I’ve long been of the opinion that there’s nothing new under the sun. Undoubtedly we ‘moderns’ differ from the folk who populate the past in a number of significant ways, but I would argue that most of the urges and impulses which drove ‘them’ are still innate to ‘us’, and one example I would cite to illustrate this is the caricature shop of the long eighteenth century.
There were a lot of them. The most famous trading names are probably Fores, Tegg, and the indomitable Mrs Hannah Humphreys. They helped to satisfy a need to laugh at those who rule us, and while it’s true that prints were pricey and that the print shops’ clients were the well-to-do who probably were ruling us in one way or another, their shop windows displayed the latest satires against the powerful very prominently and for all to see. They were a safety valve for pent-up indignation.
And it was enterprising. You could hire a portfolio of humorous prints for the evening, and take them home to entertain your fashionable friends. Like Blockbuster Video. See? Nothing new under the sun. It was a trade which favoured the entrepreneur, too. One of Britain’s first full-time caricaturists was a woman. Mary Darly, who ran a print shop near Leicester Fields with her husband, Matthew, cashed in on the amateur’s enthusiasm for the caricature boom by publishing a ‘how to’ caricature book in around 1762. Producing funny drawings of your nearest and dearest became the latest fad, and a valued social skill.
Georgian satire wasn’t confined to print media, either. We liked to think Spitting Image was original and cutting edge in the 1980s, but we were wrong. From the 1760s to the 178os, a Mr George Alexander Stevens staged a satirical puppet show entitled A Lecture on Heads. Stephens displayed an array of wooden heads, portraying various types and stock figures of ridicule, such as the quack doctor and the lawyer, and by bringing them to life using gestures and funny voices, he satirised them for the pleasure of a fee-paying audience.
As a caricaturist myself, I am always stunned and depressed in equal measure by the work of the mighty James Gillray (1757 – 1815). Scribbling away in Mrs Humphrey’s attic, he almost single-handedly invented the biting, merciless, modern political cartoon. Art historians will also tell you that he influenced Goya, and I don’t doubt it.
In an age without photography and rolling TV news, Gillray’s caricatures of the William Pitts and the Charles James Foxes crystallised their likenesses in the public’s mind. Pitt became the skinny sot, and Fox became the hirsute fatty with the monobrow and the five-o’clock shadow. (Incidentally, his portrayals of King George III were nearly always in profile, which makes me wonder if he based the likeness on coins…? There’s probably a thesis in that, for somebody.) Taking a lead from Gillray, modern cartoonists still try to find ways of reducing the images of politicians to a few bare essentials. That’s why I say Gillray depresses me. Nothing that 21st-century press caricaturists produce – myself included – is in any way better, more advanced, or – viewed in their respective contexts of era – funnier than anything Gillray etched. Yes, he sold out to the politicians in the end, and yes, he went mad – history which I hope doesn’t repeat itself in my case – but he set the standard, and we’ve failed to live up to it ever since. He was once described as ‘a caterpillar on the leaf of reputation’. I can only aspire to that.
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