English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century/Chapter 9
|←CHAPTER VIII|| English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century by
GEORGE CRUIKSHANK (Continued).
THE SLEEP OF THIRTY YEARS.
The artistic career of George Cruikshank presents probably one of the most singular problems to be met with in the history of satirical art. It may be divided into three portions, two of which we have already considered: the first represents that section wherein we have seen him described by Lockhart as "one of the most careless creatures alive," having "no plan, almost no ambition," doing "just what was suggested or thrown in his way," "quite contented to dine off the proceeds of a 'George the Fourth' to day, and those of a 'Hone' or a 'Cobbett' to morrow!" the second may be said to be embraced between the years 1822 and 1848, during which period we find this man without plan, ambition, or industry (to complete the charge of Lockhart), busily engaged in building up the reputation which the critic had so confidently and so truly predicted of him; the third and last section, the strangest surely of all, shows us this man of genius—in the full enjoyment of an assured and well-merited reputation, in the midst of his artistic vigour, at the height of a success altogether unexampled—deliberately throwing away his opportunities, and consigning himself to a slumber of thirty years, which might almost justify us in terming him the "Rip Van Winkle" of British art. The causes of this strange decadence, this singular mental inactivity, which seem to us to have been hitherto very little or at best very imperfectly understood, we now propose to consider.
Professor Bates' Theory.Professor Bates, one of the ablest of the essayists who have written on George Cruikshank since the time when Thackeray penned his famous article, would have us believe that the causes which led up to his retirement from active life whilst yet in the enjoyment of his vigorous intellect, are due partly to the change which has befallen "the literature of fiction during the last thirty years," but principally to the fact of his embracing the temperance movement with more zeal than discretion. As a matter of fact, however, long before this step had been taken, there had been causes equally potent at work which seem to have escaped Mr. Bates' attention, and these causes, which appear to us the leading factors in the unfortunate final result, lay, as we shall endeavour to explain, in an entirely different direction.
People who knew and judged of George Cruikshank (as the majority of his contemporaries necessarily did) by his work alone, formed altogether an erroneous judgment of the character and disposition of the man. Because his later designs showed or seemed to show a love of little children, a liking for home and homely subjects, a delight in fairy lore and legend, it seems there- fore to have been assumed that the artist was almost child-like in simplicity, innocence, and guilelessness of heart. Some even of those who have written upon him, acting apparently upon this impression, have given us to understand that "he never raised a laugh at the expense of decency"; that "satire never, in his hands, descended into scurrility"; that "a moral purpose ever underlaid his humour"; that "he sought to instruct and improve whenever he amused." The absurdity of this statement we have already exposed. In reference to a supposed singleness of heart and honesty of purpose, some writers have termed him "honest George." All this was very well. We all know, of course, that he "never pandered to sensuality" or "glorified vice"; but in spite of these facts, "honest George" himself, so far at least as we personally know, never assumed or set up, or even aimed at assuming, that he was one whit better than his neighbours.
In order that the reader may grasp the causes of his sudden decadence, it is important that he should understand the position and the peculiarities of the artist As an illustrator of books he was dependent on a clientèle composed exclusively of authors and publishers. "Honest George," however, laboured under a disadvantage common perhaps more or less to all men possessed of true genius. Hasty and hot-tempered, particularly in matters connected with his artistic labours, he was more than usually prone and ready to take offence. Almost invariably at war with some one or another of his employers, the story of George Cruikshank's skirmishes and quarrels with the authors and publishers with whom he was thrown in contact forms a most curious and interesting chapter in the history of artistic and literary squabbles.
At the time when Charles Dickens began to write, George Cruikshank had already achieved his reputation; and so well assured was this reputation, that the young novelist in his preface to his "Sketches by Boz," speaks of the nervousness he should have experienced in venturing alone before the public, and of his delight in securing the co-operation of an artist so distinguished as George Cruikshank. In 1838, however, the author like the artist had made his mark: "Pickwick" and "Nicholas Nickleby," and "Oliver Twist" had been written; and every vestige of the nervousness of which he speaks in the preface to his "Sketches" had disappeared for ever.
