By Alice Loxton

Icon Books. 397 pages. £25. ISBN 978-178578-954-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is a cartoon on the front cover of this book which shows the figures of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, and the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, seated at a table on which there is a globe atlas in the form of a plum pudding. They are both attacking it with vigour and slicing off chunks. The satire is obvious as they compete to grab the largest portions of the world as spheres of influence for their respective countries. Napoleon appears intent on seizing large parts of Europe while Pitt seems to be more interested in wider overseas ambitions. It’s a famous illustration, often adapted by later satirists for differing circumstances where individuals, parties, and states attempt to assert themselves in the face of determined opposition.

The original illustration (“probably the most famous political cartoon of all time”) was created in 1805 by James Gillray, a key figure in Alice Loxton’s fast-moving account of the lives of some of the satirists who entertained the public while exposing vice and folly. Their activities largely took place in London, though prints could be viewed in other cities and towns. Their running commentaries on the fads and fashions of the day, the politics and the personalities, and just about everything else that came to their attention were famous. Everything and anything became a possible subject for both lampooning and making serious observations regarding the antics of the privileged. To be royalty or rich didn’t guarantee exclusion from ridicule. In a period when newspapers were in their infancy, and technically limited in the reproduction of pictures, print shops flourished and people gathered in crowds outside their windows to see what the latest mockery might be.  Those with money could also purchase copies of the prints to amuse their families and friends.

William Hogarth had set the scene for the rise of the satirists or caricaturists, though Loxton indicates that he was not in favour of the latter. He “used satire for what he considered to be its best purpose: to expose social ills and encourage reform”. Anyone who has seen Hogarth’s great sequences such as Marriage-à-la-Mode, The Rake’s Progress, and The Harlot’s Progress will know that they are not meant to be simple entertainments. They tell their stories to make emphatic points regarding human behaviour. Gin Lane, is a biting comment on the craze for the cheap drink which was creating a devastating effect on society. The image of the drunken woman whose baby is falling from her arms in the foreground of the picture is still powerful in its visual impact.

I’m not about to suggest that what came after Hogarth was somehow inferior because it lacked his sense of purpose in terms of its moral content. That wouldn’t be true. But there may be some justification in proposing that there is an aura of “guns for hire” around some of the work of Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank, the three artists Loxton mostly looks at in her book. She is inclined to favour Gillray, I think, from the point of view of his output and its political content, something I would agree with, at least in terms of the politics.  However, there is the question of an annual pension of £200 he was in receipt of while Pitt was head of the government. Did it influence him to tone down his criticisms of Tory policies?  Gillray’s reputation suffered after his death in 1815, and Victorian-era critics, in reaction generally to the excesses of the Georgian period, were dismissive of his work. Its alleged lack of outright moral condemnation of the personalities and topics it portrayed led to it being frowned on. There was, too, his private life. He lived in the same house as an older woman called Hannah Humphrey, a printmaker and bookseller, though what their relationship was is open to debate. And he drank. The fact that he went insane later in life no doubt proved to the moralists that he had led a dissolute life which was reflected in his art. If it was art. The caricaturists were said to be mere “sketchers” and no better than the Grub Street “scribblers” they often mixed with.

Before leaving Gillray I want to refer to A Bravura Air, Mandane, his caricature of the “celebrated opera singer”, Elizabeth Billington, “who was also famed for her stout physique”. The Royal Academy artist James Ward (from an original said to be by Sir Joshua Reynolds) portrayed her as “a doe-eyed goddess who is passive, mute and slimmed down to resemble the ideal woman of the age”, in his Mrs Billington as St Cecilia. But Gillray shows her as the “real ‘Betsy’ Billington. She is stout and majestic, gorgeously curvaceous and swathed in luxurious, gold-trimmed drapery and plumes of feathers. What's more, her mouth is open  - she’s actually singing”. I have no idea about how Mrs Billington may have reacted if and when she saw Gillray’s take on her appearance. She may well have enjoyed being pictured in that way.  It’s a fact that celebrities often like to see themselves caricatured. It’s a recognition of their popularity, or even sometimes of the notoriety which they want to have acknowledged.  

isaac Cruikshank, like Gillray, also enjoyed his liquor and frequently staggered home the worse for wear. But he did produce some highly effective satires. His The Political Locust has Pitt’s head mounted on the body of a locust, an image of a creature that, Loxton says, “would have thrived in Bosch’s nightmarish underworld”. She also suggests, when looking at the Cruikshank alongside Gillray’s An Excrescence; a Fungus; alias a Toadstool upon a Dung-hill in which Pitt’s head is the toadstool, that “perhaps the Gillray gang could also be known as the First Surrealists”. It’s a point worth bearing in mind when considering how far the 20th century movement known as Surrealism entered the British imagination.  Some people said, “We don’t need it”, and they pointed to traditions such as the ghost story, Tom O’Bedlam’s Song, the Gothic novel, the fantastic Land of Cockaigne,  Alice in Wonderland and the Georgian caricaturists. 

Cruikshanks’ drinking eventually began to affect his work, with the result that his sons frequently had to step in to help out. Loxton points to one of them: “Luckily, his son George was brilliantly capable. At the age of thirteen, he was finishing off his father’s work with titles, backgrounds, furnishings and dialogue”. When his father died, probably from alcoholic poisoning in 1811, George established himself as an illustrator and would later be the Cruikshank who notably embellished Dickens’ novels. Unlike his father he didn’t drink and was, in fact, “a fanatical campaigner for temperance”. But he wasn’t a complete paragon of virtue. He lived to the ripe old age of 86 and died in 1878. Someone commented that “There never was a purer, simpler, or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency”. However, his will revealed that he had left nothing to his wife. Everything went to another woman who had once worked as a maid for the Cruikshanks. He had set her up in a house not far from where he lived with his wife. What’s more he had fathered eleven children with her. It’s said that his childless wife knew nothing of the other woman.

