English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century/Chapter 8
GEORGE CRUIKSHANK AT HIS PRIME.
Alterations in Cruikshank's Style.Those who have studied the work of George Cruikshank from its commencement to its close (and those only can be said to have done so who are familiar with the satires described in the previous chapter), cannot fail to be struck with the alterations which took place in his style at different periods of the career we have already been considering. George Cruikshank's peculiar style and manner, which enable us to recognise his work at a glance, was the outcome of a very slow and gradual process of development. In the first instance he closely copied Gillray, but soon acquired a manner of his own, blending the two styles after a fashion which is both interesting and amusing to follow. Soon, however, the style of the master was discontinued, and gradually the artist began to discover that the bent of his genius lay in altogether another direction. Unlike Thomas Rowlandson, the moment Cruikshank became an illustrator of books, he realized the fact that the style adapted to graphic satire was unsuitable for the purposes of this branch of art, and thenceforth he adopted a style differing from anything which had gone before. The revolution thus accomplished (a singular proof of the genius of the man) was effected without effort, and is strikingly manifest in an early book illustration representing the execution of Madame Tiquet and her accomplice, in 1699. The design to which we refer, which we believe is rare and little known, was engraved by H. R. Cook, from a design by the artist for the frontispiece to a collection of narratives by Cecil, "printed for Hone," in 1819, and stands by virtue of its force and character apart from most of the book illustrations of the period. From the moment that the new style was adopted, the artist's services were brought into requisition for the purposes of book illustration; and from the time work of this kind began to come in, he relaxed and afterwards discontinued the practice of caricature. It is as an etcher and designer of book illustrations we shall henceforth have to consider him, and in this character one of his famous illustrations to "Greenwich Hospital" will be found superior to the whole series of Rowlandson's careless overdrawn designs to the three "Tours" of Syntax put together.
This alteration in the man's style after he took to book illustration is known only to those familiar with his early caricatures. If you take, for instance, the etching of St. Swithin's Chapel, of the "Sketch Book," or The Gin Shop in the "Scraps and Sketches" (we are speaking of course of the early coloured impressions), and show them together with any two of the caricatures we have named to a person who had never before seen either, we will venture to say that he would pronounce them without hesitation to be executed by entirely different hands.
George's ideas of Female Beauty.After Lockhart's statement that George Cruikshank was capable of designing an Annunciation, a Beatification, or an Apotheosis, we must accept his assertion that he "understood the [human] figure completely "with a certain amount of reservation. Perhaps he did; and if he did, he certainly played some extraordinary tricks with the "figure" aforesaid. The truth is, that we forget the artist's weaknesses, many and glaring as they are, in the lustre of his unexampled genius. The Times, in an otherwise laudatory article which it published after his death, remarked that "there was not a single beautiful face or figure probably in the whole range of Cruikshank's work." Now, although this is not entirely true, there is at least so much of truth, in it that we may admit that the cases in which he has produced a pretty face or figure are very few and far between, and even those cases seem rather to have been the result of accident than of design. There is no getting over the fact that George's ideas of female beauty were, to say the least of them, peculiar: his women are fearfully and wonderfully made; they are horse-faced; their eyebrows are black and strongly marked; their hair is plastered to the sides of their faces, and meet bobs of hair at the back of their heads; their waists are as thin as their necks; and they all bear a strong family likeness to one another. The Times assertion is happily, however, so broad that it is easy to traverse and contradict it. George's handsome women are so few, that it is difficult at the moment to say where any of them may be found. I know at least of one amazingly handsome one—the London Barrow Woman in Hone's "Every-Day Book." Some pretty servant girls will be found in the etching of The Sergeant Introducing his Dutch Wife to his Friends in "St. James's, or the Court of Queen Anne," and I will undertake to point out at least half a dozen pretty faces in the course of illustrations to "The Miser's Daughter"; but after all, these are only exceptions to the general rule; and it may be safely conceded that as a delineator of female beauty, George could not hold a candle to John Leech, to John Tenniel, or even to his own brother, Isaac Robert.
