- The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III, and: The English Print 1688–1802
The satirical prints of Georgian England are a well-known genre and well-recorded curatorially, primarily in the catalogue of the British Museum’s collection executed by Frederick Stephens and Dorothy George. Political, social, and literary historians have long been used to mining the prints as the equivalent of a picture file or photo archive for their time; but, as Diana Donald rightly points out in the preface to her excellent book, “a general, critical study of caricature in the so-called ‘golden age’...has until now been lacking” (vii). Her study goes a very long way towards supplying that need.
The accession of George III coincided almost perfectly with the publication in 1762 of the first English book about caricature, A Book of Caricaturas by Mary Darly (self-described as a “Fun Merchant”), a work that mixed elements of the old (including Da Vinci and Hollar) with the dernier cri, especially George Townsend, who, Walpole claimed, was the first artist to satirize identifiable people. That fact is naturally what distinguishes satire à la Hogarth from caricature proper as practiced by such great artists as Gillray, Rowlandson, and Cruikshank. (Donald proposes quite convincingly that Cruikshank’s willingness to be advised to concentrate on painting more and drawing less by a writer in Blackwood’s in 1823 represented the end of the golden age of caricature.) It was the personal character of the satire embodied in the prints of the Georgian era that gave them their edge at the time (and which now frequently makes them obscure). That edge also related to a line across which caricaturists seem to have been more willing and able to cross with impunity than writers—a line involving insult, libel, the imputation of outlandish sexual mores and so on—given the fact that, as Donald remarks, “prosecutions of caricaturists and printsellers for libel were rare” (15). Unlike books, which had perforce to have at [End Page 147] least a certain public presence, prints could be bought and sold in private; controversial or sexually frank examples were normally not exhibited in the collector’s house, but were kept in portfolios and albums.
The five chapters of The Age of Caricature concentrate on the period from the 1760s to the end of the eighteenth century, when a spike in the production of satirical prints coincided with the French wars and the threat of a Napoleonic invasion. An epilogue focuses on Peterloo, which occasioned a kind of last gasp of the great spirit of political protest that animated the prints surrounding earlier social and political hot points like the Wilkes controversy, English Jacobinism, or the figures of Fox and Pitt.
It is easy after a lapse of two centuries to assume that the artists of the Georgian print were politically liberal and typically, even quintessentially, English in their emphasis on humor and moral improvement. But as Donald demonstrates in chapter one, the artists were in fact usually freelancing for publishers with party affiliations, and all of them could produce images both pro and con in whatever issue was to be illustrated, depending on the paymaster. Gillray’s infamous apostasy in accepting a pension from a Tory administration merely bespoke a common, indeed accepted, process of patronage, not some unthinkable volte-face. Cruikshank, too, could and did produce work for both parties.
The second chapter in Donald’s book focuses on the 1760s and finds a changing visual language in the prints emerging from the Wilkes affair. The earlier English and indeed European tradition of emblematic imagery was gradually transformed to a more particularized, local iconography as represented, for example, by the jackboot that stands in...