Mark Bills, The Art of Satire: London in Caricature, Foreword, Ian Hislop (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2006), 228 pp. 100 colour and 150 mono illustrations, £29.95 (hbk), £19.95 (pbk), ISBN (hbk) 0-85667-613-6, (pbk) 0-85667-627-6.
This is a handsome and well-illustrated book, produced to accompany Satirical London, a 2006 exhibition held at the Museum of London. Mark Bills who was the curator of the original exhibition has done us a service in the sheer range of satirical illustrations (many unpublished) presented from the Museum of London’s own collection. The volume catalogues some 300 years of the history of sharp-witted, irreverent graphic lampooning in and of the capital. Furthermore, his commentary simultaneously provides an intellectually forthright, analytical and judicious framework for understanding satire’s development as a visual and material form of metropolitan culture, one with continuing importance within the contemporary London social scene.
It is appropriate that the foreword to the book is by Ian Hislop, editor of the magazine Private Eye, one of contemporary satire’s most eloquent voices. Hislop states: ‘For those of us still attempting to follow in the great tradition of English Satire this history is also a humbling reminder of how much of what we think of as modern and groundbreaking has actually been done before’ (p. 7). Hislop notes that Bill’s book reveals the work of one George Alexander Stephens who in 1767 exhibited sixty papier maché caricature heads on sticks with accompanying voices, an eighteenth century analogue to the 1980s television show Spitting Image. Hislop goes on to compare Private Eye’s standard ‘technique of sticking a speech-bubble on the head of a famous figure’ with graphic strategies effectively pioneered by Hogarth 250 years before (p. 7). As Hislop reminds us, such English satire has a distinctively London air because of what London was:
As the capital city, London was the centre of government, commerce, organised religion, fashion and the media and it was naturally the centre for all of those who wanted to laugh at any of these things. London was an extraordinary city and it has an extraordinary amount of what satirists thrive on — ‘Vice. Folly and Humbug’. (p. 7)
If what London had to offer to satirists was, as Hislop calls it, ‘a visual feast’ for the artist’s eye, then such excessiveness and concupiscence also becomes an overriding mark of many satirical representations. As Hislop remarks of satire: ‘[in] ostensibly criticising the failings of the Big City, it does it with a vitality and exuberance that can seem more like a celebration’ (p. 7). An example of this that Bills discusses is how satirical cartoonists’ familiar and frequent depictions of the sordidness of prostitution combines moral or religious criticism with more than a dash of voyeurism: a case of the male audience being able to censor its cake while secretly dreaming of eating it too.
The images in the book are as appropriately varied and wide-ranging as any Londoner would expect them to be in their depiction of the life of the city: from caricature portraits of major and easily recognised London figures to ‘types’ of Londoners, usually organised by social class, gender and occupation (investment bankers, the homeless and taxi-drivers are always with us); from specific, topical issues of interest to most Londoners and the de rigueur political and commercial scandals to the capital’s high-life and low-life street scenes; from humorous mockery to vituperative (and sometimes downright libellous) personal attack; from the follies and pretensions of the rich Londoners of the West End to the privations of the poor in the East End.
The first chapter of the book, ‘Satirising London’, presents an overview of some of the main themes of satiric caricature and explores the role of London as a subject in some detail, while offering a survey of the way the development of the book trade and print technology in London in turn affected the growth of satire and its relationship with its audience. There is in this connection a useful map showing the location of London print sellers of satire before 1830 at the end of the book (pp. 222-223). The book then moves to a series of chronological chapters depicting the history of satire, amply illustrated by examples that nevertheless do not ignore changes in the broader material and visual culture of the city and their consequences for satire.
