Cherished among the bastions of our ‘invisible constitution’ is the political cartoon, the people’s daily retort to ministerial humbug and opposition hypocrisy. If the pen is mightier than the sword, the sharpest pen is surely the cartoonist’s: one palpable hit from him will do more than months of routine pounding from lumbering leader-writers. This may be common knowledge. But is it true? After all, media experts of every hue – and not just those who see the press as the poodle of the powerful – have long been questioning the radical potential of mass culture. Many enjoin scepticism towards all assumptions about the ‘influence’ of print (and, by extension, ‘prints’) upon people’s minds. Others stress how the mass reproduction of images produces apathy, the anaesthesia of familiarity. Institutionalise criticism, and you draw its sting.
In any case, aren’t we actually living through the decline of the political cartoon? On the day I write, the national dailies contain just one true specimen between them. In the Daily Telegraph, Norman Tebbit appears as a crazed, bloodthirsty infantryman, with Douglas Hurd and Peter Walker mounted behind him, apparently duetting the Iron Duke’s quip: ‘I don’t know what effect he will have upon the enemy, but, by God, he terrifies me.’ Garland’s cartoon is derivative and poorly executed (it has nothing to feast the eye), but at least it is in touch with the great tradition of visual satire. Practically all the other papers carry feeble jokes about kerb-crawling judges. Nowadays the visual debunking of politicians goes on, above all, on television, from the subtle (Yes Prime Minister) to the grotesque (Spitting Image).
If the genre is dying, it is fitting that it should be visited on its deathbed by the ghost of its former glories, thanks to Chadwyck-Healey’s multi-volume project of reproducing the cream of British political cartoons spanning the century from Hogarth to the Cruikshanks.It is an art-form that presents a curious paradox. We recognise its greatness, hail its geniuses such as Gillray and Rowlandson, and can call to mind the score or so of the most famous endlessly reproduced in history books. Yet no one beyond the heroic band of cognoscenti who have buried themselves for years in the British Museum has ever seen more than the tiniest fraction of them (some seventeen thousand are housed in the BM alone). Nor have art historians or political historians shown much zeal for the task of interpreting the genre. Hence it’s a joy to have ready access to these seven volumes.
As with so many of the arts, Britain entered late into the field of the political print. Renaissance Italy had pioneered the caricatura, heavy with emblems and animal physiognomy, and the United Provinces mobilised the trade in prints. England’s ‘century of revolution’ produced but a thin crop (doubtless licensing and censorship proved key impediments), and as late as the South Sea Bubble, most visual satires hailed from Holland (Grub Street was Dulness in words). Even the age of Hogarth saw only stop-and-start developments, partly because the master himself steered almost totally clear of personal lampoons against politicians.
It was the reign of George III that put political cartoons on the map. The print-makers of the 1760s had a field-day with a heroic John Wilkes (‘Wilkes and Liberty’) and with Lord Bute as Public Enemy Number One (no fewer than four hundred anti-Bute satires appeared, mainly sporting a jackboot and a petticoat inscribed ‘no petticoat government’, in reference to Bute’s alleged liaison with the King’s mother). The American crisis and subsequent war sparked skirmishes between anti-ministerialist and patriotic prints and gave Gillray his blooding. Thereafter cartoons went from strength to strength, guying Fox and Pitt, depicting in blood-curdling detail the Terror and the perils of the swinish multitude at home, and then, slightly later, exposing the debaucheries of Prinney and the enormities of Old Corruption – and all against the bugbear backdrop of Boney. If Hegel’s cunning of history brought Napoleon onto the world stage when the time was ripe, it also made sure that Gillray was there to depict him, in company with the era’s other sublime cartoonist, Goya.
Thanks to the pioneering researches of a handful of historians – above all, M. Dorothy George and Herbert Atherton – the basic documentation of the rise of the political print is fairly secure.The history is, however, full of ambiguity. On the one hand, graphic satire figured ever larger in the arsenal of the fourth estate. In peak years of political disturbance, up to ten new cartoons were appearing each week, and sometimes their effect was immediate. Thus, in 1807, a cartoon appeared attacking a certain Frome for his activities as an office-jobber; George III had him dismissed. On the other hand, the circulation of prints remained small. They were quite expensive at 6d plain and 2s coloured (newspapers were about a third of the price). And they appeared as one-off jobs, in print runs which rarely went beyond 500 copies (cartoons did not become regular newspaper features till near the end of the 19th century). As a result, around 1750, something like fifty thousand cartoons would have been printed in a year, as distinct from some seven million copies of newspapers.