The Cruikshankian Steed.As for the celebrated Cruikshankian steed, I give him up at once as an utterly irreclaimable and unmanageable brute. Thackeray, writing in 1840, said, that "though our artist does not draw horses very scientifically, to use the phrase of the atelier; he feels them very keenly, and his queer animals, after one is used to them, answer quite as well as better." Even on this subject, however, the ablest critics have contradicted each other. George Augustus Sala tells us that the artist "could draw the ordinary nag of real life well enough," and cites by way of example the very horses of the celebrated Deaf Postilion, in "Three Courses and a Dessert," which Thackeray had previously held up to well-merited execration. He goes on to tell us that when George "essayed to portray a charger or a hunter, or a lady's hack, or even a pair of carriage horses, the result was the most grotesque of failures. The noble animal has, I apprehend, forty-four 'points,' technically speaking, and from the muzzle to the spavin-place, from the crest to the withers, from the root of the dock to the fetlock, George was wrong in them all. His fiery steed bore an equal resemblance to a Suffolk punch with the head of a griffin and the legs of an antelope, and that traditionary cockhorse on which the lady was supposed to ride to Banbury Cross with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes." His peculiarities notwithstanding, George himself was in no wise conscious of them, and never hesitated to introduce "the fiery untamed" into any scene—battle or otherwise—in which the services of the eccentric animal might be turned to account. We find him assisting Washington in his triumphal journey to the capitol; astonishing the French squares in the character of a Mameluke charger at the Battle of the Pyramids; and leaping into the lake along with "Herne the Hunter," that peculiar creation of the late Mr. Harrison Ainsworth, on which supernatural occasion he comes out, as might have been expected, with peculiar force and vigour.
Thackeray, moreover, says of his trees, that they were decidedly original, "being decidedly of his own make and composition, not imitated from any master;" another and a minor difficulty with the artist was a boot, which he invariably drew half a foot too long. George lived in the days of straps, and being strictly conservative in principle, when he met with a pair of trousers, his idea of the "fitness of things" was not satisfied until he pinned them to the wearer's feet with a pair of these most uncomfortable appendages.
Against these shortcomings, which are a sufficient answer to those who would give him credit for possessing the faculty of designing "Annunciations, Beatifications, Apotheoses," and the like, we must set his excellencies, the power and brilliancy of his imaginative faculties, his extraordinary talents of conception and realization, the delicacy of his manipulation and execution: in a word, the strong original "genius" with which Lockhart credited him from the moment he had seen his "Points of Humour." Examples of this
Robert Cruikshank]["Three Courses and a Dessert"
Robert Cruikshank]["Three Courses and a Dessert"
THE DEAF POSTILION. (See p. 169.)
"I don't want to hurt thee, zo I leaves thee wi' un., but, mind—he'll hold thy droat a little tighter than I did, if the wags a hair."
Face p. 171.
"No plan!" "no ambition!" "not much industry!" so at least said Lockhart. We may doubt whether even at the time it was spoken this charge had any foundation of truth to rest upon; an answer to it at least will be found in the fact that, before the mysterious spell had fallen upon him we shall presently have to describe, this sterling and indefatigable genius had already produced thousands upon thousands of miraculous little drawings. From the mass of these wonderful creations we propose now to select a few examples, choosing them in the first instance from a graver type than some we shall presently have to consider.
"Greenwich Hospital" gives us one of the very best drawings which Cruikshank ever designed. The scene of the Point of Honour is laid on board the Triumph, at Spithead, at the time of the famous mutiny. A detachment of marines with shouldered arms are drawn up on the quarter deck, their drummer is beating to quarters, while all hands are assembled to witness a degrading and demoralizing spectacle,—a sailor, with his shoulders bare and his hands tied to the triangles, about to receive punishment for disobedience to orders. Conspicuous amongst the figures are two little middies, habited in the strange naval uniform of sixty years ago. The illustration to The Braintrees, at page 90 of the "Three Courses and a Dessert" is a marvellous specimen, not only of the graphic power of the artist, but a triumph of the wood-engraver's craft. In The Gin Shop ("Sketches by Boz"), the artist selected a subject which invariably enlisted his sympathy and called into action the full power of his graphic satire. Mark the flaming gas, the huge spirit vats, the gaudily painted pillars and mouldings; above all, the strange people: the young man with his hat on one side who chaffs the young ladies behind the bar, the gin-drinking female by his side, the gin-loving cripple, the small boy who brings the family bottle to be filled with gin, whose head barely reaches the counter, the gin-drinking charwoman to the left, and the quarrelsome gin-drinking Irish customers at the back. Everything in this picture reeks of gin; the only persons not imbibing it are the proprietor and his dowdy barmaids, whom I have no manner of doubt the artist intended to look captivating.
