English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century/Chapter 10
|←CHAPTER IX||English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century by
Decidedly next in order of merit to George Cruikshank, amongst his own contemporaries, if we except only Theodore Lane, comes Robert Seymour. With a style and manner peculiar to himself, and a power of invention and realization which amounted almost to genius, Seymour was superior in every respect to Robert Cruikshank, with whom we find him not unfrequently associated in comic design. This style and manner were clearly founded on those of George Cruikshank; and when he selected (as he not unfrequently did) subjects which had been treated by the latter, the work of this most able draughtsman will bear even favourable comparison with that of the great original whom he chose as his master. That he drew his inspiration from and sought even to emulate Cruikshank, is shown by the fact that to some of his earlier caricatures he affixed the name of "Shortshanks," a practice which he discontinued on receiving a remonstrance from the irritable George.
Robert Seymour was born in 1798. Henry Seymour, his father, a gentleman of good family in Somersetshire, meeting with misfortune, removed to London, and apprenticed him to Mr. Vaughan, a pattern designer of Duke Street, Smithfield. This Vaughan seems to deserve a passing notice here by reason of the fact that his father is said to have received proposals for partnership from the father of the late Sir Robert Peel, which were rejected, on the ground that the fortunes of the Peel family were not then considered particularly flourishing. How far this statement may be correct we know not Assuming it to be true, the fortunes of the Peel family afterwards took a turn which probably frequently gave Vaughan père (if he lived to ruminate thereon) some serious cause for reflection as well as of repentance.
Like Hogarth, with whom this artist, like all other comic designers, has been frequently and improperly compared, young Robert Seymour declined to waste his abilities as a mere mechanical draughtsman, and used his technical education as a means of cultivating the artistic gifts with which nature and inclination had endowed him. He seems at first to have selected a walk in art which required for its ultimate success a larger amount of application and patience than he could well spare for the purpose. Shortly after the expiration of his indentures, he started as a painter in oils, and executed several pictures, one of which (a Biblical subject) included, it is said, no less than one hundred figures, whilst a no less ambitious subject than Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered" was deemed of sufficient merit to be exhibited on the walls of the Royal Academy. Other pictorial subjects were taken from "Don Quixote," "Waverley," "The Tempest," etc., besides which he executed numerous portraits and miniatures. These efforts, however, do not appear to have been sufficiently remunerative to encourage him to continue them, and after a time he resigned them to follow a branch of art more congenial, perhaps, to his abilities, and thenceforth very rapidly acquired fame as a social satirist and caricaturist.
The coloured caricatures of Robert Seymour, besides being comparatively scarce and little known, seem hardly to call for any particular description; the titles of some of them will be found mentioned in our Appendix. One which has survived, and with which the public are probably most familiar, is one of the worst of the series. It is entitled, Going it by Steam, is signed "Short Shanks," and was published by King. Among rarer and better ones may be named two very excellent specimens, without date, published by Creed, of Chancery Lane, labelled respectively, A Musical Genius (a butcher boy playing on the Pandean pipes and accompanying himself with marrow bone and cleaver), and A Man of Taste and Feeling (a tramp caught in a trap while helping himself in a butler's pantry). Among the best of his coloured political caricatures, we may mention, Greece and her Rough Lovers (i.e. Russia and Turkey), published by Maclean, in 1828. Lithography afforded greater facilities of execution than the old process, and much of Seymour's work in political as well as social satire was executed by himself on stone.
Death of George IV. The year 1830 brought the life and reign of George the Fourth to a close. He had been breaking up for a long time past. The first entry of any moment occurs in Mr. Greville's diary, of 25th August, 1828: "The king has not been well; he goes fishing and dining at Virginia Water, stays out late, and catches cold." A year later, the diarist relates that the king had nearly lost his eyesight, and would be "couched" as soon as his eyes were in a proper state for the operation. On the 7th of December he attended a chapter of the Bath, "looked well," but was so blind that " he could not see to read the list, and begged [Mr. Greville] to read it for him." The Sangrado treatment was then in full force; and we find that in January, 1830, the king, being very ill, "lost forty ounces of blood." He grew at last so much worse that the preparations for the festivities with which the royal birthday was to have been celebrated were obliged to be postponed sine die. A victim to dropsy, the operation of puncturing the legs was resorted to, with the result of giving him temporary relief. The patient, however, became liable to violent fits of coughing, in one of which he ruptured a blood vessel, and expired early on the morning of Saturday the 26th of June, 1830.
A more contemptible, selfish, unfeeling being as a man than this king could scarcely have been found, "a mixture of narrow-mindedness, selfishness, truckling, blustering, and duplicity, with no object but self, his own ease, and the gratification of his own fancies and prejudices." "A more despicable scene," continues Mr. Greville, " cannot be exhibited than that which the interior of our Court presents—every base, low, and unmanly propensity, with selfishness, avarice, and a life of petty intrigue and mystery." George the Fourth as king and regent was recklessly extravagant, but his expenditure was always upon self or the gratification of self. A hundred examples of his selfish nature might be given, but cui bono? Everything he could get hold of, which could minister to his own personal gratification, he grasped with avidity. In this spirit he appropriated the jewels and spent on himself the whole of the money belonging to his late father's estate, amounting to £120,000. His ministers did not dare to oppose his greed, or tell him that this money belonged to the Crown, and not to himself as an individual. He acted precisely in the same manner with regard to his mother's jewels, of which she possessed a large quantity. Those she received from George III. she left by will to the king; the rest she gave to her daughters; in spite of which bequest, her selfish son appropriated the whole to himself as his own personal private property.
