the Levee – or the Polish’d Courtier (1830) which appears to ridicule Henry Hunt, the reformer, as an ‘unpolished’ courtier. In fact, the illustration shows Hunt’s commitment to the cause he is supporting while the King and his courtiers do not appear to advantage.

The caricatures seem to come to an end after the Reform Bill, as if there was nothing left to satirise, although Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian commented that the purpose of the Bill was not ‘to subvert or even remodel our aristocratic institutions, but to consolidate them by a reinforcement of sub-aristocracy drawn from the middle-classes’ (p.163). And so Parliament has remained.

Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank were the most well known of the caricaturists, but as Haywood’s book shows there were many other brilliant artists operating at this time and satirising figures in politics and the political scene. Romanticism and Caricature is an excellent introduction, being liberally illustrated with clear explanations of the background to the historical events. This is a great advantage, as it is frustrating to have a verbal description of something visual. The caricatures are described chronologically, which allows the reader to develop knowledge of the iconography and recognise the symbols when they reappear. The close analysis shows that it is all too easy to jump to conclusions at a superficial view and that a detailed examination will reveal ironies and ambiguities. The triumph of the book is to bring to life the Romantic era, giving us an understanding of its humour and style and the way in which the caricatures commented upon the political events.

Academic books are usually expensive, and this one is £60.00, but you should be able to get it through a library.

Tagged under: History Book reviews Satire
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