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

§ 18. Punch

At the same time the refinement of taste and manners brought the need of a comic journalism that should be free of scurrility and other offence; and, before the middle of the nineteenth century, the two influences had combined to produce the most famous of comic journals, Punch. To the making of Punch and its various component parts, several streams flowed. Some of them have already been noticed in this chapter: the burlesque of the illustrated tour; the illustrated comedy of sport; the political or social caricature; the book of anecdote and jest. George Cruikshank, who, in the art of comic draughtsmanship, marks the transition from the brutality of Gillray or Rowlandson to the delicate humour of du Maurier or Tenniel, issued, for some years after 1835, a Comic Almanack, to which eminent authors, among them Thackeray, contributed; and Thomas Hood had founded his famous Comic Annual in 1830. Account must, also, be taken of certain comic journals that had preceded Punch, among them, especially, the Figaro and the Charivari of Paris. The honour of producing the first English comic journal comparable with Punch belongs to Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, one of many lively young humourists, the majority of whom became contributors to the most successful of comic papers. À Beckett, who was a barrister, and became a police magistrate, started, in 1813, an illustrated comic journal entitled Figaro in London, which was illustrated by Robert Seymour and, after him, by Robert Cruikshank. This journal à Beckett conducted for three years, and among his many other ventures were The Wag and The Comic Magazine. One of his literary contributors was his successor as editor of Figaro, Henry Mayhew, and one of his artists William Newman, who afterwards did valuable work for Punch. Punchinello, illustrated by Robert Cruikshank, was another, and a short-lived, predecessor of Punch. Douglas Jerrold’s Punch in London was yet another. In 1830 and onwards, a large amount of young and eager comic talent, both in art and in literature, was finding expression; and, in 1841, the best of it combined in the production of the most respectable and most popular of comic journals. The facts of the founding of Punch have been disputed. The authorised view is that Ebenezer Landells, a newspaper projector, and a wood-engraver who had learned his art from Bewick, had the idea of a comic journal similar to the Paris Charivari—an idea that had previously been all but brought to fruit by Douglas Jerrold, Thackeray, Kenny Meadows, Leech and others. After suggesting the idea to several publishers in vain, Landells took it to the printer, Joseph Last, who entertained it favourably, and sent him to see Henry Mayhew, the son of Last’s legal adviser. Mayhew took him on to see Mark Lemon, a publican turned dramatist, and the list of the staff was thereupon drawn up. At the next meeting, Mayhew, Lemon and Stirling Coyne were appointed joint-editors; Archibald S. Henning, cartoonist; Brine, John Phillips and William Newman artists in ordinary, and Lemon, Coyne, Mayhew, Gilbert Abbott à Beckett and W. H. Wills (who was subsequently secretary to Charles Dickens), the literary staff. The first number, which appeared on 17 July, 1841, contained contributions, also, by Henry Grattan (whose full name was Henry Grattan Plunkett, and whose pseudonym was “Fusbos”), Joseph Allen, an artist, and F. G. Tomlins. Before the appearance of the second number the staff had been joined by Douglas Jerrold. Later additions to the list of contributors in the early days of the journal’s existence were Percival Leigh (whose pseudonym was “Paul Prendergast”), the author of The Comic Latin Grammar, a doctor by profession, and a scholarly and gentle-minded wit; Albert Smith, well known for his popular lectures on the ascent of Mont Blanc: H. A. Kennedy; William Maginn; John Oxenford, dramatic critic; Thackeray and Horace Mayhew, younger brother of Henry Mayhew.

To the influence of Henry Mayhew has been ascribed the geniality of tone which differentiated Punch from Charivari; but that geniality was tempered, in and after the second number, by the work of the most remarkable among the early writers for Punch. Douglas William Jerrold was a dramatist and wit who had already made his mark with his play, Blackeyed Susan, and his studies of Men of Character (1838), for which Thackeray drew illustrations. His papers in Punch, signed “Q,” the first of which appeared on 12 September, 1841, were the contributions that attracted attention to the paper; and Jerrold’s work, thenceforth, gave Punch its tone. Here appeared, in 1843, Punch’s letters to his son; in 1845, Punch’s Complete Letter-writer; and Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, which was issued as a book in 1846. Jerrold wrote several other serial works for Punch, yet none so popular as Mrs. Caudle. This series, more genially humorous and less satirical than most of Jerrold’s work, made the fortune of Punch. But, in the earlier years of the paper, it was not Jerrold’s comedy but his more serious writing—the social and political articles signed “Q”—that gave the journal its character and distinction. Jerrold was a man of hasty temper and caustic tongue, but of a warm heart and of quick sympathy with the oppressed. In his political philosophy, there may have been some traces of the school of Godwin; but his leading idea (or sentiment) was the wickedness of the rich and the oppressed innocence of the poor. With satire (sometimes personal) and invective, he fought hard and fearlessly, if not always wisely, in a good cause; and he gave to Punch its trend towards liberalism in politics. Thackeray began his connection with Punch with Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, and drawings to illustrate, occasionally other people’s, but usually his own, writings. In Punch, too, appeared his Diary of Fitz-Jeames de la Pluche; his Snobs of England and his Punch’s Prize Novelists. His regular connection with Punch practically ended in 1851, though his last contribution to it was published in 1854. In Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures some have seen the germ of The Comic History of England and The Comic History of Rome, written by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, and illustrated by John Leech. Besides these two prolonged efforts of humour, which, considering the extent and nature of the task, is wonderfully well maintained, à Beckett wrote a brilliant piece of parody, The Comic Blackstone, illustrated by George Cruikshank and John Leech, which, even more than the Histories, has an instructive, as well as a comic, value, and has even been recommended as a text-book of law. Some of à Beckett’s best work for Punch consisted of the articles on the trials of a young barrister which were signed “Mr. Briefless”: a series which gave rise, many years later, to the letters of “A. Briefless, Junior,” contributed to Punch by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett’s son, Arthur William à Beckett, who, with his brother, Gilbert Arthur à Beckett, was to join the staff of Punch in later years.