Portrait of the KingAn admirable likeness of this most selfish of royal or private personages has been drawn by a master hand. "To make a portrait of him," says Thackeray, "at first seemed a matter of small difficulty. There is his coat, his star, his wig, his countenance simpering under it: with a slate and a piece of chalk, I could at this very desk perform a recognisable likeness of him. And yet after reading of him in scores of volumes, hunting him through old magazines and newspapers, having him here at a ball, there at a public dinner, there at races, and so forth, you find you have nothing—nothing but a coat and wig, and a mask smiling below it—nothing but a great simulacrum. His sire and grandsires were men. One knew what they were like: what they would do in given circumstances: that on occasion they fought and demeaned themselves like tough, good soldiers. They had friends whom they liked according to their natures; enemies whom they hated firmly; passions and actions and individualities of their own. The sailor king who came after George was a man; the Duke of York was a man, big, burly, loud, jolly, cursing, courageous. But this George, what was he? I look through all his life, and recognise but a bow and a grin. I try and take him to pieces, and find silk stockings, padding, stays, a coat with frogs and a fur collar, a star and blue ribbon, a pocket-handkerchief prodigidously scented, one of Truefitt's best nutty brown wigs reeking with oil, a set of teeth, and a huge black stock, under-vvaistcoats, more under-waistcoats, and then nothing." "Under-waistcoats, more under-waistcoats and then nothing!" Yes, there was something besides the silk stockings—the padding—the stays—the coat with frogs and a fur collar, the star and the blue ribbon, although there might be nothing underneath which resembled a heart or which was capable of being inspired by a feeling which had not its origin in self. The wardrobe of this royal professor of deportment, who ten years before had been described to his own great personal annoyance as
"The dandy of sixty, who bows with a grace,
was sold on the and of August, 1830, and is said to have been sufficiently numerous to fill Monmouth Street, and sufficiently various and splendid for the wardrobe of Drury Lane Theatre. The meanness of his disposition was exhibited even in the matter of his clothes, scarcely any of which he gave away except his linen, which was distributed every year. Here were all the coats which this monarch had had for fifty years before, three hundred whips, canes without number, every sort of uniform, the costumes of all the order of Europe, splendid fur pelisses, hunting coats and breeches; among other etcetera, a dozen pair of corduroy breeches made to hunt in when Don Miguel was in London. His profusion in these articles was explained by the fact that he never paid for them; but his memory in relation to them was nevertheless so accurate that he recollected every article of dress, no matter how old, and his pages were liable to be called on at any moment to produce some particular coat or other article of apparel of years gone by.The demise of this treasurer of royal antique raiment was followed by an order for general mourning, to which a caricature drawing by Seymour has reference, the satirical meaning of which will be apparent after the explanation previously given. A colossal military figure armed with a baton, on which is inscribed the word "fashion," encounters at dusk, in Hyde Park, a solitary pedestrian
Robert Seymour][October 1st, 1830.
"THE ADELAIDE MILL."
[Face p. 213.
French Revolution of 1830.Whilst England was thus peacefully passing through the excitement of a succession to a vacant throne, France was convulsed with one of her ever-recurring revolutions. Charles the Tenth, driven from his throne, had been replaced by one who in his turn, some three and twenty years afterwards, was doomed to give place to the Bonaparte whose sun we ourselves have seen set in the defeat and disaster of Sedan. We find portraits in September, 1830, of Louis Philippe, king of the French, of the queen, General Lafayette, the ex-king Charles the Tenth, and the Due d'Angoulème. Besides these, we meet with several clever illustrations by the artist, on stone, of the stirring events of the time, which are interesting and valuable specimens of his versatile powers.
Some of our readers may remember a passage in Peter Pindar, where the merciless satirist ridicules George the Third's German band, telling us (in allusion to his Majesty's well-known penurious habits) that, although they displaced native talent and expected "to feast upon the Coldstream regiments fat," their experience was altogether of another character:—
"But ah, their knives no veal nor mutton carved!
The services of these foreign musical mercenaries had been retained by George the Fourth, but one of the very earliest acts of his successor was to dismiss them in favour of the guards' bands, "who," however, if we are to believe Mr. Greville, had no great reason to be thankful, but were on the contrary "ready to die of it," as they had to play every night without pay, and were moreover "prevented" from earning money elsewhere. This act of the new king is referred to in a sketch by Seymour, which shows us his Majesty in the act of "discharging the German band," who may be seen marching off headed by their ancient and crestfallen drum-major.
St. John Long. The month of October, 1830, witnessed the trial of the notorious impostor, John St. John Long (whose real name was O'Driscoll) for the manslaughter of Miss Cushin. The success of this ignorant and notorious quack, who managed for a series of years to extract a magnificent income of some £10,000 or; £12,000 per annum by trading on the credulity of his fellow-creatures, forms a curious commentary on the weakness of contemporary "society." It is said that he commenced life as a house-painter, and afterwards acquired some slight knowledge of art in the humble capacity of colour grinder to Sir Thomas Lawrence, and while colouring (on his own account) some anatomical drawings for a medical London school, picked up a slight and imperfect knowledge of anatomy. This stimulated him to further superficial research; and after a few months' probation, his confidence enabled him to pretend that he possessed a cure for every disease under the sun—more especially consumption.