"What a fine touching picture of melancholy desolation," remarks Thackeray, "is that of 'Sikes and the dog.' The poor cur is not too well drawn, the landscape is stiff and formal; but in this case the faults, if faults they be, of execution rather add to than diminish the effect of the picture: it has a strange, wild, dreary, broken-hearted look; we fancy we see the landscape as it must have appeared to Sikes, when ghastly and with bloodshot eyes he looked at it." The etching of Jonathan Wild Discovering Darrell in the Loft ["Jack Sheppard"] reminds one, in its treatment, of Rembrandt, for the work of Cruikshank, be it observed, distinctly shows in its results that he studied both Hogarth and Rembrandt. The effect the artist has produced is wonderful; the ray of light thrown through the gloom upon the figure of Darrell as he stands against the wall, sword in hand, is capitally managed, "while the intricacies of the tile-work, and the mysterious twinkling of light among the beams are excellently felt and rendered." Simon Renard and Winwike on the Roof of the White Tower ["Tower of London"] is another admirable drawing. The scene is laid on the platform of one of the antique guns which frown from the embrasures of the river face of the fortress. The head of Renard is not well drawn. The character of the ambassador gives one the idea of a Spanish Iago, a clever, calculating knave, whom we should credit with the possession of a broad and lofty forehead, indicative of deep and concentrated thought; in the etching, however, before us, he has none at all, a deficiency compensated by puffy cheeks and a preposterous beak. These imperfections, which in another artist would mar the drawing, serve only to throw its excellencies into prominent notice. The lights and shadows are most effectively rendered, and the setting sun throws a broad light upon the features of the warder, who has laid aside his arquebus while conversing with the wily Spaniard. Of the many who have noticed the well-known etching of Born a Genius and Born a Dwarf ["Comic Almanack, 1847"], not one (so far at least as we know) has ever mentioned its origin. The subject was prompted by one of the last entries in the diary of poor Benjamin Robert Haydon, who died by his own hand on the 22nd of June, 1846, his corpse being found at the foot of his colossal picture of Alfred the Great and the First British Jury. The entry runs as follows:—"Tom Thumb had 12,000 people last week, B. R. Haydon 133½ (the ½ a little girl). Exquisite taste of the English people!" In the etching which shows us Randulph and Hilda Dancing in the Rotunda at Ranelagh ["Miser's Daughter"], he brings us face to face with our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers; wherever he got his authority from, the huge circular hall with galleries and arches running round it, illuminated by a thousand lamps, and the curious orchestra with the old-fashioned sounding-board above, are no freak of the artist's imagination. The etching possesses a wondrous charm of reality. We find ourselves assisting, as it were, at one of the masquerades described in "Sir Charles Grandison"; many of the company are in fancy dresses, and we find it difficult to realize, in these broad-cloth days, that the gentlemen in the velvet coats, with gold-bound embroidered waistcoats, silk stockings, silver gilt rapiers, and laced hats, dancing minuets with Chinamen, harlequins, scaramouches, templars, and other fancifully-dressed persons, are simply wearing the every-day costume of men of fashion of the day.