Chapter 2, inevitably, examines ‘The Age of Hogarth’, and while the earthy nativism of Britain’s greatest satiric artist and printmaker cannot be ignored as his innovations were so singularly impressive and influential on succeeding caricaturists, Bills does succeed in placing him within the context of the admittedly lesser, but unjustly forgotten, figures that were his contemporaries. Chapter 3 examines the period after Hogarth’s death, and in particular how the founding of the Royal Academy divorced ‘high’ art from the popular satirical print, and subsequently explores the work of Gillray and Rowlandson whose interests paralleled the development of the West End of London as a centre of metropolitan pleasure. Chapter 4 focuses on Rowlandson’s work alone as a distinctive portrayer of the comic topography of London’s varied street-scenes—perhaps less atavistic and morally judgemental than Hogarth, he is also more conscious of the social networks uniting the different classes of people in the capital. Chapter 5, ‘Progress and Transition: Cruikshank and Regency London’, demonstrates how in a period of social and political turmoil and political transition, satire became harnessed to the conflicts of the time and to agitation for democratisation and reform. A period dominated by a mad king (George III) and an almost universally maligned Prince Regent must surely have been a gift to any caricaturist; however, more significant was the change from the dominance of print-sellers and individual satirical prints, typical of the 18th Century commercial pattern to the domination of booksellers and books and magazines which contained satirical material. Equally important was the recognition, often twinned with anxiety by socially-minded satirists, of the growth of London as metropolis and the technologies of modernity, as shown in Cruickshank’s The Railway Dragon (1845) or March of the Bricks.
Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 and Punch was founded in 1841. The period of ‘Victorian Satire’ (chapter 6) ushered in many changes and in particular saw the growth of ‘tamer’ (in the sense of being more respectable and less filled with populist prejudice and phobia) and more bourgeois publications. Changes which had begun in the Regency period continued and solidified in the Victorian period: ‘Comic magazines became weekly periodicals, mass production increased and the news stand effectively replaced print and booksellers as the main distributor of satiric images’ (p. 170). Satire, if tamer than in the age of Hogarth, was more politically progressive, conscious of the issue of social class and also often closer to journalism than to the twin desires of 18th century satirists to outrage and titillate their audience. Caricature portraits also became closer to an art form, while simultaneously preparing the way for what in the next century would become the celebrity photograph.
The book concludes with an afterward that does a little to take the story into the twentieth and twenty-first century; yet while the parallels are sometimes perceptive, the brevity of this section is disappointing. The section feels as if it is tacked on and outside of the historical scope of the book proper. I was unsure if what happened after 1900 in satiric caricature was a different kind of story that would require another exhibition and book, or was less interesting than what had happened between the beginning of the eighteenth and end of the nineteenth century.
This is an extremely rewarding book which has much to say about the social history of London satiric caricature between 1700 and 1900. The Age of Satire laudably reconstitutes a tradition of satiric caricature that puts the work of Hogarth in context and suggests that an index of the vitality of satire lies in the complex modernity of metropolitan London that it often ostensibly condemns. The eighteenth century when satire begins is surprisingly like the present in that respect. Satire marks diversity and richness, as well as social division and conflict—typical aspects of London experience. The book’s principal limitations lie in its scope and range, although I appreciate that to consider additional issues would have led to a much longer work than the present one. However, the book would have benefited from having done more to consider what happened in the modern period as the twentieth century began. Also, there is less consideration than I had expected of questions of race, Empire and nationality within the discussion of the images in the book. While there are quotations from various writers who have represented London, rather more might have been done to connect the satiric strand of visual culture with the history of written literary satire, which we do not normally think of as ‘popular’ or ‘low’ culture. What of Pope, Sterne and Trollope and surely, Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’ shows how the apparently ‘low’ art of satire can be turned into the incandescent politics of high art? ‘Princes, the dregs of their dull race, flow through public scorn’. Lastly, it was shame that the book did not include any reference to satiric theatrical devices such as Punch and Judy or offer an image of the reconstituted 18th century print shop window of Mrs Humphrey’s—these had both proved much fun in the original exhibition.
To Cite This Article:
Steven Barfield, ‘Review of Mark Bills, The Art of Satire: London in Caricature, Foreword, Ian Hislop (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2006), 228 pp. 100 colour and 150 mono illustrations, £29.95 (hbk), £19.95 (pbk), ISBN (hbk) 0-85667-613-6, (pbk) 0-85667-627-6.’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/barfield3.html. Accessed on [date of access]