Mr. Sala has somewhere happily remarked that Charles Dickens wanted rather a scene painter for his novels than a mere illustrator of books, and the very last person to answer his requirements was George Cruikshank; for, while ready and willing to execute designs illustrative of Mr. Dickens's writings, he made it an implied condition of his retainer, that he should be free to design them in his own way and after his own fashion. It was an essential condition of George Cruikshank's success as a draughtsman, not only that he should feel a sympathy for any subject he was called upon to design, but also that his genius should be left unfettered and untrammelled in his method of treatment. Hence it was that he found it impossible to co-operate with so exacting an employer of artistic labour as Charles Dickens. The latter argued, with some show of reason, that knowing what he intended to describe, he was the fittest and most competent person to explain how his meaning should be pictorially carried out. This sort of arrangement, however, did not suit the independent and somewhat impracticable spirit of the artist, and the result was almost a foregone conclusion. These two men of genius inevitably clashed; and the connection between Charles Dickens and Cruikshank was abruptly severed.
A singular memorial of the quarrel between Dickens and Cruikshank will be found in the last illustration to the author's novel of "Oliver Twist," one of the worst that the artist ever executed. Although Mr. Forster does not say so—and possibly would not admit it,—Charles Dickens is directly responsible for this result, as the reader will agree when he learns the whole of the facts, which are only partly given in Forster's "Life," and in every other work which professes to tell the story.
The reader will not require to be told that "Oliver Twist" made its appearance in the pages of "Bentley's Miscellany." The story of course had been written in anticipation of the magazine; and according to Mr. Forster, Cruikshank's designs for the portion which forms the third volume "having to be executed 'in a lump,' were necessarily done somewhat hastily." How far this statement is correct, the reader will be enabled to judge when we tell him that these so-called "hastily" prepared illustrations include the famous designs of Sikes and his Dog and Fagin in the Condemned Cell. "None of these illustrations," Mr. Forster goes on to tell us, "Dickens had seen until he saw them in the book on the eve of its publication [we assume in the three-volume form], when he so strongly objected to one of them that it had to be cancelled." "My dear Cruikshank," he at once wrote off to the artist, "I returned suddenly to town yesterday afternoon [October, 1838] to look at the latter pages of 'Oliver Twist' before it was delivered to the booksellers, when I saw the majority of the plates for the first time. With reference to the last one, Rose Maylie and Oliver, without entering into the question of great haste or any other cause which may have led to its being what it is, I am quite sure there can be little difference of opinion between us with respect to the result. May I ask you whether you will object to designing this plate afresh, and doing so at once, in order that as few impressions as possible of the present one may go forth. I feel confident you know me too well to feel hurt by this inquiry, and with equal confidence in you, I have lost no time in preferring it." At this point Mr. Forster leaves the story.
The Quarrel with Dickens.Probably very few of our readers have seen this despised and rejected plate of Rose Maylie and Oliver, for it is not the one which bears that title among the ordinary illustrations to the novel of "Oliver Twist." It is very rare, and we wish we could reproduce it here. If not one of the very best of the series, it is entirely in keeping with the rest; and so far from displaying "great haste," is in every respect a carefully finished book etching. Four figures are represented in it as sitting round the fire, among them the well known form of Oliver, with his turn-down collar and elaborately brushed hair. On the mantle-shelf, with other ornaments, are two hyacinths in glasses, thus fixing January as the date of the scene depicted. It would have been better for the book if Charles Dickens had left it alone. The artist did as he was requested, with anger at his heart; and as a consequence, Rose Maylie will go down to posterity as the ugliest of George Cruikshank's very ugly women, in an outrageous bonnet, with her hand resting on the shoulder of a youth wearing the singular coatee or boy's jacket of forty years ago. Differing altogether from the admirable designs which preceded it, there is an incongruity about the etching which cannot fail to impress the observer. The unfortunate letter and still more unfortunate result occasioned a coolness between the men which was never wholly removed. From that time forth George Cruikshank executed no more designs for Charles Dickens, and the illustrations to the long series of novels which afterwards followed from the pen of the talented but distinctly autocratic author were entrusted to other hands. However much this result must be deplored so far as the artist himself is concerned, the coolness between Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank is scarcely to be viewed in the light of a misfortune for English illustrative art. Only consider for one moment what might have followed had the artist executed the designs to the rest of Dickens's novels! Dick Swiveller would have suited him, and so would Quilp, or Sampson Brass, the Yorkshire schoolmaster, Newman Noggs, Lord Frederick Verisopht, Captain Bunsby, or even Mr. Pecksniff himself; but only fancy, on the other hand, the horrors which would have been made of Dolly Varden, of Edith Dombey, of "Little Em'ly," of dear, gentle, loving little Nell! Happily for the fame of George Cruikshank, his imagination was not called into requisition for any one of these creations, and like the "annunciations," the "beatifications," and the "apotheoses'"' of Lockhart, they remain (we are thankful to say it) still unrealized!