The origin and pretensions of this learned practitioner are thus referred to in one of the rhymes of the day:—
"You may talk of your Celsus, Machaons, and Galens,
King Chabert has proved, since restored from his panic,
Garter King has assigned, like a sad 'fleering Jack,'
"Dr. Long's" remedy ("the prong" referred to in the foregoing ballad) was of the simplest possible character, and his dupes in nine cases out of ten being women his success complete. He invented a wonderful liniment or lotion, by means of which he professed to diagnose and eradicate the virus of consumption. With many patients an inflammation followed its application, which (according to the quack) discovered the presence of disease, and which, after a plentiful crop of guineas had been extracted, nature was allowed to heal: the patient was then pronounced out of danger. With some persons the liniment was perfectly innocuous, and when this was the case the patient was informed that no disease need be feared. The secret of course lay in the fact that the quack used two liniments, apparently identical, one of which only contained the irritating medium. Many actually consumptive persons of course consulted him; but when this was the case he refused his assistance, on the ground that it had been invoked too late.
He carried the imposition, as might have been anticipated, once too far, and, in the case of the beautiful and unfortunate Miss Cushin (a lady of highly nervous temperament), maintained the inflammation for so long a time that nature for once refused to assist him, and when Sir Benjamin Brodie was summoned, mortification had already set in. The trial resulted in a verdict of guilty, but the judge (Baron Parke), who summed up scandalously in his favour, instead of sending the fellow to hard labour, imposed a fine of £250, which was immediately paid.
Seymour alludes to this event in a pictorial satire, in which he shows us St. John Long, with a vulture's head and beak, kneeling on the floor of a dungeon with a bottle by his side labelled "lotion," and (beneath) the words,—"Lost, £12,000 per annum, medical practice. Whoever will restore the same to Mr. St. J. L—g, shall receive the benefit of his advice."
Miss Cushin's death was quickly followed by another fatal case, that of Mrs. Colin Campbell Lloyd, who also died from the effects of the corrosive lotion, and St. John Long the following year was again put on his trial for manslaughter; in this case the fellow was acquitted. Seymour's prediction was not destined to be verified. The soi-disant St. John Long, alias O'Driscoll, in spite of these "mistakes," which in our day would receive a harsher term, retained his large "practice" to the last, and died—still a young man—of the very disease to which he professed to be superior, thus conclusively proving better than anything else could have done the utter impotency of his preparation.
Anstey (son of the once celebrated author of the "New Bath Guide") amusingly describes the administration of an oath to a witness in a court of law:—
"Here, Simon, you shall (silence there!)
The artist possibly had this quotation in his mind when he designed the following:—The deponent is a country bumpkin, to whom an official tenders the Testament, at the same time extending his disengaged palm. "Pleas zur," says Hodge, "wot be I to zay?" (To him the officer), "Say, This is the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God one and sixpence."
The open and notorious bribery, corruption, and intimidation which prevailed in those days at parliamentary elections; Sir Robert Peel's "New Police Act" (which was received with extraordinary suspicion and dislike); the Reform Bill; the universal distress and consequent bread riots of 1830-31, form the subjects of other pictorial satires by Robert Seymour, which seem, however, to call for little notice.
The artist's talent and services were constantly in demand as a designer on wood; but finding that the productions of his pencil suffered at the hands of the wood-engravers to whom they were entrusted, and the very inferior paper upon which the impressions were taken, he, in or about the year 1827, began to learn the art of etching on copper. We believe his earliest attempts in this direction will be found in a work now exceedingly rare, bearing the title of "Assisting, Resisting, and Desisting." A volume called "Vagaries, in Quest of the Wild and Wonderful," which appeared in 1827, was embellished with six clever plates after the manner of George Cruikshank, and ran through no less than three editions.
The "Humorous Sketches," several times republished, perhaps the only work by which Seymour is now known to the general public, appeared between the years 1834 and 1836. They were first published at threepence each by Richard Carlisle, of Fleet Street, who is said to have paid the artist fifteen shillings for each drawing on the stone. Carlisle falling into difficulties shortly before Seymour's death, sold the copyright and lithographic stones to Henry Wallis, who in turn parted with the latter to Mr. Tregear, of Cheapside, but retaining his property in the copyright, transferred the drawings to steel, and published them in 1838, with letterpress by Alfred Crowquill. Mr. Henry G. Bohn issued an edition in 1842, and another some twenty-three years later, with plates so sadly worn, and blurred by over use that the best part of this last edition (issued by the Routledges in 1878) is the binding.
The "Humorous Sketches" (we refer, of course, only to the early impressions), although affording fair examples of the artist's comic style and manner, are in truth of very unequal merit. They comprise some eighty subjects, which, owing to the frequent republications, are so well known that it would be superfluous to attempt a detailed description of them here. The best is unquestionably the one numbered XXV., "This is a werry lonely spot, Sir; I wonder you arn't afeard of being rob'd." The inevitable sequel is amusingly related by Crowquill:—
"Poor Timmins trembled as he gazed
The "Sketches," with other detached works by the artist, reappeared in an edition published by the late John Camden Hotten, entitled "Sketches by Seymour," comprising in all 186 subjects, for the most part sadly worn impressions. Although there is nothing whatever "Hogarthian" about the originals, as the amiable publisher would have us (as usual) believe, we may admit that the faces in No. 24, At a Concert, are a perfect study, and that this sketch, with Nos. 45 and 46 (Snuffing and Smoking), afford excellent examples of the artist's ability as a draughtsman.
