- The Punch Brotherhood: Table Talk and Print Culture in Mid-Victorian London by Patrick Leary
The key figure in Patrick Leary’s compelling study of the dynamics of the most famous comic periodical of the last two centuries is a journalist and diarist, Henry Silver, a member of the exclusive Punch table, the small group of staff members who met each Wednesday evening for dinner at the office of the miscellany’s proprietors, Bradbury and Evans, in Bouverie Street, Whitefriars. As well as the exchange of gossip, the telling of jokes, and eating and drinking, the serious purpose of the dinner was to choose the subject for the “large cut,” the cartoon at the centre of each issue of Punch. “Cut” was short for “woodcut,” and, as Leary tells us, the word “cartoon” was never used in Punch circles.
Silver, by all accounts, was totally silent on these occasions, much to the disappointment of the editor and proprietors who appointed him to this exclusive inner circle. Instead, he occupied his time by transcribing the conversation that ebbed and flowed around him, supplying the initials of each contributor and helpfully adding the date of each meeting.
More than 360 such meetings in a period of twelve years, from 1858 to 1870, were recorded by Silver, providing, as Leary makes clear, an unequalled record of male conversation in an era before tape recorders and other devices could capture table talk for posterity. The boundary between what was regarded as an acceptable topic for masculine conversation in a quasi-work situation and what was permitted in a family setting was carefully policed. Smutty stories, ribaldry, sexual innuendo, and salacious gossip all circulated freely at the weekly meetings. As Leary points out, each of the participants had come from different parts of the metropolis—from the theatre, from the clubs of the West End, from the offices of other periodicals and newspapers, from the law courts, from the Royal Academy. Each brought news and gossip from their different worlds, and each then returned to those worlds, adding to the oral circulatory system that constituted metropolitan “talk.”
On becoming the proprietors of Punch in 1842, Bradbury and Evans insisted that the weekly dinners were held at their offices rather than in the taverns and dining clubs frequented by Punch staff in the early days. They were unusual in paying their regular writers a small salary or retainer. Attendance at the weekly dinners was compulsory, and it was understood that each writer should come with an idea for the weekly “cut,” the topic for which was settled during the course of the evening.
There was a strong correlation between subjects discussed in the Times leaders in the days leading up to the Wednesday dinners and the eventual choice of topic. Current parliamentary debates were also featured, sometimes problematically, as on one occasion in 1866 when a crucial vote was expected in the House of Commons on Saturday, the day the magazine went to press. John Tenniel was instructed to leave the corners of Lord John Russell’s mouth unfinished, [End Page 159] so that, depending on the result, the engraver could turn them up or down (Leary fig. 16). Events of general interest, such as royal weddings, current art exhibitions, or (as in 1869) the tightrope artist Blondin’s walk across Niagara Falls, were enlisted for the cut. In the last instance, Louis Napoleon was shown balancing precariously on a tightrope over a sea inscribed “revolution”—an allusion to current political turmoil at home (Leary fig. 13). The Punch Brotherhood is lavishly illustrated with many of the best known cartoons: “A Leap in the Dark” (Leary fig. 4), for example, in which a horse with Disraeli’s face carries Britannia, shielding her eyes, into the unknown, following the passage of the Second Reform Bill in 1867, and the sensational “Britannia Sympathises with Columbia” (1865) (Leary fig. 18) in which Britannia is shown laying a wreath on the funeral bier of Abraham Lincoln, a dramatic reversal of Punch...