Mannerism. Perhaps more than any other comic artist of past or present time, George is distinguished by his mannerisms. His horses, his women, the costumes of his male and female characters, the cut of their garments and of their boots, the arrangement of their hair, will proclaim his individuality anywhere; and yet, if you look at any of the designs which he executed in his best and brightest days, before he took up with the mania which contributed, as we shall presently see, so largely to the ruin of his artistic genius, fame, and fortunes, we cannot fail to be impressed with the quaintness of his imagination. In this quaintness and originality lie the charm and freshness which is the peculiar characteristic of his designs. Unlike those of other artists, you may turn over volume after volume of his sketches, and be conscious of no sense of weariness. Much of this no doubt is due to their constant variety. Unlike the generality of modern illustrators, he is not limited to the costumes and incidents of the every-day commonplace life of the nineteenth century; he does not confine himself to humour; his fancy takes a wider range, and revels in subjects of wonder, diablery, and romance. Gnomes and fairies, devils and goblins, knights, giants, jesters, and morris dancers are continually passing before us; there is an endless succession of novelties, treated with a quaintness of fancy which distinguishes it above all others; there is a ceaseless variety in his dramatis personæ, while the characters are as various as the subjects. In these characteristics seem to lie the secret of the pleasure which his illustrations, whether they be drawn on wood or etched on the copper, never fail to inspire.The sale and purchase of Peter Schlemihl's Shadow has been noticed by Thackeray. We see the Old Gentleman neatly packing up his purchase after the manner of an "old clo'" dealer; he has just "lifted the shadow of one leg; he is going to fold it back neatly, as one does the tails of a coat, and will stow it, without any creases or crumples, along with the other black garments that lie in that immense pocket of his." Another illustration in the same book
|"THE WITCH'S SWITCH."||"ABSENT-MINDEDNESS."|
|"THE DENTIST."||"BAT BOROO."|
|SKETCHES FROM GEORGE CRUIKSHANK'S "THREE COURSES AND A DESSERT."|
|[Face p. 175.|
"And I thought it was right, as the music was come,
To foot it a little in Tabitha's room."
The Last Cab Driver ["Sketches by Boz"] deserves a passing notice, because it has preserved from oblivion a class of vehicles which has long since disappeared from the London streets. It looked for all the world like the section of a coffin set on end, the seat (which was intended to accommodate only one person besides the driver) occupying the centre. The cabman being a very mauvais sujet, we find the surroundings (after the artist's practice) in strict keeping with his character. The building past which he drives is marked "Old Bailey"; whilst a snuff manufacturer in the street at the back advertises himself as the vendor of "Real Irish Blackguard."
Waverley NovelsThe dry, quaint humour of the author of "Waverley" exactly suited the quaint imaginings of our artist. Both Scott and Cruikshank delighted in the supernatural and the marvellous, and this is why some of the most characteristic of the artist's designs are to be found in his illustrations to the "Waverley Novels." In one of these he shows us the illustrious Dominie at the moment, when reaching over to gather a water-lily, he falls souse into the Slough of Lochend, in which he forthwith became bogged up to the middle, his plight drawing from him of course his favourite ejaculation of amazement. By the assistance of some women the luckless Dominie was extracted from his position, justifying the remark of one of his assistants, that "the laird might as weel trust the care of his bairn to a potato-bogle." Which was the most helpless of the two men—the Laird of Dumbiedikes, or the illustrious Dominie—it would be difficult to say; both these most original characters took a powerful hold on the artist's imagination, and as a natural consequence the ideas of Scott were completely realized. A very comical design is that in which he shows us the worthy but witless laird with his laced cocked hat and empty tobacco pipe, and his hand extended "like the claw of a heraldic griffin," when he managed to utter something beyond his usual morning greeting, and frightened Jeannie into the belief that he had so far "screwed his courage to the sticking place" as to venture on a matrimonial proposal, to which unwonted effort of imagination his intelligence, however, proved altogether unequal.