"The Book of Christmas."But the work which contains probably some of the best specimens of the artist's style is one now exceedingly scarce. Christmas books, like Christmas cards, are practically unsaleable after the great Christian festival has come and gone; and this was the experience of Mr. T. K. Hervey's "Book of Christmas," which, owing to the author's dilatoriness, came out "a day after the fair," and despite its attractions proved unmarketable. This circumstance, we need not say, by no means detracts from its value, and as a matter of fact, the collector will now deem himself fortunate if he succeeds in securing a copy at a price exceeding by one half the original cost. Those who have formed their ideas of Seymour's powers from the oft republished and irretrievably damaged impressions of the "Humorous Sketches," will be astonished at the unaccustomed style, vigour, and beauty of these illustrations. A few of the earlier etchings are somewhat faint and indistinct, as if the artist, even at that time, was scarcely accustomed to work on copper. They, however, improve as he proceeds with his work; the larger number are really beautiful, and are characterised by a vigour of conception and execution, of which no possible idea can be formed by those who have seen only the "Humorous Sketches." Noteworthy among the illustrations may be mentioned the finely executed head of Old Christmas, facing page 23; the Baronial Hall (a picture highly realistic of the Christmas comfort and good cheer which is little better than a myth to many of us); The Mummers; Christmas Pantomime; Market, Christmas Eve; Boxing Day; and Twelfth Night in the London Streets. The cheery seasonable book shows us the Norfolk Coach with its spanking team rattling into London on a foggy Christmas Eve, heaped with fat turkeys, poultry, Christmas hampers and parcels. William Congreve tells us—
"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,
The irritable personage awoke from his slumbers by the music of the waits, certainly does not belong to any of the order of animate or inanimate subjects so softened, soothed, or bent, as aforesaid, for he opens his window and prepares to discharge the contents of his jug on the heads of the devoted minstrels. If the ancient ophicleide player, with the brandy bottle protruding from his great coat pocket, might but know of the impending cataract which more immediately threatens himself, he would convey himself from the dangerous neighbourhood with all the alacrity of which his spindle shanks are capable. A younger neighbour on the opposite side of the street awaits the catastrophe with amused interest, whilst a drunken "unfortunate" executes—under the elevating influences of music and drink—a pas seul on the pavement below. In the etching of Story Telling, the deep shadows of an old baronial hall are illuminated solely by the moonbeams and the flickering flame of the firelight; a door opens into a gallery beyond, and one of the listeners, fascinated by the ghost story to which she is listening, glances fearfully over her shoulder as if apprehensive that something uncanny will presently issue out of the black recesses. The ghostly surroundings have their influences on the very cat, who looks uneasily about her as if afraid of her shadow. Besides the thirty-six etchings on copper, the book contains several charming woodcuts, impressed on paper of a very different quality to that on which the artist was accustomed to behold impressions from his woodblocks.
Of a class entirely different to the foregoing may be mentioned the still rarer series of comicalities executed by the artist under the title of "New Readings of old Authors," of which we may notice the following: Moved in Good Time (Taming of the Shrew, Act 2, Sc. I), a tax-gatherer and other creditors bemoaning themselves outside the premises of a levanted debtor; I am to get a man, whate'er he be (Act 3, Sc. 2), disciples of Burke and Hare providing themselves with a living subject; I do remember when the fight was done, when I was dry (King Henry IV., Part I, Act I, Sc. 3), a victorious prize-fighter recruiting his exhausted frame by imbibing many quarts of strong ale; He was much Feared by his Physician (Act 4, Sc. 1), an irascible gouty patient flinging medicine bottles and nostrums at one of his doctors, and stamping a prostrate one under foot; You are too great to be by me gainsaid (King Henry IV., Part 2, Act 1, Sc. 1), a huge woman administering chastisement to a small and probably (in more senses than one) frail husband; My Lord, I over rode him on the way (Act 1, Sc. 1), a miserable huntsman who has ridden over and killed one of the master's fox-hounds; He came, saw, and overcame (Act 4, Sc. 2), a wretched Frenchman, who, overbalancing himself, falls over the rails of a bear-pit amongst the hungry animals below; Never was such a sudden scholar made, (King Henry V., Act 1, Sc. 1), in allusion to the installation of the Duke of Wellington as Chancellor of Oxford University; A Mid-summer Night's Dream, a fat sleeper suffering under the agonies of nightmare, under the influence of whose delusion he fancies himself roasting before a vast fire, with a huge hook stuck through his stomach; and, I beg the ancient privilege of Athens: as she is mine, I may dispose of her (Act 1, Sc. 1), an Englishman attempting to dispose of his ugly, wooden-legged old harridan of a wife by auction. The lithographic stones on which the drawings to these "New Readings" were made, and which comprised no less than three hundred drawings, were effaced before the artist's death, and impressions from them are now, of course, more than difficult to procure. The Shakespeare series were collected and republished in four volumes, in 1841-2, by Tilt & Bogue, of Fleet Street, and even these last are very seldom met with.