The Feud with BentleyThe quarrel with Dickens was followed by a very bitter and very singular feud between the artist and Bentley. Into the causes of that quarrel we need not enter; suffice it to say that to the misunderstanding we owe some of the very worst etchings which Cruikshank ever designed, the series of illustrations to Harrison Ainsworth's novel of "Guy Fawkes." The worst of all is the Vision of Guy Fawkes at Saint Winifred's Well, and a very singular "vision" it is. The saint has all the appearance, with all the grace, expression, and Symmetry of a Dutch doll arrayed in a pocket handkerchief; the sky is "machine ruled;" the pillars and tracery of the ruined chapel are architectural impossibilities; while at the very first snort, the slumbering figure of Guy Fawkes must roll inevitably into the well towards the brink of which he lies in dangerous propinquity. These illustrations provoked the ire of the publisher and the remonstrances of the author, both of which were disregarded with strict impartiality. In 1842, Harrison Ainsworth retired from the conduct of the "Miscellany," and set up a rival magazine of somewhat similar plan and conception, which he christened after his own surname. This opposition venture appears to have been the result of a misunderstanding between the editor and publisher, the most serious outcome of which was, that when Ainsworth left he carried with him George Cruikshank.
The secession of George caused Mr. Bentley the greatest possible inconvenience. The straits to which he was reduced may be imagined by the fact that A. Hervieu (an artist of considerable ability), and the clever, well-known amateur, Alfred Crowquill (Alfred Henry Forrester), had to be pressed into the service, and contributed leading etchings. Meanwhile, the cover of the "Miscellany" showed that George Cruikshank was nominally retained on the pictorial staff; and before the quality of his illustrations became so villainously bad that the object he had in view—that of forcing Bentley to cancel his engagement—had been attained, a draughtsman of unusual graphic power and versatility had come to the assistance of the magazine. This was a young man who had already executed many comic designs of a somewhat novel and original character, and was already forcing his way to the front: his name—familiar afterwards "in our mouths as household words"—was John Leech.
The "Guy Fawkes" illustrations were the outcome of the first campaign between Bentley and Cruikshank; and as the history of the quarrel between the publisher and his unmanageable artist is a somewhat amusing one, we may be pardoned for describing it at length. The engagement from which he sought to free himself, and which he stigmatized as "a one-sided one," obliged Cruikshank to supply Mr. Bentley with at least one etching every month; and as Bentley continued to advertise him as the illustrator of the "Miscellany," George commenced the second campaign by issuing in the opening pages of the opposition venture the following characteristic manifesto:— "Mr. Bentley, the publisher," says the indignant George, "evidently wishes to create the supposition that I illustrate his 'Miscellany.' On the contrary, I wish the public to understand that I do no such thing. It is true that, according to a one-sided agreement (of which more may be heard hereafter), I supply a single etching per month. But I supply only that single etching. And even that can hardly be called my design, since the subject of it is regularly furnished to me by Mr. Bentley, and I have never even read a page of any of the stories thus 'illustrated.'
