Caricature through the ages on display in Library
The term ‘caricature’ (originally ‘caricatura’) derives from the Italian word ‘caricare’, meaning to charge or load. So a caricature is a portrait that is loaded with additional elements, whether these are simple physical exaggerations or deliberate misrepresentations and analogies designed to make a political point.
Italian painter Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and his brother Agostino (1557-1602) are generally regarded as the first caricaturists and by the middle of the 17th century the concept was firmly established, with political figures frequently portrayed as animals.
The 18th century was arguably the golden age of the caricature with artists such as William Hogarth and James Gillray turning their pen and towards unrestrained, spiteful lampoons of well-known figures. Two 19th century collections of Hogarth’s works are among the volumes on display.
This magnificent Gillray cartoon of William Pitt the Younger (surrounded by minions, each of whom is also an identifiable caricature) is entitled 'The Giant Factotum amusing himself' and dates from 1797, in the middle of Pitt’s tenure as Prime Minister. The copy on show resides in an 1854 volume called Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin.*
Nowadays the caricature is seen as a type of cartoon but in fact, although caricature had been around since the mid-1600s, the first modern use of the word ‘cartoon’ was two centuries later, in an 1843 edition of (what else?) Punch.
Among the Punch illustrations on display is this one from 1876 by John Tenniel, who is best known today for his Alice in Wonderland illustrations. Another Prime Minister, in this case Disraeli, is show as Abenazar from a stage production of Aladdin, tempting Queen Victoria with the crown of India.
The cartoon reflects the widespread belief that there was something unseemly in Disraeli’s efforts to make Victoria Empress of India as well as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
As well as taking care not to exaggerate Her Majesty’s features too much, Tenniel’s caricature of Disraeli is a carefully drawn, personal portrait rather than relying on the crude, anti-Semitic stereotype which might have tempted a lesser (and/or angrier) artist.
As well as politics, caricaturists have always been served well by entertainment and showbusiness, a field of pomposity and egos just waiting to be skewered. This was an area of caricature which found its late 19th century master in Phil May, a stage-struck young man whose picture of ‘The rival Mephistopheles’, published in The Graphic in 1893, is one of the largest and most colourful items on display in the library.
May’s style was very modern in his sparse use of simple, often straight lines in contrast to the rich, complexity of Gillray et al; seen together, Tenniel’s style can be clearly viewed as a halfway house between the two forms. But despite the brevity of his line-work (achieved through a series of increasingly reductive preliminary sketches and not, as legend has it, because an early employer had dodgy printing presses!) May packs an extraordinary amount of detail into this picture with every individual figure having their own character (and their own view on the eponymous pair of costumed devils).
The Special Collections display of caricatures - which also includes works by Pierce Egan, Thomas Rowlandson, Richard Newton, George Cruikshank, 'Grandville', Honoré Daumier, 'Cynicus', Harold Begbie and Max Beerbohm - is available to view in the lower ground floor of the David Wilson Library until the end of June. If you don’t have a University library card, please ask at reception for access.
*The Anti-Jacobin was a short-lived but influential weekly newspaper which ran for just 36 issues at the very end of the 18th century.