On the l0th of December, 1831, there started into life a periodical of decidedly pronounced political bias and opinions, entitled "Figaro in London." Politics ran high in those days; it was the time of the great agitation for "reform," which in those days, as we shall presently see, was both loudly called for and imperatively necessary. A mob of boys and degraded women had taken complete possession of Bristol,—had driven its deformed little mayor over a stonewall in ignominious flight,—had burnt down the gaol and the mansion-house, and laid Queen Square in ashes, whilst the military and its very strangely incompetent officer looked on while the city was burning. Every one in those days was either a rabid Tory or an ultra Radical. It was just the period for an enthusiastic youth to plunge into the excitement of political life; but the crude, unformed opinions of a young man scarcely of age are of little value, and the political creed of the proprietor and originator of this literary (?) venture does not appear to have been clearly defined even to himself. In his valedictory addresses written three years afterwards, when things were not altogether so rosy with him as when he started his periodical, he confesses that he belongs to no party, for "we have had," he says, "such a thorough sickener of the Whigs, that we do expect something better from the new government, although it be a Tory one."
The price of "Figaro in London," one of the immediate predecessors of the comic publications of our day, was a penny, quite an experiment in times when the price of paper was dear, and periodical literature was heavily handicapped with an absurdly heavy duty. "Figaro" consisted of four weekly pages of letterpress illustrated by Robert Seymour. The projector, proprietor, and editor, was Mr. Gilbert à Beckett, whose name—with those of men of vastly superior literary attainments—was associated in after years with the early fortunes of Punch. The literary part of the performance was indeed sorry stuff,—the main stay and prop of the paper from its very commencement was Seymour, whose drawings however suffered severely at the hands of the engraver and paper maker. An eccentricity of the publication perhaps deserves notice. It professed to look with sovereign contempt upon advertisements, as occupying a quantity of unnecessary space—considering, however, that exception was made in favour of one particularly persevering hatter of the period, we are driven to the conclusion that the projector's contempt for a source of revenue which modern newspaper proprietors can by no means afford to despise, was nearly akin to that expressed by the fox after he had come to the melancholy conclusion that the grapes he longed for were absolutely beyond his reach.
The new periodical assumed from the outset a position which cannot fail to amuse the journalist and reader of the present day. It professed to look down upon all other publications (with certain exceptions of magnitude, whom the editor deemed it prudent to conciliate) with supercilious contempt. The absurdity of these pretensions will strike any one who turns over its forgotten pages, and compares his pretensions with Mr. à Beckett's own share of the performance. The mode in which this young gentleman's editorial duties were conducted, gathered from extracts taken at random from the "Notices to Correspondents," were, to say the least, peculiar: "A. B., who has written to us, is a fool of the very lowest order. His communication is rejected." Poor Mr. Cox of Bath is told he "is a rogue and a fool for sending us a letter without paying the postage. If he wants his title page, let him order it of his bookseller, when it will be got as a matter of course from our publisher," and so on. The aristocracy are regarded with a disfavour which must have given them serious disquietude. The "coming out" of the daughter of the late Lord Byron, or a soirée at the Duchess of Northumberland's town house, serve as occasions for indulging in splenetic abuse of what Mr. à Beckett was pleased to term "the beastly aristocracy." Authors, even of position, were not spared by this young Ishmael of the press, the respected Mrs. Trollope, for instance, being unceremoniously referred to as "Mother Trollope." The only excuse of course for this sort of thing is to be found in the fact that comic journalism being then in its infancy, personal abuse was mistaken for satire; while, so far as the bad taste of the editor is concerned, allowance must be made for an inexperienced young man who imagined that the editorship of a paper, wholly destitute of merit except that which Seymour brought to its aid, conferred upon himself a position which rendered him superior to the rules of literary courtesy.
With all these pretensions, however, à Beckett was conscious of the powerful assistance he was receiving from the artist; and we find him, after his own peculiar fashion and more than questionable taste, constantly alluding to the fact; describing him at various times as "that highly gifted and popular artist, Mr. Seymour;" "our illustrious artist Seymour;" and so on. In the preface to his second volume, he indulges in the following flight of fancy, which will suffice to give us an idea of the literary merits of the editor himself: "In this our annual address," he says, "we cannot omit a puff for the rampant Seymour, in whom the public continue to see-more and more every time he puts his pencil to the block for the illustration of our periodical." This was the sort of stuff which passed for wit in 1832. As for Seymour himself, he was annoyed at these fulsome and foolish compliments, and in a letter which he wrote to À Beckett after the quarrel to be presently related, told him in the plainest terms that, "the engraving, bad printing, and extravagant puffing of his designs were calculated to do him more harm than good as an artist."
But artist and editor jogged on together in perfect good will until the 16th of August, 1834, when, for the first and only time, "Figaro in London" made its appearance without any illustrations at all. The two succeeding weekly issues contained each a single woodcut after Seymour's drawing, but from that time until the end of the year, when À Beckett himself retired from the proprietorship and disposed of his interest in the concern, the paper was illustrated by Isaac Robert Cruikshank; this change was due to the following circumstance.
A special feature of "Figaro in London" was its theatrical leader. À Beckett had always taken an interest in dramatic matters, and was himself author of some thirty plays, the very titles of which are now forgotten. Not content with being proprietor and editor of a newspaper, he was concerned at this time in another venture, being proprietor and manager of a theatre in Tottenham Court Road, known at different times under the various designations of the Tottenham Street or West London Theatre, the Queen's, and latterly as the Prince of Wales' Theatre. The result was almost a foregone conclusion. A newspaper is a sufficiently hazardous speculation, but a theatre in the hands of an inexperienced manager is one of the most risky of all possible experiments; and the result in this case was so unfortunate, that À Beckett in the end had to seek the uncomfortable protection of the insolvent court. He was considerably indebted to Seymour for the illustrations to "Figaro," half of the debt thus incurred being money actually paid away by the artist to the engraver who executed the cuts from his drawings on the wood. Finding that À Beckett was in no position to discharge this debt or to remunerate him for his future services, Seymour did—what every man of business must have done who, like the artist, was dependent on his pencil for bread, refused any longer to continue his assistance. Apart from the bad paper and bad impressions of which he complained, and above all the bad taste displayed in fulsome adulation of his own merits, supremely distasteful to a man of real ability, Seymour appears hitherto to have entertained no bad feeling, towards À Beckett personally.