It might be tempting to assume that in a hierarchical society of limited literacy, it was a matter of pamphlet politics for the patricians and the polite, and picture politics for the plebs, with visual satire a simplified sign language for the non- or barely literate, equivalent to the low-life woodcuts of broadsides and chapbooks. But that would be wrong. In a century in which, after all, hundreds of thousands of common people read The Rights of Man, prints culture could be quite élitist. The prints themselves presented challenging hieroglyphs to be deciphered, whose full messages can have been intelligible only to those familiar with the features and foibles of the great and steeped in the learning of both Bible and Classics. Of course, George Cruikshank, like Giorgione, could be read on many different planes, just as a cartoon featuring Henry Fox and labelled ‘Volpone’ could be appreciated by those who had never heard of Ben Jonson. Yet if cartoons assuredly were not ‘high art’, they certainly must not be seen as part of the ‘little tradition’. Cartoons were an expression of that alert middling urban culture so conspicuously neglected by 18th-century historians from E.P. Thompson to J.C. Clark.
Making sense of political prints, their texts and contexts, is thus no easy matter, and they have not been well served by scholars. Art historians have cold-shouldered them, which may be just as well (what mincemeat Hogarth would have made of certain current preciosities!). And for her part, their principal historian, Dorothy George, clearly thought of them essentially as visual documentation for a political narrative, rather like a Georgian version of the Bayeux Tapestry. Worse still, many historians, blind to all but words, have ignored them, or have treated them only cavalierly. Academics often deny they are to blame: this neglect, they say, is the fault of stingy publishers (‘If you want plates, you’ll have to pay for them yourself).
The historiographical result of all this is a new variation on the Cartesian mind-body dualism, in which word and image have no connection, except through the pineal gland of the caption, itself often written by one ‘Anon’ in the picture research department and all too often inaccurate. It is high time these absurd gaps were bridged. For graphic satires were not incidental to politics, like holiday snapshots: they were part of the political process itself. Hence a hermeneutics is called for which is prepared to treat them as bold yet often oblique statements within the rich cultures and subcultures of agitation in and out of doors. In the light of this, Michael Duffy, as general editor of this series, has rightly decided that a substantial explanatory introduction was needed for each volume and he has assembled a first-rate team of historians to address such problems. Several have interpreted their brief as being essentially to provide a survey of their subject as ‘background’ to the prints. As capsule accounts of Georgian religion and law, John Miller’s and J.A. Sharpe’s work could hardly be bettered. The approach, however, can disastrously short-circuit the prints themselves. Miller inserts into his text numerical references to the hundred or so plates at the back of his volume, yet he shows a curious indifference to the medium/message/meaning problems of the prints themselves. The unspoken assumption is that the text, grounded upon written evidence, is ‘primary’ and the prints ‘secondary’ – mere ‘illustrations’. Yet this is fundamentally question-begging – why should we assume that written sources give a more privileged insight into religious mentalités than cartoons? – and in any case will do nothing to cure historians’ ingrained blindness to the print-makers’ ‘art of describing’.
In some cases this failure to engage with the prints seems to betray a mildly patronising attitude to the medium as such and its alleged lack of subtlety. Several authors explain how, precisely because of their visual nature, prints had to simplify complex issues. ‘One cannot adequately discuss such abstruse concepts as predestination in pictorial forms,’ Miller tells us. This can be trebly misleading. Prints are not in the business of ‘discussing’. The idea that profundity can be verbalised but not visualised is surely a typical fallacy of the word-bound academic for whom the Word is God, and who can be as patronising to pictorial as to ‘preliterate’ cultures. Besides, Miller’s own prints give him the lie. He himself draws our attention to Hogarth’s eye-opening Transubstantiation Satirised, and even a cursory look at the religious prints reveals a wealth of representations of ghosts, angels, hidden hands, mysterious winds, acts of cannibalism, all of which in sly but deadly ways hint at the theological controversies of the age through visual doubles-entendres (typically, with an anti-Popish slant).