In the "Comic Almanack" will be found many examples of Alliterative Designs George's tendency to graphic alliteration. The Fall of the Leaf affords a capital specimen of the kind of design to which we allude. The leaf of the dinner-table has been so insecurely fastened that it falls, burying with it the mistress of the house, the fish, the champagne, a sherry decanter, a vase of flowers,—everything, in fact, to which it formed a treacherous and unreliable support; Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" lies in a corner of the room, and the walls are hung with appropriate subjects, such as the Fall of Foyers, the Falls of Niagara, Falls of the Clyde, and so on. An illustration of a similar kind will be found in Taurus—a Literary Bull. The animal has rushed into a printing office and scattered the compositors right and left; some seek shelter beneath their frames, one clambers wildly up the shelves of a paper case, while others scuttle over the frames, and one man, too wholly dismayed and bewildered to run, brandishes a stool in helpless imbecility. The bull is perhaps the most astonished of the dramatis personæ, and evidently wonders into what manner of place fate has brought him. The walls are pasted with appropriate advertisements: "Some Account of the Pope's Bull," "A Cock and Bull Story," "Theatre Royal, Haymarket—John Bull" "To be Sold by Auction, the Bull Inn," "Abstract of the Act against Bull-baiting," and so on. In Libra Striking the Balance (same year), a dishonest tradesman has been detected in using false weights and measures. The beadle holds up a pair of scales, one of which weighs very much heavier than the other. The wretched culprit, conscious, all too late, that honesty would have proved "the best policy" for himself, leans against his shelves the picture of sullen and detected guilt. The window of the shop bears on it the painted legend of "The cheapest shop in London." Leaning against the counter we find a programme of the "City Theatre," announcing the performance of "Measure for Measure": to conclude with "Honest Thieves"; an officer outside (surrounded by a deeply interested crowd) is engaged in breaking up a second pair of dishonest scales. Chronology, difference in politics, character, tastes, and disposition, are most amusingly set at defiance in the etching entitled The Revolution at Madame Tussaud's : Mary Queen of Scots "treads a measure" with William Penn the Quaker; Fox and Pitt make long noses at each other from opposite sides of the room; O'Connell shakes hands with Freschi, to whom our old friend the elderly country gentleman offers a friendly pinch of snuff; William Shakespeare flirts with an almond-eyed Chinese woman; Henry the Eighth smokes a long churchwarden with Judge Jefferys; Lord Byron (with greater propriety) exchanges friendly greetings with Jean Jacques Rousseau; whilst the great Napoleon unbends, as chroniclers assert that he was wont to do, and waltzes round the room with Madame Tussaud, and Britannia (to the uproarious delight of Sir William Wallace) rasps her trident across her shield, by way of accompaniment to the fiddle of the Saturnine Paganini.
The fun of these side splitting designs is only equalled by their variety. The "Almanack" of 1838 introduces us to the inevitable row which forms the wind-up of a Hibernian festa; chairs, sticks, shovels,—anything that comes to hand is used without fear or favour; men, women, children struggle together in inextricable confusion amidst the débris of wrecked furniture, broken glass, and battered pewter; high above the din drone the nasal tones of the piper; while amidst the infernal clatter "the praist" vainly endeavours to re-establish order and make himself heard. Theatrical Fun Dinner (1841) represents the close of the banquet. Hamlet is already too far gone to know what he is doing; Othello belabours Iago with a bottle; Shylock and Antonio fraternize; whilst a reconciliation is established between Macbeth and Macduff, who chink glasses by way of cementing their friendship; Sir John Falstaff lights his pipe at Bardolph's nose; whilst Romeo hands up a glass of something short and strong to his Juliet in the balcony. 1842 gives us the celebrated etching of "Gone!" an auctioneer "knocking down" a bust of Socrates; at the word "gone" the flooring gives way, and auctioneer, buyers, and Socrates, with all their surroundings, descend with a simultaneous crash into the cellars below. Drowning men catch at straws, and the spectacled visage of the auctioneer, as he clings wildly to his rostrum, is a perfect study of terrified imbecility.
In looking at these quaint designs, the mind of any one possessed of any imagination at all cannot fail to be impressed with a sense of the original train of thought which must have characterized the man who could conceive and realize them. How appropriately and admirably, even in trivial matters, the details of the design are worked out! If the reader will refer to the etching in "St. James'," where the sergeant places the boot of his master, the Duke of Marlborough, on a map of Flanders, he will at once see what we mean. The action is accidental; and yet where could the boot have been placed with greater propriety? for surely if any country was under the heel of the great English captain, it was Flanders. Nothing to equal these designs are ever seen in these days, perhaps nothing like them will ever be seen again. There are many excellent comic designs produced by our artists of to-day; but with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. Caldicott and Colonel Seccombe, they lack character. You pass them by, and straightway forget them. Not so with these admirable little designs; you turn to them again and again, and each time with a refreshing sense of pleasure. Herein seems to lie the power of true genius—that its productions give not only a sense of freshness and delight, but that the sensation so conveyed will not die. There are people, I believe, on whom they produce no such impression; such people, as regards comic art, are for all practical purposes "dry bones," and to dry bones such as these the pencil of "honest George" will appeal in vain.