The result however was a feud. À Beckett was not unnaturally angry, and an angry man in his passion is apt to lose both his head and his memory. Forgetting the manner in which he had shortly before acknowledged the services and talent of the artist, he now attacked him and his abilities with a malice which would be unintelligible if we had not seen something of his nature and disposition. In his favourite "Notices to Correspondents" in the number of 13th September, 1834, he professes to account for the employment of Isaac Robert Cruikshank after the following disingenuous fashion: "Mr. Seymour, our ex-artist, is much to be pitied for his extreme anguish at our having come to terms with the celebrated Robert Cruikshank in the supplying the designs of the caricatures in 'Figaro.' Seymour has been venting his rage in a manner as pointless as it is splenetic, and we are sorry for him. He ought, however, to feel, that notwithstanding our friendly wish to bring him forward, which we have done in an eminent degree, we must engage first-rate ability when public patronage is bestowed so liberally, as it now is upon this periodical. He ought therefore not to be nettled at our having obtained a superior artist." The public, however, were not to be gulled; they perfectly well knew that Isaac Robert Cruikshank was an inferior artist in every respect to Seymour, and had not forgotten the tribute which the foolish editor had previously paid to the talents and ability of the latter. Conduct like this could only recoil on the head of the person who was injudicious and spiteful enough to be guilty of it. The "Notices to Correspondents" in subsequent numbers continued to be filled with references and allusions to Seymour, dictated by a malice which was alike silly and childish. They are not worthy of repetition here, and we must refer the reader for them to the numbers of "Figaro in London" of 2Oth September and 15th November, 1834, or (if he have not access to its pages) to the short biographical notice prefixed to the latest edition of the "Sketches" by Mr. Henry G. Bohn. We have no doubt whatever that the interval between these dates was employed in fruitless endeavours on the part of À Beckett to arrange terms with the artist, who, however, steadily refused to give the failing publication the indispensable benefit of his assistance. Left as it were to its own resources, the circulation, in spite of the graphic help accorded by Robert Cruikshank, steadily declined, and À Beckett finally retired from the editorship and proprietorship on the 27th of December, 1834. Seymour wielded a far more effectual weapon of offence than any which A Beckett possessed, and dealt him blows which at this time and in his then circumstances must have been keenly felt. One of Seymour's satires is aimed specially at the "Notices to Correspondents" already mentioned, and shows us a heavy, vulgar fellow seated at his desk, habited in a barber's striped dressing-gown à la Figaro. His features are distorted with passion, for he has received a letter the contents of which are anything but flattering, addressed "To the Editor of the nastiest thing in London." This sketch bears the following descriptive title: "An editor in a small way, after pretending a great deal about his correspondents, is here supposed to have received a letter." A second skit shows us a critic examining a picture representing "the death of À Beckett, Archbishop of Cant." A figure in armour, with its vizor down (obviously intended for the artist) is depicted in the act of cutting at the "archbishop" with a sword, the blade of which is inscribed "debts due." His first blow has severed the mitre labelled "assumption," and the pastoral staff, inscribed "impudence," with which the victim vainly endeavours to defend himself. "Don't," says À Beckett, as he falls prostrate amid a heap of "spoilt paper," among which we recognise, "Figaro," "The Thief," "The Wag," and other periodicals with which his name was associated. "Don't cut at me 'our own inimitable, our illustrious, our talented;' pray don't give me any more cuts; think how many I have had and not paid you for already:" a hand indicates the way "to the Insolvent Court."
"Figaro," after the retirement of À Beckett, passed into the editorial hands of Mr. H. Mayhew, and conscious of the injury which the defection of Seymour had done to the undertaking, he lost no time in opening negotiations with a view to his return. In this he experienced little difficulty, for Seymour was glad to avail himself of the opportunity of giving to the public the most convincing proof which could have been adduced of the falsity of the libels which had been published by the retiring and discomfited editor. The fourth volume commenced 3rd of January, and from that time until his death (in 1836) he continued to illustrate the paper. Mayhew announces his return after the following curious fashion: "The generous Seymour, with a patriotic ardour unequalled since the days of Curtius, has abandoned all selfish considerations, and yielded to our request for his country's sake. Again he wields the satiric pencil, and corruption trembles to its very base. His first peace-offering to 'Figaro in London,' is the rich etching [woodcut] our readers now gaze upon with laughing eyes." Constant references of a laudatory kind are made to him in succeeding numbers.
The woodcuts after Seymour's designs, which appear in "Figaro in London," are too small and unimportant to justify the title which the editor gives them of "caricatures;" and relating to political matters which at that time were far more efficiently chronicled by the pencil of H. B., they have lost any interest which they once might have commanded. The most interesting illustrations which Seymour contributed to "Figaro," are the brief series of theatrical portraits, which are not only clever but evidently excellent likenesses.
