The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VI. Caricature and the Literature of Sport

§ 1. Hogarth

THE LITERATURE to be described in this chapter owes so much, in origin and in development, to pictorial art, that the subject demands a brief preliminary account of the growth of engraving, and especially of caricature, in England. Caricature, in the sense of pictorial comment on contemporary political or social conditions, was not unknown in the reign of James II. William III brought with him from Holland Dutch artists, among them de Hooghe, who produced work of this nature; and their presence spurred on native artists. In the reign of Anne, caricature was frequent. A print of 1710 shows Sacheverell taking counsel of the devil and a Roman catholic priest; and Sacheverell often appeared in political plates. The famous pamphlet ascribed by Swift to Arbuthnot, Law is a Bottomless Pit or The History of John Bull (1712), was a fertile source of figures for draughtsmen. If this pamphlet did not originate the impersonation of England as “John Bull,” it made it popular; while the appearance of Louis XIV as “Lewis Baboon,” of Holland as “Nick Frog,” of Charles of Spain as “The Lord Strutt,” of the English parliament as “Mrs. Bull,” and so forth, provided political draughtsmen with ideas of the kind that they needed. Now, as later, tories freely used this weapon against whigs. The South Sea Bubble, in the year 1720, gave a strong impetus to English caricature. Pine, Bickham and Picart were among the many artists who produced plates on the subject; but more important than any was the work of Hogarth. After the time of the South Sea Bubble, caricatures became more and more popular; to some extent, they took the place of the political pamphlets which had been common in the previous century. Gravelot, in 1727, made an engraving which appears to have been the first attack of this kind on the prevalent corruption at parliamentary elections; and he was one of many caricaturists who found a fruitful subject in Walpole and his whig government. The caricatures of the day were not all political. Social conditions were freely criticised; many of the plates being grossly improper and many very ill-drawn. The designing of these pictorial jests or attacks became something like fashionable: amateurs indulged in it, such as the countess of Burlington and George Townshend. Pope was a favourite subject, and lord Bute was frequently attacked for his patronage of the Scots; while one of the best known prints is the caricature of Handel as a pig playing the organ, by Goupy, drawing-master to George III.

Setting aside his artistic greatness, the service which Hogarth rendered to caricature was twofold. On the one hand, he showed that both political and social subjects could be treated forcibly without deliberate grossness. To modern taste, a good deal of Hogarth appears coarse: comparison of his work at its coarsest with plates by the common run of unknown or little known artists of the early part of the eighteenth century will show him by contrast refined. The social satirist must needs handle foul matter; but Hogarth never, like some of his contemporaries, indulges in grossness for its own sake, nor appears to enjoy it. Henry Fielding’s tribute to Hogarth’s work in the introduction to Joseph Andrews raised the estimation of caricature to a higher position than it had yet occupied; and if, later (in their treatment, for instance, of lady Hamilton and Nelson), English caricaturists forgot what they had learned from Hogarth, his influence was never wholly lost. Pictorial art, following the example of literature from Defoe, through The Spectator, to Fielding, turned with interest to the common life around itself. Hogarth found a various and strong-featured world to his hand. The life of fashionable people, Heidegger’s masquerades, the Italian opera, Rich and his pantomimes, plays representing “low life”—in the two famous Progresses and in many other plates these subjects are recorded for us without the grotesque exaggeration which was frequent among caricaturists of his day. In Gin Lane, Beer Street, The Enraged Musician and other plates we have the London life that was under the artist’s eyes preserved for our own; and in such plates as England, France and Calais Gate may be found that feeling of “John Bull” towards the Frenchman which was apparent in Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy, and was to become a prominent element of the literature and life of England till long after the fall of Napoleon. To Hogarth’s choice of subject and to his treatment of what subjects he chose, English literature owed a considerable debt.

The second benefit which Hogarth conferred upon pictorial illustration and caricature lay on the commercial side of the artist’s work. With George Vertue and others, he was instrumental in obtaining from parliament an act to vest in the designer the exclusive copyright in his own works. This bill received the royal assent in 1735, just before the publication of The Rake’s Progress, and was destined to have important effects upon the commerce of engraving a few years later. Meanwhile, among those who were to benefit immediately were the caricaturists of the middle period of the eighteenth century: John Collett, S. H. Grimm, Backham, Bamfylde, captain Minshull and captain Topham (two half-amateur artists whose designs were usually engraved by others), besides certain French artists working in London. About this time, too, the political magazine found its way to favour, and a number of artists supplied these magazines with caricatures, which were usually signed with pseudonyms. Eminent names in the latter half of the eighteenth century were Sayer and Darley. Sayer was a poor draughtsman, but an efficient caricaturist. In the pay of Pitt, he attacked the governments of Rockingham, of Shelburne and of the coalition; of Sheridan, he frequently made caricatures, dwelling especially on his relations with the prince regent; and the caricature, A Nightmare, which appeared in The Anti-Jacobin in 1799, is one of the most impressive ever drawn. Founded on a picture by Fuseli, it shows Fox hag-ridden and otherwise tortured in sleep by phantoms of the French revolution. Sayer was also, to some degree, a poet: he wrote satires, and also the poem on the death of Pitt, “Elijah’s Mantle,” which was ascribed to Canning. George Darley is chiefly known as the pictorial satirist of maccaronis, as the travelled and effeminate fops of the period were called.