"Yet Mr. Bentley not only advertises me as the illustrator of his 'Miscellany,' but he has lately shaped his advertisement thus, in the papers as well as on the wrapper of his magazine: 'Illustrated by Geo. Cruikshank, etc.' Are his other artists worthy only of being merged in an etc.? This is, indeed, paying them but a poor compliment; and one which I should hardly think they would submit to. In certain other announcements I observe mentioned, in addition to my own name, a 'Cruikshank the Younger.' Who is he? The only Cruikshank the Younger I ever heard of as a designer, is myself. Would it not be supposed that there must be a third Cruikshank, etching, drawing, and 'illustrating,' as his two predecessors have done? Yet there is no such person! There is indeed a nephew of mine, who, as a wood-engraver, and a wood-engraver only, has been employed by Mr. Bentley to engrave 'Crowquill's designs;' just as in my 'Omnibus' he engraved my own drawings upon wood, and still does engrave them in 'Ainsworth's Magazine.' Now, can any one imagine it possible for any respectable publisher, especially 'Her Majesty's Publisher in Ordinary,' to be guilty of so miserable a trick, so wretched an expedient, as that of putting off the engraver of a few of the drawings as the designer himself—as one of the 'illustrators' of the 'Miscellany'? Let Mr. Bentley but produce a single design for the 'Miscellany,' by 'Cruikshank the Younger' (by him so-called), and I will retract this indignant disclaimer and apologise. If Mr. Bentley cannot do this, he stands self-convicted of an attempt to impose upon the public by a mystification, for purposes as apparent as the trick itself."
What this strange declaration of war proposed to effect is not altogether manifest; if its author imagined it would produce the result of releasing him from his engagement, he was signally mistaken, for Mr. Bentley, as might have been expected, held him all the tighter to the letter of his bond. What the artist thought and what he did are told us in the plainest language by the etchings which followed this singular manifesto. They tell us as plainly as could be expressed in words, that George reasoned after the following fashion:—"It is clear that under the terms of my engagement I am bound to supply 'Bentley's Miscellany' with one etching a month; but our agreement says nothing as to the quality of the etchings, nor am I bound to see that they shall be strictly relevant to the subjects which I am called upon to illustrate." From that time, so long as he continued to design for the "Miscellany," George tried to do his worst, and it must be admitted that he succeeded to admiration. Anything more outrageous than these wretched drawings—taking into account the talent, power, and skill of the artist, and the quality of the work which he was at this very time executing for Harrison Ainsworth—can scarcely be conceived. They are so ashamed of themselves, that his signature—usually so distinct, so characteristic, and so clear on other occasions—is illegible, in many cases wholly wanting. At length, in vol. xiii. (1843) appeared a story called "The Exile of Louisiana," "with an illustration by George Cruikshank" (for Bentley, probably by way of retaliation, was determined the public should know that these performances were due to the hand which had produced the famous etchings to "Oliver Twist," "Jack Sheppard," and the contemporaneous story of the "Miser's Daughter"). We should like to have seen the face of the author when this extraordinary conception dawned upon him. The tale (a serious and pathetic one) was burlesqued with one of the most grotesque caricatures the mind of comic artist ever conceived. It represents Marshal Saxe recognising the widow of a late Czaaravitch in the gardens of the Tuileries. The marshal, a most extraordinary personage, would make in actual life the fortune of any enterprising showman. He possesses a nose of Slawkenbergian proportions; his pig-tail reaches below his waist; and his sword, sticking out at right angles, gives him the appearance of a fly with a pin through its middle. Near him stands a courtier, with ankles of such fearful and wonderful construction that his legs will snap the moment he attempts to use them. As for the distinguished relict of the Czaaravitch, she is one of the most wonderful of the many wonderful people who figure in the sketch. Her figure is an anatomical impossibility; while her mouth reaches from ear to ear (the letterpress, by the way, informs us that her deceased husband had married her for her beauty!). The statue of Mercury, posed like a scaramouch at a masquerade, is matched by that of Neptune, who whirls his trident round his head in a state of the wildest hilarity, cutting at the same time a caper over the body of an attendant dolphin, who is so overcome with the whimsicality of the proceeding that he is making the most violent efforts to restrain his laughter. This last shot probably hit the mark, for only three etchings appear in vol. xiv., and not one afterwards. George was victorious; but there are victories and victories, and a triumph won at the cost of an artistic reputation is as disastrous as a defeat.
