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  • "Governed by Mediocrity":Image and Text in Vanity Fair's Political Caricatures, 1869-1889
  • John B. Osborne (bio)

On 7 November 1868 Thomas Gibson Bowles published the first issue of Vanity Fair, self described as "A Weekly Show of Politics, Social and Literary Wares." The journal's lead articles focused on the character and policies of Britain's political leaders, dispensing criticisms or accolades to those singled out for comment on the basis of their contribution to the well-being of the body politic and their adherence to principle. The journal assessed Gladstone's ability to lead, Disraeli's opportunism, and John Bright's transformation from pariah to public hero, against a background of commentary on the operation of the current political system. For all of its insightful and witty political commentary, the journal, with a circulation of only 500 copies per issue, appeared headed for bankruptcy until the advent of Carlo Pellegrini's full page color lithographic caricature portrait of Disraeli in the 30 January 1869 issue. Pellegrini's clever caricatures were responsible for a five-fold increase in Vanity Fair's weekly circulation and were undoubtedly responsible for both its financial success and its access to "the somewhat inaccessible class for which its founder proposed to cater."1 The caricatures were accompanied by witty biographical sketches of the individuals portrayed which were written by Bowles and signed Jehu Junior after the Old Testament king appointed by God to destroy idolaters. It is noteworthy that many of the texts, including the first three subjects caricatured, Disraeli, Gladstone, and John Bright, were based on editorial comments that had previously been published in the journal. Bowles intended his innovative visual and literary images to illustrate his editorial political commentary. They were the handmaidens of the journal's political agenda, verbal and pictorial images that epitomized the texts of his political advocacy. [End Page 307]

The political agenda advocated by Vanity Fair was delineated from the first issue. Bowles championed rule by Britain's gentlemanly elite, who would create policies based on principle and hammered out in Parliamentary debate. He advocated that Britain be ruled by those with the education, the leisure, and the experience to rise above parochial and class interests and judge what was best for the country as a whole. While realizing that loyalty to one's political party's principles was essential for the orderly functioning of Parliament, Bowles believed it the "bounden duty of a member of parliament to form an independent judgment in respect to every measure that is proposed," to support a bill with which he agrees in principle while opposing one with which he disagrees "though it emanates from his own party leader."2 Bowles felt that neither the middle classes enfranchised in 1832 nor the lower orders who were given the vote in 1867 were worthy of the task of selecting Britain's rulers. He greatly admired the way that Lord Palmerston kept the commercial interests of the Liberal "tradesmen militant" in check by satiating their "hunger for dinners and soirees."3Vanity Fair was initially less concerned about the political actions of the newly enfranchised masses who were seen as naturally subservient. Thus while "the semblance of power has been given to the people, . . . the power itself is still wielded by the upper and middle classes."4

Bowles doubted the efficacy of public opinion in guiding the affairs of Britain. While public opinion might claim to rule over the nation, so long as ministers were able to keep peace with their party they were immune to rebuke by the nation. Should public opinion come tardily to uncover misconduct or discover incompetence, it had little choice after the fact but to overlook or affirm these actions. Arguing that "English ministers are indeed and in fact English rulers, as powerful and as irresponsible as any that exist under more despotic titles," Bowles addressed his editorials to the upper orders in hopes that pressure from them would keep these rulers honest.5 While his political editorials predated the advent of Pellegrini's first caricature, the portraits and their accompanying letterpress biographies, focusing as they did on a single individual, were the perfect vehicles for exposing...


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