Some writers on the subject of Cruikshank and his work would have us believe that he developed his highest powers of imagination and fancy, and achieved his highest reputation, when depicting subjects of a fairy or supernatural order. Whether these scribes be right or whether they be wrong, there is no doubt that he discovered for himself an enchanted land of mountain and streamlet, of meadow and waterfall, of gnomes and fairies, of demons, witches, and of giants. The process by which he attained his excellence as an illustrator of fairy lore and legend has been related by himself in his own simple, unpolished words in the (so-called) "Fairy Library." Unquestionably the opportunity which these subjects afforded of exercising untrammelled his marvellous gifts of imagination and fancy, and of realizing objects which owe their being to the creative faculties of his mind, were eagerly embraced by the artist; but, although the results were singularly weird and often very beautiful, I find myself obliged to differ from those who would have us believe that in realizing subjects of this kind he attained his highest excellence. The charm of George Cruikshank's talent lies in the fact that notwithstanding his defects in drawing, everything he took in hand is impressed with the stamp of a strong and original genius; it is like nothing we have seen before; every one of his designs is marked with distinctive features of beauty, quaintness, or originality peculiar to himself.
The "German Popular Stories" probably contain the most striking specimens of Cruikshank's power as a designer of fairy subjects. In reference to these illustrations, our great critic, Mr. Ruskin, says: "They are of quite sterling and admirable art, in a class precisely parallel in elevation to the character of the tales which they illustrate; and the original etchings, as I have before said in the Appendix to my 'Elements of Drawing,' were unrivalled in masterfulness of touch since Rembrandt, in some qualities of delineation unrivalled even by him." "The Two Elves" says Hamerton, "especially the nearer one, who is putting on his breeches, are drawn with a point at once so precise and vivacious, so full of keen fun and inimitably happy invention, that I have not found their equal in comic etching anywhere . . . the picturesque details of the room are etched with the same felicitous intelligence; but the marvel of the work is in the expression of the strange little faces, and the energy of the comical wee limbs." In The Witches'
"The Elves and the Cobbler."
"The Waits of Bremen and the Borders."
FROM GEORGE CRUIKSHANK'S EDITION OF "GERMAN POPULAR STORIES."
[Face p. 180.
Frolic ["Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft"], we find a happy blending of the terrible and the grotesque. Look at the old hags floating out to sea in their tubs; and the strange, uncanny thing with dreadful eyes bobbing up and down midway between the foremost old woman and the distant vessel. The thing may be a ship, it may be a fish, or it may be a fiend, in the dim half light we cannot tell what,—but it is horribly suggestive of nightmare, and makes one laugh as well as shudder. Some ghostly goblins, the creations of George's weird fancy, will be found in "The Omnibus"; we see them following a ghostly ship manned by ghostly mariners, and we find in the same book ghostly Dutchmen playing a game of diabolical leap-frog with Australian kangaroos. In one illustration he introduces us to a cheerful assembly of ancestral ghosts: there is the ghostly saucer-eyed head of the family, with a ghostly hound peeping beneath his chair, a ghostly grandmother, half a dozen ghostly spinster aunts, a ghostly butler, a ghostly cook, a ghostly small boy, two ghostly candles; and lastly, a ghostly cat. Small wonder that under the influence of such ghostly surroundings the hair of the affrighted ghost-seer stands erect in the extremity of his terror.
This same book contains, too, the celebrated etching of Jack o'Lantern, probably the best illustration of the supernatural which we owe to the pencil and weird imagination of the artist. "Talk of Fuseli and his wind-bag, there is real vivid imagination enough in this to make a whole academy of Fuselis. It is just an Egyptian darkness, with breaking through it, above a bog-hole, some black bulrushes, and above them a bending, leathery goblin exulting over some drowned traveller, the meteor lamp he carries casting a downward flicker on the dark water. Such darkness, such wicked speed, such bad, Puck-like malice, such devilry, Hoffman and Poe together could not have better devised. Many a May exhibition has not half the genius in all its pictures that focuses in that gem of jet." The description is admirable; but Walter. Thornbury has altogether misconceived the artist's idea. Jack o'Lantern is simply misguiding a belated traveller into a bog, and the elfin grin which pervades his countenance testifies to the delight he takes in his mischievous employment. The words of the song in Dryden's King Arthur convey the best possible description of this wondrous conception:—
"Hither this way, this way bend,
Trust not that malicious fiend;
Those are false, deluding lights,
Wafted far and near by sprights;
Trust 'em not, for they'll deceive ye,
And in bog and marshes leave ye,
If you step no danger thinking,
Down you fall, a furlong sinking;
Tis a fiend who has annoyed ye,
Name but Heav'n, and he'll avoid ye."