The Misunderstanding with Ainsworth.Harrison Ainsworth's long connection with the artist had taught him that he was one who would be neither driven nor led, and he was wise enough to accommodate himself to circumstances. The admirable woodcut design at the head of that division of the magazine which was known as "Our Library Table," shows us the artist and the handsome editor in consultation, and the attitude of the two men is indicative of the fact that Ainsworth is attentively listening to the advice or suggestions of his coadjutor, a fact to which Cruikshank himself has been particular to draw our attention. To the free and unfettered conditions under which Cruikshank co-operated with Ainsworth we owe a series of the most justly celebrated and valuable of his designs. In matters, however, connected with art, Cruikshank was, as we have seen, a difficult man to get on with, and it was fairly safe to predict that a quarrel between the author and artist was a mere question of time. The artist remained on the staff of "Ainsworth's Magazine" for three years, enriching its pages with some of the choicest efforts of his pencil. At the end of that period came the unfortunate but almost unavoidable misunderstanding; and George Cruikshank, as he had done with Bentley, withdrew from the concern. Unlike Bentley, however, Ainsworth appears not only to have foreseen, but to have made preparations for the inevitable; and accordingly, when George Cruikshank retired, his place was immediately taken by an artist of talent, destined to win for himself a considerable position among the ranks of designers and etchers: this was Hablot Knight Browne, then and now known to us under his monosyllabic nom-de-guerre of Phiz.
It seems to us fitting in this place to say a few words on the subject of George's pretension to be the originator of two o. Ainsworth's stories, because the truth of his assertion has been questioned by a late commentator. George's statements simply amount to this: that so far as the illustrations to the "Miser's Daughter" and "The Tower of London" are concerned, the author wrote up to his designs. We have considered Ainsworth's answers to this statement, and find that although he fences with, he does not deny it. It was one essential condition of Cruikshank's success that his fancy should be free and untrammelled, and the truth of his statement appears to us to be proved by the illustrations to these works, which are certainly the finest which he ever designed; that he was therefore (as he stated) the originator of these tales in the sense in which he used the word, we can entertain no manner of doubt.
Most of the Cruikshank commentators, whilst writing on the subject of the Harrison Ainsworth etchings, have thought fit to decry the author's share of the performance; but the fact that the pictures are so much better than the letterpress should not prevent us from dealing fairly with the veteran author, who, like the distinguished artist with whom he so long co-operated, has now gone to his rest. Even Mr. Ainsworth's detractors will, we think, admit that without him we should have lost the admirable illustrations to "Windsor Castle," "Jack Sheppard," and "St. James's"; it may even be doubted whether without him we should have had the still better series of etchings which adorn the "Tower of London" and the "Miser's Daughter." If this be the fact, it seems to us we owe a lasting debt of gratitude to this venerable writer, who experienced the vicissitudes which inevitably befall mere talent when allied with genius. He was a writer of the George Payne Ransford James school, dispensing, however, with the inevitable setting sun and two travellers, and received a price for his productions which many a better author might well envy. For his novel of "Old St. Paul's" (1841) he was paid by the proprietors of the Sunday Times one thousand pounds; "The Miser's Daughter" attained an extraordinary success; and the same remark applies to "Windsor Castle." For "The Lancashire Witches" he received from the proprietors of the Sunday Times one thousand pounds. Several of the works named had not the benefit of Cruikshank's illustrations; but in 1850-1, cheap editions of all such of Mr. Ainsworth's romances and tales as had appeared up to that period, were published by Messrs. Chapman and Hall without any illustrations at all. "Windsor Castle" was the first of the series, and upwards of thirty thousand copies were disposed of in a short time; while all the other works enjoyed a very large sale, and popular favour was so far from being exhausted, that another edition of his novels was called for in 1864-1868. He was a veritable literary rolling stone. In 1845 he disposed of his magazine to the publishers, and purchased the "New Monthly," previously edited by Theodore Hook and (after his death) by Thomas Hood; in 1854 he bought the far-famed "Miscellany" itself, becoming its proprietor and editor; in that year he seems also to have re-purchased "Ainsworth's Magazine," which as a separate and rival publication thenceforth ceased to exist.