Some of the introductions, however, break with the ‘quotes in pictures’ approach. Above all, in his fresh account of ‘the common people and politics 1750-1790s’, John Brewer argues that prints made news as much as they documented it. Hence we cannot ‘read off’ history from them, as if they were public opinion fossilised like flies in amber. They themselves are ideological constructs. This means, to put it at its crassest level, that we mustn’t assume that the typical Johnny Crappo wore clogs (were the only Frenchmen still in wooden shoes in the 1780s those appearing in English prints?), or that the typical demotic agitator of the 1790s was the uncomprehending moon-faced idiot or cunning simian depicted by Gillray. But it also means that we must analyse these prints not just as ‘evidence’ but as ‘art’, with its own conventions for expressing moral messages. So what artistic traditions did they deploy? Which sign language? How did print-making combine the politics of art with the art of politics? As Brewer stresses, the visual metaphors of the prints were of a piece with the rhetorical resources of politicking at large, in which each item of regalia, every banner, slogan and cockade, told its story in the spectacle of Georgian politics. Recent studies have shown how pre-Reform politics formed an infinitely intricate dialectic between the overt and the covert, sustaining cults of anonymity alongside cults of personality. In the Wilkite agitators, for example, we see now the explicit ‘identity parades’ of loyalties, now the occult intimacies of the club or Masonic Lodge. In thus trading both on propaganda and on riddles, the language of prints was isomorphic with the grammar of politics itself.
Many of these prints are therefore ‘difficult’ – a far cry from the 18th-century equivalent of ‘Gotcha’. They are not just shouts of popular sound and fury, but the often ironical expression of a nuanced political culture, deeply ambivalent in its views on title, honour, money, empire and progress. Several of these introductions do well to put their finger on the élitism – or relative élitism – of the prints. For one thing, they present the world as seen by insiders. The voice of the people, or the pretensions of radicals, are more commonly symbolised by Charles James Fox than by the mob. For another, the values embodied in them are overwhelmingly those of a particular constituency, the metropolitan bourgeoisie. Thus, as Peter Thomas shows, the prints of the American crisis express many views – e.g. hostility to the Stamp Act – which are clearly those of London’s mercantile communities, but which it would be question-begging to attribute to the political nation at large. The same applies to the 1790s, whose vast outpouring of prints, almost all hostile to the French Revolution and to English sansculottes alike, doubtless registered what men of property wanted to see. There was no Paine of the prints.
How far the predominantly conservative tone of graphic satire also marks repression is hard to say. Certainly, print-makers were generally prepared to draw for whoever would pay them, and on the whole ministerialists proved the more generous paymasters (though it is worth emphasising that governments never sank large sums into prints, clearly perceiving that they were not the key propaganda medium). Most likely, artists chiefly played to the gallery. In 1793, Francophobia sold prints: by 1802 peace was the message. Root-and-branch radicalism rarely found expression. The print-buying public never tired of seeing lawyers vilified, yet at the same time it wanted the common law glorified.
Were prints, then, essentially barometers of opinion, or did they change it? Governments clearly thought they did only marginal harm, for (contrast the fates of other publications) they hardly tried to suppress them. Certain politicians, of course, had a Bennite tendency to blame prints for their own failures (‘Sayers’s caricatures had done him more mischief than the debates in parliament,’ claimed Fox in 1784); and it was not least through the prints’ powers of visual suggestion that Bute suffered his decade-long notoriety as the ‘minister behind the curtain’ (for that is where he endlessly lurked in the cartoons). But rarely did they turn the political tide.
Perhaps then the real impact of prints was intangible, stemming less from their overt messages than from their hidden agendas. Take the rise of patriotism. Historians have been asking once more how and why the English grew so chauvinist during the Georgian century, and have rejected the Marxist ‘conspiratorial’ view of it as a government-manipulated ‘put-up job’. In this process, the habitual language of the prints probably played its part. By automatically stereotyping all foreigners (including the Scots and Irish) as grotesques, and by rendering natives as that much put-upon victim John Bull, cartoons imprinted the stuff of patriotism more powerfully upon English minds than any number of overt verbalisations. Unfortunately, it is precisely these undercurrents of meaning that tend to slip through the defences of this team of contributors. Their collective radar is excellent at picking up explicit satirical targets, be they the ministerial monster or the hydra of faction. But none of them has had a specific brief to tell us about the subliminal messages of the prints, the basso continuo of attitudes to women and sex, envy and emulation, money and luxury which rarely form the ‘subject’ of prints.
In his Representations of Revolution, that wonderfully stimulating revaluation of high and low art in the revolutionary era, Ronald Paulson has argued that prints operate as halls of mirrors in which the politics of state endlessly reflect and are reflected by the politics of patriarchy, of sexuality and gender, of young and old, plebeian and patrician. Paulson’s grasp of their multilingualism springs from his confident transgression of boundaries and from a Freudian reading which sees political revolution (at least as represented in art) as an acting-out of Oedipal conflicts. His approach forcibly reminds us that every picture tells many stories.
With their multiplication of puns, their sideways glances at art itself, and their constant echoes of political street theatre, Georgian prints communicate in complex, often enigmatic languages. This series is a magnificent eye-opener, allowing the common spectator to savour their richness.
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