By way of contrast to all these, I would turn to the celebrated and much-too-often-described Triumph of Cupid, of the "Table Book"; but as the praises of this remarkable composition may already be counted by the ream, I have no intention whatever of contributing a further addition.A notice, however, of George Cruikshank's supernatural work would be incomplete without some reference to his devils. From time immemorial our idea of His Satanic Majesty has been associated with the distinguishing appendages of horns, hoofs, and a cow's tail. "A conceit there is," says old Sir Thomas Browne, "that the devil commonly appeareth with a cloven hoof, wherein, although it seems excessively ridiculous, there may be somewhat of truth, and the ground thereof at first might be his frequent appearing in the shape of a goat, which answers the description." George Cruikshank too well apprehended the cunning nature of His Satanic Majesty to suppose him idiotic enough to introduce his hoofs, his horns, or his tail into the company of all sorts and conditions of men. It will be remembered that Fitz Dottrel takes leave to doubt the identity of the devil who waits upon him in the character of a body servant. "You cannot," he says, "cozen me. Your shoe's not cloven, sir; you are whole hoofed." But "Pug" simply and unaffectedly assures him, "Sir, that's a popular error,—deceives many."
In estimating his merits, the genius of George Cruikshank may not inaptly be compared to a diamond. One facet often emits more brilliant coruscations than any other; and if we may be permitted to Compare his powers of realizing the grave, the comical, the supernatural, and the terrible to the facets of a diamond, we think the one which would be found to emit the most brilliant flashes of light would be the last. Thackeray, one of the most friendly and most competent of his critics, would seem to have considered that much of his power was shown in depicting subjects of this kind. "What a fine eye," he tells us, in his famous article which has supplied the backbone—the muscles—the very integuments of so many others,—"what a fine eye the artist has, what a skilful hand, and what a sympathy for the wild and dreadful!"From an early period of his career as an etcher and designer, George had waged a deadly war with gin,—that potent, insidious, and evil spirit of London; the most priceless services he rendered to the cause of temperance being unquestionably given long before he had any notion of joining the ranks of the total abstainers. Like the Triumph of Cupid, the well-known Gin Juggernaut of the "Sketch Book" requires nothing more than a passing allusion. An example less known but quite as admirable will be found in the "Scraps and Sketches." It is called The Gin Shop, and shows us the interior of a London gin palace. In place of the usual barrels, around the walls are ranged coffins, labelled respectively: "Deady's Cordial;" "Blue Ruin;" "Gin and Bitters;" the largest (a huge one) being marked "Old Tom." Death, habited as a watchman, has baited a huge gin trap, wherein stand five persons (two of them children, besides a baby in arms), all imbibing the deadly liquid. The wretched woman with the infant has actually placed her foot on the spring, and so great is the artist's power of realization, that we momentarily expect to see the horrible thing close with a snap! A skeleton, whose fleshless skull is masked with a pleasant female countenance, officiates as barmaid, and behind her yawns a pit, on the further side of which a circle of evil spirits curvet around a huge still. Just such a weird scene as would strike a sympathetic chord in the artist's
The "Tower of London" introduces us to two scenes of a dismal and terrible character in the etching entitled Xit Wedded to the Scavenger's Daughter, the artist carries us to a gloomy torture chamber, dimly lighted by a solitary lantern. On the framework of the rack sits the dwarf Xit, his limbs compressed in the grip of the. frightful instrument called the "Scavenger's daughter," while Simon Renard, scarcely able to repress a smile, interrogates the comical little figure at his leisure. Behind him stands Sorrocold, the surgeon; and in the farther corner Mauger (the headsman), Nightgall, and an assistant torturer, recline against the wall. The feeble rays of the lantern throw an obscure light upon the gloomy walls decorated with the stock in trade of the torturers, thumb-screws, gauntlets, collars, pinchers, saws, chains, and other horrible and suggestive implements. Affixed to the ceiling is a steel pulley, the rope which traverses it terminating with an iron hook and two leathern shoulder straps. Facing the gloomy door stands a brazier filled with blazing coals, in which a huge pair of pinchers are suggestively heating. Reared against the side of a deep dark recess is a ponderous wheel—broad as that of a wagon, and twice the circumference; and next it the iron bar with which the bones of those condemned to die by this most horrible torture were broken while alive. The etching of Mauger Sharpening his Axe is nearly as celebrated as that of Fagin in the Condemned Cell. "A wonderful weird dusk, with no light but that which glimmers on the bald scalp of the hideous headsman, who, feeling the edge of his axe with his thumb, grins with a devilish foretaste of his pleasure on the morrow. I need scarcely say that all the poetry, dramatic force, mystery, and terror of the design is attributable to Cruikshank, and not to Ainsworth." Scenes still more realistically terrible even than these, such as the Massacre at Tullabogue, The Rebel Camp on Vinegar Hill, and the Executions at Wexford Bridge, will be found in Maxwell's "History of the Irish Rebellion."