The only work which Cruikshank illustrated for Charles Lever was "Arthur O'Leary," and the reason of this has been explained by himself in a letter which he wrote to Mr. Fitzpatrick, the author of Charles Lever's life: "I had the honour and the pleasure," he says, "of being personally acquainted with the late Charles Lever, and I regret that I was only able to illustrate one of his works, 'Arthur O'Leary,' my engagements on 'Jack Sheppard,' etc., at that time prevented me from illustrating his other works, which he wished me to have done, but I do not remember ever having any written correspondence with him, as the MS. or printed matter was placed in my hands for illustration; and then I had entirely to deal with the publisher. Mr. Charles Lever was an author whom I held in high estimation." Lever himself was highly gratified with these illustrations.
The Final Leap in the Dark.By 1845, that is to say, at least two years before he had taken his final leap in the dark, Cruikshank had contrived to pick quarrels with the very class of men whom it was his special interest to conciliate, and had been driven to set up an opposition serial of his own the celebrated "Table Book"—which, notwithstanding the superlative excellence of his own illustrations and the talent of his literary contributors, comprising such names as John Oxenford, Horace Mayhew, Shirley Brooks, Mark Lemon, W. M. Thackeray, and others, could not manage to prolong its existence beyond its first volume. In matters connected with his own interests he was not only impracticable, but seems to have been remarkably destitute of tact and even of discernment. It cannot be doubted that the estrangement from Bentley was unwise and impolitic, for as one of the greatest publishers of fiction of the day, his influence was both far-reaching and comprehensive. In quarrelling with Dickens, Ainsworth, and Bentley, three of the great artistic employers of labour of his time, and in face of the growing popularity of John Leech and Hablot Knight Browne, he was literally quarrelling with his bread and butter, and few men, even of genius, may afford to do that. He was essentially impulsive, and frequently acted under the influence of first impressions. Although fond of his pipe and his glass, as his famous Reverie,—The Triumph of Cupid, in the "Table Book," will show, he had always evinced a horror of drink, and had, as we have seen, done his best at various times to expose its insidious and baneful influences. At last, in 1847, came a sudden and extraordinary impulse of enthusiasm, under the influence of which he not only produced his Bottle, but laid aside for ever his pipe and his bowl. To do any real good, he said he must practise what he preached: he joined the "teetotallers," and not being one of those who did things by halves, entered heart and soul into the crusade against drink by becoming a temperance advocate. This last was the one step needed to fill up the measure of the artist's folly, and to secure for him the reputation of being an incurably eccentric, self-willed man.
Those who would charge the author with blaming George Cruikshank for joining the ranks of the teetotallers will do him grave injustice. Although very much of the opinion of Robert Burton, author of the "Anatomy of Melancholy," that, "No verses can please men or live long that are written by water-drinkers," and disposed to undervalue the tact and discretion of some of the advocates of total abstinence, for its abstract principles he can say and think nothing but what is good. But he is writing, be it remembered, of a great artist—one whose mission was that of an artist, not that of a temperance orator,—of one who had served the righteous and good cause of temperance best when he remembered that genius had made him an artist and not a temperance orator, of one who had rendered that cause yeoman's service long before he joined the total abstainers, in designing The Gin Juggernaut, The Gin Trap, and work of a kindred nature. The cause, too, so far as mere verbal advocacy was concerned, was better served by men of vastly inferior mark and ability. Before this fatal plunge was taken his genius had roamed in an absolutely uncontrolled range of freedom. He had travelled into the land of chivalry and romance, into the realms of fairy fancy, magic, and diablery; he had brought back with him pictures of the wondrous people, lands, and scenes which his fancy had visited. All this was at an end; this wonderful genius was now forced into a narrow groove, where it could no longer have the freedom of action which was essential to its very existence. From the moment that George Cruikshank turned temperance orator, the world of English art lost one of its brightest ornaments, and he himself both fame and fortune; for, as Mr. Bates observes, "some of his earliest friends were alienated, and remunerative work that might have been his was diverted, from sheer prejudice, into other hands." His style, too, as Mr. Bates further remarks, "suffered by the contraction of his ideas and sympathies, and his art became associated with that vulgarity and want of aestheticism which perhaps necessarily characterizes the movement." The Bottle and The Drunkard's Children, although successful in a pecuniary point of view—compared with what had gone before,—can scarcely be called art at all; in these too he unconsciously put himself in competition with Hogarth, and as a matter of necessity failed.