A story told by Loxton includes a reference to a Cruikshank drawing and others by Gillray and Rowlandson. Mary Ann Clarke was the daughter of a tradesman but somehow contrived to become the mistress of Frederick, Duke of York, son of George the Third, and commander-in-chief of the British army.  When the affair became widely known the printmaker Thomas Tegg commissioned Rowlandson to come up with a series of designs, some of which had Clarke persuading Frederick to promote certain young officers of her acquaintance. Cruikshank’s version, probably with assistance from son George, hints at the same subject, with Clarke holding open a voluminous military cape under which a number of little men are clustered. Gillray chose to portray Clarke as Pandora “opening a box of evils in the House of Commons”. Faced with the scandal and ridicule that erupted as people laughed in front of the print sellers’ windows, Frederick resigned.

I’ve said little about Thomas Rowlandson so far and he was the longest-living of the trio, dying in 1827 at the age of 69. Not very old, at least by today’s standards, but Cruikshank had died at 47 and Gillray at 58. And drink (and blindness in Gillray’s case) had meant that their work output decreased in their later years. Rowlandson was also known to have enjoyed life in the London taverns, especially when on the town with his friends, “Henry Angelo, the fencer, and Jack Bannister, the actor”. Together they were known as the “Three Jolly Dogs”. Loxton proposes that they more than likely made a “significant contribution” towards the consumption of 84 million gallons of beer, 10 million gallons of wine and 14 million gallons of spirits in London each year.

Rowlandson was well-trained in basic art techniques. He had joined the Royal Academy School at the age of 15  and when he was 16 went to Paris to study with Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, “one of the wealthiest and most respected sculptors in France” : “Rowlandson’s trip to Paris was important. His eyes were opened to the swirling lines of the Rococo, the workshop of the greatest artist of the time and the day-to-day workings of the print trade. He made rapid advances in the study of the human figure……and occasionally indulged that satirical talent, in portraying the characteristic habits of that fantastic people (the French) whose outré habits, perhaps, scarcely demanded the exaggerations of caricature”.

I think the sustained period of training that Rowlandson received in London and Paris enabled him to move easily from straightforward portrait painting to caricature and back again. His work was much more varied than that of most satirists. He was prolific and, among other activities, he produced erotica for private patrons. He could also be slyly bawdy in his political satires. A send-up of Napoleon is entitled, The First Night of my Wedding, or little Boney no match for an arch-Dutchess, and shows a frustrated Josephine with a somewhat deflated Napoleon in the background. It’s of importance to note that all three leading caricaturists – Gillray, Cruikshank, Rowlandson – didn’t hold back with illustrated expressions of their patriotic sentiments when Britain and France were at war. Nor did they restrain themselves when criticising Fox and his followers for their alleged pro-French leanings.

A quick look at the range of Rowlandson’s paintings and prints available on the Internet will indicate that he clearly could turn out landscapes and other scenes as easily as he did satires. Some of his canvases contained both aspects of his skills. Loxton reproduces his An Artist Travelling in Wales which neatly mocks Rowlandson himself when it commemorates a sketching expedition with his friend Henry Wigstead in 1797. Mounted on a bedraggled-looking pony, and with his feet almost touching the ground, the artist clutches the tools of his trade while attempting to shelter from the rain with an umbrella.

Loxton says that “In November 1819, after one of his publishers found himself in prison for radicalism, Rowlandson cut all ties with them and never again produced a political satire”.  His output dwindled in the 1820s but he was financially secure, and when he died in 1827 he left an estate worth around £200,000 in today’s money to Betsy Winter. She was a younger woman, initially employed to run his household and who became his companion.  

I’ve concentrated on the three major caricaturists of the period concerned, but Uproar! has a larger cast of colourful characters I could just as easily have written about. William Combe, the writer who worked with Rowlandson on the Doctor Syntax series, is usually dismissed as a typical Grub Street hack. Perhaps he was in many ways, knocking out just about anything for a price, and in his lifetime having been a soldier, cook, teacher, and an imprisoned debtor. But Stephen Wade, in his Rowlandson’s Human Comedy (Amberley Publishing, 2011), says he was “a figure of paradox and contradictions”, notable for “his sheer breadth of interests and publications”. There were the entrepreneurs, Rudolph Ackerman and Thomas Tegg who, with their bookselling and publishing businesses, helped promote the sale of prints and relevant material. Hannah Humphrey who provided Gillray with much support both when he was successful and when he was in decline. And so many other booksellers, publishers, printers, without who the artists and writers would not have seen their work produced and distributed. Such people are too often overlooked when histories of art and literature are written.

And there is the oddly named Mustard George (George Murgatroyd Woodward), a talented artist who arrived in London from the provinces and “soon became the new darling of the print scene….He spent a lot of time in Offley’s Cyder Cellar in Henrietta Street. Or sometimes it was the Blue Post tavern, the Hole in the Wall, or the Brown Bear, often in the company of Rowlandson”. It has to be admitted that, like others of his kind, his lifestyle was his downfall: “His hand-to-mouth existence, with every penny spent on drink, had taken its toll”. He died in 1809.

Uproar! is an engaging book written in a bright and breezy manner which doesn’t hide the fact that Alice Loxton has a detailed knowledge of her subject. It’s an example of how to be both entertaining and instructive. There are clear explanations of etching and engraving, the development of the print business, and other matters, together with ample notes, plenty of illustrations, including a delightful one of the elderly Rowlandson by John Thomas Smith, and a useful bibliography.