It was not only in the case of "Figaro in London" that the slanders of À Beckett recoiled upon his own head. That gentleman in 1832 had started a sort of rival to Hood's "Comic Annual," under the title of the "Comic Magazine." It was cheaper in price than the former publication, and contained an amazing number of amusing cuts of the punning order, after Seymour's designs. After the quarrel with À Beckett, the artist withdrew his assistance from its pages, and the illustrations show a fearful falling off after 1833. Many of the wretched designs which follow bear the signature of "Dank," and so destitute are they of merit that the "embellishments" (as they are termed) for 1834, are altogether below criticism.
At the opening of the present chapter we said that Robert Seymour was almost a genius. Genius, however, he never absolutely touched; he was destitute of the inventive faculties which distinguished John Leech, and lacked the vivid imagination which enabled George Cruikshank to realize any idea which occurred to him, whether comical, grave, realistic, or terrible. His talents as an artist, though undoubtedly great, ran in a narrow groove, and their bent is shown by the well-known "Humorous Sketches," and the less known but far more admirable designs which he executed for the "Comic Magazine." He always had a fancy for depicting and satirizing cockneys and cockney subjects, and had conceived the by no means new or ambitious idea of producing a series of such pictures with an appropriate letterpress to be furnished by a literary coadjutor, whose work, however, was to be subservient to his own. The idea was not perhaps a very definite one, but the pictorial part of the work was commenced, and four plates actually etched at the time the artist was retained to execute the illustrations to the "Book of Christmas." Out of this undeveloped idea, and out of the four apparently unimportant drawings to which we have alluded, was destined to evolve the strange and melancholy story which will be associated for all time with the mirth-inspiring novel of the "Pickwick Papers."
Origin of "Pickwick".The difficulty at the outset was to find an author to carry out the artist's idea, indefinite as it was. In this direction there was in 1836, a very embarras de richesses, for, if comic artists were few, there was on the other hand no lack of humourists of the highest order of merit. Theodore Hook, Clark (the author of "Three Courses and a Dessert")—probably many others were suggested by the publishers who were taken into consultation by Seymour; but all were rejected. He himself seems to have inclined towards Mayhew, with whom it will be recollected he was associated at this time on "Figaro in London." The man of all others most fitted to carry out the artist's own idea seems to us to have been John Poole, one of the most original of English humourists, whose productions, now forgotten, are worth searching for in the pages of the "New Monthly" and other periodical publications of a past day. It is a singular fact, too, that on the first appearance of the "Pickwick Papers," the authorship was by many ascribed to this very man. In the end, Mr. Chapman, of the firm of Chapman & Hall, introduced the artist to one of the most unlikely men for his own purpose that could possibly have been selected, the man, as we have already seen, of all others the least fitted and the least disposed to act the part of William Coombe to Seymour's character of Thomas Rowlandson.
At this time Charles Dickens was reporter on the staff of a newspaper; he had written a book which, although successful, had created no very intense excitement; he was moreover a young man, and consequently plastic, and fifteen pounds a month would be a small fortune to him; so at least argued the artist and his friends. How little they understood the resolute, self-reliant character of this unknown writer! The result was altogether different from anything they expected. Author and artist differed at the outset as to the form the narrative should take; but the man with the strongest power of mind and will took his stand from the first, and Charles Dickens made it a condition of his retainer that the illustrations should grow out of the text, instead of the latter being suggested (as Seymour desired) by the illustrations, and the artist had reluctantly to give way. No one can doubt that the author was right. By way however of a concession, and of meeting Seymour's original idea as far as practicable, he introduced the absurd character of Winkle, the cockney sportsman. The mode of publication followed was the artist's own suggestion, who, desiring the widest possible circulation, insisted on the work being published in monthly numbers at a shilling. Thus it was that "Pickwick" came to be written.
We are not called on in this place to discuss the merits of "Pickwick"; to compare Charles Dickens with the writers who had immediately preceded him; to enlarge upon the comic vein which he discovered and made so peculiarly his own; to show the influence which his humour exercised upon the literature of the next quarter of a century; to contrast such humour with his wonderful power of pathos; to marshal the shades of true-hearted, noble Nell, unhappy Smike, little Paul Dombey, world-abandoned Joe, and compare them with the Wellers—father and son, Mr. Jingle, Tracy Tupman, Bob Sawyer, and the spectacled but essentially owlish founder of the "Pickwick Club." All this we fancy has been done in another place; our task is altogether of a simpler character. We have to trace the connection which subsisted between the artist and author; to show how this book—the creation of a writer in the spring-time of his genius—the essence of fun, the unfailing source of merriment to countless readers past, present, and to come, came to be associated with the memory of a terrible and still incomprehensible tragedy.
