Heritage: Political cartoonist George Cruikshank never tired of lampooning Napoleon

Old Bumblehead the 18th trying on the Napoleon Boots - or, preparing for the Spanish campaign, by Ge

Old Bumblehead the 18th trying on the Napoleon Boots - or, preparing for the Spanish campaign, by George Cruickshank - Credit: Archant

In the latest of our series commemorating people who have been honoured with plaques, Adam Sonin explores the life of political caricaturist George Cruikshank, who never tired of inventing new ways to belittle Napoleon

George Cruikshank

George Cruikshank - Credit: Archant

Born into a family of political caricaturists, George Cruikshank began his working life as a satirist and later developed into one of the country’s most prolific political artists. With the Regency public he established his reputation with cartoons ridiculing the private life of the Prince Regent – later George IV – and lampooned Napoleon with wonderful wit. His pamphlets mocking George IV sold more than 100,000 copies in just a few days and led the king to pay £100 “not to caricature His Majesty in any immoral situation”. He produced material for rival radical publications The Scourge (1811-16) and The Meteor (1813-14) and illustrated the Grimm brothers’ Fairy Tales. These etchings were described by art critic John Ruskin as “the finest things, next to Rembrandt’s, that, as far as I know, have been done since etching was invented”.

But perhaps his most famous and best-remembered work as an illustrator was for his ‘on-off’ friend, Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist. Rumour has it that Cruikshank modelled the controversial character of Fagin on himself.

He was unhappy about the changes that had resulted from the Industrial Revolution and in one print, London Going Out of Town – On the March of Bricks & Mortar (1829), he attacked the building of houses on the green fields of Islington. From 1835 he was editor of The Comic Almanack, one of the precursors of Punch, and novelist William Makepeace Thackeray supplied stories. His later life was devoted to proselytising against the evils of drink. He fell out over this with Dickens, who advocated ‘moderation’ rather than abstinence.

Cruikshank was born on September 27, 1792, in London, the second son of Isaac, a caricaturist known for Pastimes of Primrose Hill, and his wife, Mary. In 1808 the family moved to 117 Dorset Street, Salisbury Square, Marylebone.

He was “cradled in caricature” at the four-storey terrace house where he and his elder brother (Isaac) Robert watched their father prepare drawings and etchings in his attic studio. Their younger sister Margaret Eliza also inherited a dab hand for drawing.

Cruikshank’s early education proved erratic. He attended classes, briefly, at an academy in Edgware. As was common, his “life school was in the street” and watching by his father’s side. He objected to the religious services which his mother insisted they attend but was an ardent disciple of the theatre. He enjoyed play-acting with his boyhood chum Edmund Kean and attended plays on every kind of stage, from patent theatres to rowdy music–halls.

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By the age of about seven Cruikshank was sketching competently. At 10 he was supplying simple designs to wood engravers for children’s games and books. His father taught him the fundamentals of etching into copperplates and by 13 George was executing the titles of his father’s caricatures, and also putting in backgrounds, furnishings and dialogue.

A biographer noted: “When, on February 1, 1803, Napoleon declared war on Britain, all the Cruikshank males caught ‘scarlet fever’. Their father joined a Bloomsbury volunteer troupe while Robert and George drilled alongside with blackened mop handles and toy drums. Soon after this Robert went to sea as a midshipman in the East India service and was marooned on St Helena. He was given up for dead by his family until he returned, alive, in January 1806, having heard the fateful news of Trafalgar while on his way home. During Robert’s absence, George aspired to replace him as a seaman but Isaac’s health was deteriorating and he required his son’s assistance. Rather reluctantly George agreed to remain in the studio, even hiding out on occasion from press-gangs.”

Cruikshank sought to study at the Royal Academy and may have attended one course of lectures but, as he confided in old age, the pressure of work “was so great that he had no leisure for the lectures or work of an art student”.

When Robert returned home, George had surpassed him in skill but the pair would work side by side, and with their father.

Increased financial strain on the family meant that the brothers’ extra income was critical. Commissions multiplied and many prints were collaborative efforts. Robert painted miniature portraits while George produced hundreds of advertisement designs.

Cruikshank’s images were inspired by influences derived not only from London street culture but also from the vivid pictures of The Bible, Aesop’s Fables and other sources. He never tired of finding new ways to belittle Napoleon and render him ridiculous by incorporating familiar British folklore, famously turning the emperor into a Corsican toad in the hole.

Between 1808 and 1811, as he lampooned such public events as the Peninsular War and private scandals around the court and Covent Garden, George perfected a repertoire of types, lines, symbolic figures, such as the quintessential Englishman John Bull, and ways of telling a story that made him famous by the age of 20.

In April 1811 Isaac, who was an alcoholic, won a drinking match and collapsed comatose. He never recovered. Robert decided to pursue portraiture, leaving George as the main breadwinner. As far as it is known, George housed his sister until her death in 1825 and his mother until her death in 1853. All their support came from his work.

Cruikshank married Mary Ann Walker in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, in October 1827. They were childless, with Mary Ann suffering from ill health, possibly tuberculosis, until her death in 1849.

Cruikshank was asked by publisher John Macrone to illustrate a series of stories and articles by Dickens, whose “sketches” of London life had until then appeared in various periodicals. Dickens agreed, and in November 1835 called on the artist at his home and studio in Amwell Street, Islington.

Sketches by Boz was published in February 1836 with Cruikshank’s 16 etchings, with were praised by Dickens in the introduction. The partnership was so successful the public demanded further series.

A chocolate-coloured plaque, erected in 1885 by the Society of Arts at 263 Hampstead Road (formerly 48 Mornington Place), Camden Town, marks where Cruikshank lived between 1850 and his death.

His time at number 263 – to which he moved on marrying his second wife, Eliza Widdison – was marked by persistent debt and, despite sporadic success, a failure to live up to his former greatness.

On the surface, the bohemian lifestyle of Cruikshank’s youth gave way to sobriety, though all was not what it seemed. While at number 263, he seduced one of the young housemaids, Adelaide Attree, with whom he had a number of children. His double life – and his maintenance of two households, one in Hampstead Road and the other close by at 31 Augustus Street – was not fully revealed until after his death.