He had been a king among designers and etchers; he had been and was still an admirable water-colour artist, but knew comparatively little of the manipulation or management of oils. A new crusade had however to be preached, to be preached by means of an oil painting; and for this purpose George was to be inspired off hand (so to speak) with a new art, and to paint a picture in oils. We know the result—the lamentable result—in that most preposterous Worship of Bacchus. His motive was good, his ideas were vast, but the genius which in his unregenerate days had enabled him to design The Gin Trap and the The Gin Juggernaut, was no longer there. Unhappy Rip! There is more poetry—more fancy—more romance—more art—fire—genius in one of the little "bits," nine inches by six, executed in the days of his pipe and his glass, than in any one part or portion of this most gigantic failure.
The mere fact of his joining the ranks of the total abstainers would have done him perhaps little professional mischief, had he been content simply to join them, and aid their cause, as he had once so graphically done by depicting the evils of gin drinking and intemperance; but it was one of the failings as well as one of the virtues of this impulsive, earnest man's character, that whatever his hand found to do, "he did it with his might." Desiring to aid them to the best of his power, he mistook the means by which that aid might best be applied, and forgot that his talents lay not in the tongue but in his hand and his head. We look upon George Cruikshank after 1849, no longer as an artist, but as a very indifferent temperance lecturer. The reign of Fancy was over. Thenceforth no "Reveries," no "Jack o' Lanterns," no "Gin Juggernauts," would come from that indefatigable hand, that fertile brain, that wondrous and facile pencil. George Cruikshank took his Worship of Bacchus, and went out into the world (heaven save the mark!) as a temperance lecturer. His literary abilities were, however, small; he lacked even that "gentle dulness" which characterizes the leading advocates of the movement, and kindles a certain amount of sympathetic enthusiasm in kindred breasts. The dull people who went to hear him, knew little about and cared less for art and genius than they did for the abstract doctrines of total abstinence. The result, so far as he personally was concerned, was curious, lamentable, and almost instantaneous. The work which had hitherto crowded upon him fell away like water from a leaking vessel; nay, on the authority of Mr. William Bates, when work was offered him he refused to take it. "When pressed by the late Mark Lemon to draw on his own terms for Punch," this man who had designed some of the broadest, coarsest, most personal of the satires of the nineteenth century, had grown so extremely particular that "he definitely refused to have anything to do with it on account of what he termed its personalities." What could be done for such a man as this? Authors and publishers wholly ceased to employ him; and he was left without work in the very pride of his artistic career. He turned to oil painting; was taken by the hand by the influential few who appreciated, pitied, and loved him; but from the moment that he became a temperance advocate, to the literary world and to the general public this most singular and original genius was to all practical intents and purposes—dead.
These observations, I repeat, are made in no spirit of hostility to the sincere and earnest men who would seek to reduce the crime and misery which owe their origin to the immoderate use of ardent spirits. So far from this being the case, I hold their cause to be so righteous, so sensible, that it seems to me as effectually advocated by a plain, simple, earnest man as by a great artist and man of genius. I say advisedly, that the cause of temperance had been better served had Cruikshank stuck to his pencil and his etching needle, instead of seeking the position of a temperance advocate, and stumping the provinces with his absurd panorama of The Worship of Bacchus.
