Prinney, Boney, Boot

Roy Porter

  • The English Satirical Print 1600-1832 edited by Michael Duffy
    Chadwyck-Healey, February 1986

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.

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[*] The series is as follows. The Common People and Politics 1750-1790s by John Brewer. 291 pp., £40, 0 85964 174 0. The American Revolution by Peter Thomas. 279 pp., £38, 0 85964 172 4. The Englishman and the Foreigner by Michael Duffy. 403 pp., £40, 0 85964 173 2. Crime and the Law in English Satirical Prints 1600-1832 by J.A. Sharpe. 318 pp., £38, 0 85964 170 8. Religion in the Popular Prints 1600-1832 by John Miller, 369 pp., £40, 0 85964 170 8. Caricatures and the Constitution 1750-1832 by H.T. Dickinson. 345 pp., £38, 0 85964 171 6. Walpole and the Robinocracy by Paul Langford. 250 pp., £35, 0 85964 175 9.

[†] In 1978 Chadwyck-Healey published English Cartoons and Satirical Prints 1320-1832 in the British Museum in which the 17,000 prints listed in the Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires by F.G. Stephens and M.D. George were reproduced on microfilm identified by their catalogue numbers. At the same time British Museum Publications reprinted F.C. Stephens and M.D. George’s Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 11 vols. (London 1870-1954). This is now available on microfilm from Chadwyck-Healey.