Mr. Lockhart, we may remember, advised the artist in the early part of his career to "think of Hogarth," and throughout the whole of George Cruikshank's designs of the graver caste the influence of the study of Rembrandt and of Hogarth will be apparent to those acquainted with the characteristics of these great artists. In the case of Rembrandt it is manifest in the deep shadows, penetrated by broad but skilfully treated rays of light, throwing the salient parts of the design into prominent but pleasing relief; in the case of Hogarth it is shown in minute attention to details of a character singularly appropriate to the designs. Delineators of subjects of greater pretension are frequently content to throw all their sympathies, their energies, into the elaboration of their leading figure or figures: the attitude, the face, the features, the hands, the costume, leave nothing to be desired, while the rest of the composition is slurred or neglected. This is not the case with Cruikshank, every part of his work bears witness to his careful attention to detail; no part of it is elaborated at the expense of the rest; from the tenants of the room down to the smallest and most insignificant ornament on the chimney-piece, everything appears as distinct as it would appear in actual every-day life.
But this study of Rembrandt and of Hogarth, this minute attention to detail, this careful and conscientious elaboration, would have done little for George Cruikshank if he had not possessed in an eminent degree that faculty of creation, otherwise of originality, which men call genius. Various descriptions of this gift have been attempted by eminent men, but the most felicitous seems to us to be that given by Robert William Elliston: "A true actor," says this distinguished comedian, "must possess the power of creation, which is genius, as well as the faculty of imitation, which is only talent." Substitute the word "artist" for the word "actor," and the remark will apply with equal felicity to the subject of our present chapter. It was this same gift of genius which, whilst it enabled the artist to lend a sentient expression to such unpromising subjects as a barrel, a wig-block, a jug of beer, a pair of bellows, or an oyster, imparted to his drawings a piquancy which has elevated these apparently insignificant designs into perfectly sterling works of art. The reader who is fortunate enough to number amongst his books the first half-dozen volumes of "Bentley's Miscellany" and "Ainsworth's Magazine," "The Omnibus," "The Table Book," "The Comic Almanack," possesses a series of designs, drawn and etched by the hand of the master himself, the value of which is yearly increasing, not only because they are becoming scarcer and scarcer every day, but because nothing like them—under the conditions in which book illustration is now produced—will ever be seen again.
- The "Sketch Book" and "Scraps and Sketches" have recently been republished; but the impressions from the sadly worn plates give but little idea of the exquisite originals.
- Sala, in Gentleman's Magazine, May, 1878.
- Thackeray, Westminster Review.
- Thackeray, in the Westminster Review, June, 1840.
- This idea of the empty pipe is splendid, there never is any tobacco in it; a better notion of absolute forgetfulness—of inability to exercise the most trifling effort of memory—could not be conveyed.
- "Etching and Etchers."
- Ben Jonson's "The Devil is an Ass."
- This was written, of course, before the recent republication, which lacks the colour and crispness of the early issue.
- "British Artists from Hogarth to Turner."