Thirty years of quite sterling and admirable work were now to be followed by thirty years of artistic sterility, for from this Rip Van Winkle slumber of thirty years' duration his reputation never once awoke. Out of the dreary desert of mental and artistic inactivity came forth at long distant intervals specimens of his handiwork, which served, it is true, to remind us of what he once was capable, but failed to restore him to the place he had for ever lost in public estimation; such were the illustrations to Angus Bethune Reach's "Clement Lorymer," to Robert Brough's "Life of Sir John Falstaff," to Smedley's "Frank Fairleigh," to George Raymond's "Life and Enterprises of Elliston," to his own so-called "Fairy Library." Good and excellent as this work was, it utterly failed to lend even a passing vitality to his departed reputation, a fact sufficiently and vexatiously proved when he essayed once more to start a magazine of his own, which met with such little encouragement that only two parts were issued.
Nevertheless, the designs of the "Life of Falstaff" and his own "Fairy Library" showed that, when the subject took hold of his fancy, the hand of Cruikshank had not altogether lost the cunning which characterized it in days of yore. To illustrate the so-called fairy stories, he had to read them,—no longer, alas! with his former love of fairy lore and legend,—no longer with the mind of a man free, vigorous, elastic, but with a mind warped and prejudiced with the study of a theme which was intellectually depressing and uninspiring. No one knows the origin of these fairy stories, they come to us from our Danish and Saxon ancestors, but are interwoven with the literature of every civilized nation under the sun, and are altogether beyond the sphere of modern criticism. Their primitive style is singularly adapted to enlist the sympathies of the little folk to whom they specially address themselves: their highest aim and object is not to instruct, but to amuse. All this the artist, in the ardour of his new crusade, lost sight of, and so dead had he become to the fairy fancies and reveries of his youth, that he placed sacrilegious hands on these time-honoured and favourite legends of our childhood, and converted them (with most indifferent literary ability) into something little better than temperance tracts!
But happily not without protest. Charles Dickens, the champion of the injured fairies, set his lance in rest, and speedily rolled hapless Van Winkle in the dust. Into the details of this very absurd and very unequal contest there is no necessity for us to enter. George was at home with his pencil, his etching needle, or his tubes of water colour; but put a pen in his hand, and he forthwith would cut the funniest of capers. He argued (with every appearance of comical gravity and earnestness), that because Shakespeare might alter an Italian story, or Sir Walter Scott use history for the purposes of the drama, poetry, or romance, therefore, "any one might take the liberty of altering a common fairy story to suit his purpose and convey his opinions." Aye, and so he might, honest Rip; but he would set about his task in a very different fashion to Shakespeare or Sir Walter Scott, and I fear too that the literary results and value would be vastly different. It never seemed to occur to the mind of the honest but simple casuist that in putting "any one" on a par with William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, he was writing simple nonsense.
It is clear, therefore, that the change which had come over the literature of fiction during the past quarter of a century, and which Professor Bates would assign as one of the principal causes of the sterility which befel the genius of Cruikshank, had really very little to do with it. This calamity—for a national calamity it undoubtedly was—did not fall upon him, be it remembered, when he was old, but in the very acme and pride of artistic success. His fall was distinctly due to causes which were within his own control, and might have been avoided by the exercise of qualities which (it seems to me) he did not possess,—forethought, tact, and judgment. During the rest of his long life, the place which George Cruikshank deliberately ceded to others he never once regained; when he dropped behind, he became as completely forgotten as if he had ceased any longer to exist; men whose childhood he had delighted with his quaint imaginings, his own friends and contemporaries, died off; and so it came to pass, that before he knew it, for time moves quickly after youth is over, the old man was left standing alone amongst the ranks of a generation that did not know him. So little was he known or regarded, that when his works were first exhibited, no one took the trouble to see them; and when a small circle of admirers, with the great English critic, John Ruskin, at their head, started a subscription for the forgotten artist, "the attempt was a failure—hundreds being received when thousands were expected." It will be remembered that in his best days the artist had executed a memorable etching, Born a Genius and Born a Dwarf: I wonder whether, in the bitterness of his spirit and the righteousness of his anger, George Cruikshank ever thought of that etching?
- Mr. Blanchard Jerrold.
- "And gentle dulness ever loves a joke."—Dunciad.
- "The Maclise Portrait Gallery," 1883, p. 195.