Thomas Hood began to contribute to Punch in 1843, and amused himself and his readers with his attacks on the plagiarist, lord William Lennox, at whom Jerrold and other wits also had their fling. Hood is best known, however, as a contributor to Punch, by the famous Song of the Shirt, which appeared in the Christmas number of the year 1843. The year 1844 increased the number of contributors by Kenealy, J. W. Ferguson and Tom Taylor, whose connection with the paper remained unbroken till his death in 1880. Mark Lemon, into whose hands the sole editorship of the paper soon passed, remained in control of it for twenty-nine years: a wise and capable director of a journal which, by means of the celebrated weekly dinners, has always been conducted on the principle of co-operation and mutual criticism among the members of the staff. On his death in 1870 he was succeeded by Shirley Brooks, who was the first to start the now distinctive feature of the paper, Essence of Parliament; and, on the death of Brooks in 1874, Tom Taylor became editor and retained the post till his death. Meanwhile, the new contributors had included: in 1845, Watts Phillips, the dramatist; in 1846, “Jacob Omnium” (Matthew J. Higgins); in 1847, Horace Smith, part-author, with his brother James, of Rejected Addresses; in 1848, Henry Silver and Sutherland Edwards; in 1850, James Hannay; while other important contributors were Reynolds Hole, dean of Rochester, and Charles L. Eastlake, keeper of the National Gallery. In 1845 appeared Coventry Patmore’s single contribution to Punch, a poem on the massacre of Arabs at Dahra; and in 1846 came Tennyson’s reply in verse to an attack on him by Bulwer Lytton. The artists who drew for the paper included, besides Thackeray and others previously mentioned, H. G. Hine, Alfred Forrester (“Alfred Crowquill”), Sir John Gilbert, Hablot K. Browne, who worked for Punch from 1842 to 1869; Richard Doyle, whose work appears first in the same Christmas number for 1843 that contained Hood’s The Song of the Shirt, and who is best known by the cover still in use; and “Cuthbert Bede” (Edward Bradley), the author of Verdant Green, a book which carried on the tradition of The English Spy and Life in London. Punch, however, is chiefly famous for its five principal artists. John Leech had been drawing for Bell’s Life in London when he was brought to Punch by Percival Leigh. By 1844, he was paramount on the artistic side of the paper and in the cartoons. His studies of low life; his scenes in the life of sport (in which Mr. Briggs revives, to some extent, the humours of Mr. Jorrocks); his ridicule of the beards and moustaches that had come into fashion after the Crimean war, of the female movement known as “Bloomerism” and of the crinoline—all these present a full and lively picture of the age on its social side, filled with gentle satire, never coarse, and only unfair, perhaps, in the case of the Volunteer movement. In 1850 John Tenniel began his work for Punch, and brought into the paper the dignity which, during his career, gave to Punch’s pictorial comments on political affairs an impressive weight without loss of fun. In the following year, Charles Keene, introduced by Henry Silver, began those studies of homely humour which continued the tradition of the earlier works by Leech. In 1860, George du Maurier, the typical satirist of the mid-Victorian era, put upon Punch the seal of “gentility.” The follies and foibles of “society,” the mistakes of the vulgar, the beauty of refined womanhood were the themes of this delicate art. And, in 1867, Linley Sambourne brought in his lively fancy, graceful humour and decorative design.

Punch has had many rivals, the most important of which were Tom Hood’s Fun, illustrated by E. G. Dalziel, and Judy, illustrated by Calvert. None of the rivals, however, was able to sustain the freshness of interest, combined with the moderation and refinement which have preserved, though they did not create, the eminence of Punch. During most of the years of the journal’s existence it has proved a faithful mirror of the changing times; and the art, literature, politics and manners of the age cannot be studied without it.