- Rude Britannia: New Perspectives on Caricature
“Caricaturing has reached its full maturity of perfection in this country; surely a land of freedom in Caricatures, as our Patriots, as well as Ministers and other eminent men, can feelingly testify”—this is J. P. Malcolm in An Historical Sketch of the Art of Caricaturing, a very early (1813) and very astute celebration of the golden age of British caricature. For Malcolm, the greatest exponents of caricature—Gillray, Rowlandson, and the Cruikshanks—were national assets. Their remorseless criticism of the rich and powerful combined iconoclastic energy with artistic brilliance to create a vivid and compelling fantasia of daily events. Malcolm’s opinions set the tone for subsequent generations. The memorable images that emanated in their thousands from the searing imaginations of Gillray and his peers have entertained and shocked the viewing public right up to the present day, but it is only fairly recently that caricature has attracted sustained scholarly interest. In the last two decades, art historians and literary critics have turned to caricature for new insights into the popular visual culture of the eighteenth century and the Romantic period. Studies by Vincent Carretta, Diana Donald, Vic Gatrell, David Alexander, Tamara Hunt, Marcus Wood, and Cindy McCreery have shown the pervasiveness and power of caricature prints during a period of radical social and political change. Caricature provides a window—through distorting and kaleidoscopic glass—onto the highly conflicted moral and material compulsions of the era. Unlike most other art forms, it was a compellingly witty hybrid of high [End Page 437] and popular artistic influences, multiple pleasures, and excessive imagery. It is now acknowledged that the socially diverse viewing public of caricature lapped up all kinds of low artistic pleasures, including bawdy, scatology, and charivari, while at the same time appreciating caricature’s rationalist debunking and exposure of contemporary political themes which tied the images to reportage and the printed word. It was this combination of self-conscious fantasy making with pungent ideological criticism which gave caricature such an irresistible aesthetic force. Unlike the rise of Romantic subjectivism, caricature was an indisputably public mode that shadowed the rise of mainstream British public art.
The two books reviewed here are welcome additions to the growing canon of caricature criticism. Amelia Rauser’s study covers much of the same ground as the early chapters of Diana Donald’s excellent survey, focusing on the crucial switch in the 1780s from an emblematic to a more naturalistic mode of representation, in which recognizable political figures perform a vast array of grotesque and dramatic situations. With a cut-off point of the 1790s, most of Rauser’s topics—Hogarth’s bestselling lampoon of John Wilkes as a grimacing lecher; the fad of the macaroni; the Duchess of Devonshire as a populist kisser of butchers and tradesmen; and the replacement of Britannia by John Bull as a national icon—have been covered before, and Rauser’s discussion reads more like an elegant summary of well-rehearsed arguments. Her distinctive contribution to caricature studies is her claim that the decisive shift to individualized caricature (both as subject and artistic persona) was generated by the rise of the “modern self,” which was an outcome of the “crisis of representation” (21) and the loss of faith in “public” authority caused by the unpopular war with America and the rise of new standards and notions of personal liberty.
Some aspects of this thesis are not contentious, as the astonishing artistic and political freedom of caricature has long been recognized as a peculiarly English phenomenon. Rauser is also correct in noting that caricature grew markedly in both cultural importance and aesthetic quality in the 1780s: not least because of the ascendancy of Gillray, Rowlandson, and Isaac Cruikshank, but also because of the political fallout from the loss of America. But there are two points that she pushes much too far: the first is that caricature traditions were “completely reversed after 1780” (35...