We have seen that, contrary to his own wishes, Seymour had yielded to Charles Dickens' suggestion, or rather condition, that the illustrations should grow out of the text; but he does not seem to have abandoned (so far as we can judge) all idea of having a hand in the management of the story, and he never for one instant contemplated interference on the part of the author with any one of his own designs. If we are to believe his friends (and their testimony seems to us distinctly valuable in this place), he was extremely angry at the introduction into the plot of the "Stroller's Tale," and we may therefore fancy the spirit in which he would receive Charles Dickens' intimation, conveyed to him in the same manner that he afterwards communicated to Cruikshank his disapproval of the last etching in "Oliver Twist," that he objected to that etching "as not quite his [Dickens'] idea; "that he wished" to have it as complete as possible, and would feel personally obliged if he would make another drawing." The letter (on the whole a kindly one) has been set out elsewhere, and there is no occasion to repeat it here. What other causes of irritation existed will never be known. All that is still known is, that he executed a fresh design and handed it over to Dickens at the time appointed; that he went home and destroyed nearly all the correspondence relating to the subject of "Pickwick"; that he executed a drawing for a wood-engraver named John Jackson, and delivered it himself on the evening of the, 20th of April, 1836; that he then returned to his house in King Street, Islington, and committed self-destruction. He left behind him an unfinished drawing for "Figaro in London," which afterwards appeared (in the state in which it was found) in the pages of that periodical.Various reasons have been assigned for this rash act, all more or less contradictory. According to some he was a man of equable temperament; while others, who knew him personally, have told us that he was nervous and subject to terrible fits of depression. Some would trace the act to his quarrel with À Beckett; but this is simply absurd, seeing that it had occurred some two years before. We need not, as it seems to us, travel out of our course to seek the real cause, which was probably due to over-work. His energies had been tasked to the utmost to keep pace with the supply which his ever-increasing popularity brought him. The state of his mind appears to us clearly indicated by his design of The Dying Clown, one of the last drawings which he etched for the "Pickwick Papers," and for which we must refer the reader to the original edition only; anything more truly melancholy we can scarcely imagine. Entirely appropriate to the story, it seems to tell its own tale of the morbid state of mind of the man who designed it; it is a pictorial commentary on the sad story we have attempted to tell.
A too zealous application to work has destroyed many men both of talent and genius; it produces different effects in different individuals, according to their respective temperaments: while it drove Robert Seymour to frenzy, it killed John Leech—a man of far finer imaginative faculties—with the terrible pangs of angina pectoris. Differently endowed as they were, both belonged to the order of men so touchingly described by Manfred:—
The coadjutorship of distinguished artists and authors has led to more than one strange controversy. Those who have read Forster's "Life of Dickens" will remember the curious claim which George Cruikshank preferred after Dickens' death to be the suggester of the story of "Oliver Twist," and the unceremonious mode in which Mr. Forster disposed of that pretension. We have referred elsewhere to the edifying controversy between George Cruikshank and Harrison Ainsworth, in relation to the origin of the latter's novels of the "Miser's Daughter" and "The Tower of London. The republication of Seymour's "Humorous Sketches" in 1866, led to a very curious claim on the part of his friends, in which they sought to establish the fact that he was the originator and inventor of the incidents of "Pickwick." This claim happily was made while Dickens was yet alive, and was very promptly and satisfactorily disposed of by himself in a letter which he wrote to the Athenæum on the 20th of March, 1866. Author and artist have long since gone to their rest; and the plan which the author of this work proposed when he sat down to write the story of Robert Seymour, was to place that artist in the position which he believes him to occupy in the ranks of British graphic humourists, and not to rake up or revive the memory of a somewhat painful controversy. Of the claim itself we would simply remark, that not only was it made in all sincerity by those who loved and cherished the memory of Robert Seymour, but that to a certain extent the claim has a foundation of fact to rest upon; for who will deny that had not Seymour communicated his idea to Chapman, and Chapman introduced the artist to Dickens, the "Pickwick Papers" themselves would have remained unwritten. In this sense, but in this sense only, therefore, Robert Seymour was the undoubted originator of "Pickwick." He was an artist of great power, talent, and ability; and it seems to us that those only detract from his fame who, in a kind but mistaken spirit of zeal, would claim for him any other position than that which he so justly and honestly earned for himself, as one of the most talented of English graphic satirists.
- "Greville Memoirs." vol. i. p. 180.
- Ibid., p. 207.
- His theory, as stated in a book which he published, was this: that as all men are born in moral sin, so they have about them a physical depravity in the form of an acrid humour, which, flying about the system, at length finds vent in diseases which afflict or terminate existence. He professed by the means afterwards explained to bring this acrid humour to the surface, and having thus expelled the cause of disease, to put an end to every bodily ailment.
- In allusion to a complex piece of machinery he said (in his book) he had invented, which when complete would cost him two thousand guineas. This machine, said Long, alias O'Driscoll, "will search all the body, and cut away all the diseased parts, leaving the patient perfectly sound and well."
- We found a curtailed copy of these amusing verses in one of the jeux d'esprit of the time, called "Valpurgis; or, the Devil's Festival" (William Kidd, 6, Old Bond Street, 1831), illustrated by Seymour. With the exception of one immaterial verse, we now give the complete poem; in the ring of the verses the reader will have no difficulty in recognising the hand of the Rev. Richard Harris Barham, subsequently author of the "Ingoldsby Legends."
- Anstey's "Pleader's Guide," Bk. 2nd (1810).
- Colonel Brereton. His conduct afterwards formed the subject of a courtmartial, but the unhappy man forestalled the "finding" by committing suicide.
- Mr. à Beckett's strong point was puns; in later days he found a vehicle for these in the well-known "Comic Histories" of England and Rome, illustrated by John Leech. It was his peculiar good fortune always to be associated with artists of the highest ability.
- See Forster's "Life of Dickens."
- In one account of Seymour's death the name of the engraver is given as Starling. This is a mistake. The engraving (probably one of the best the unfortunate artist ever executed) represents a sailor captain of Charles the First's time, showing a casket of pearls to a lady of remarkable beauty.
- Act 3, Scene 1.