Cruikshank, debauchery & an homage to the Victorian illustrated book

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[Mieke ten Have] My family has a collection of first-edition 19th-century novels, owing to my great grandfather’s passion for Dickens. This is fortunate for me, three generations later, as I am quite the self-proclaimed Victorian nerd. In my case, the familial preoccupation with Victoriana started when I was 13 years old and read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The protagonist’s triumph over adversity and the injustices of her situation in society must have resonated with my overly dramatic adolescent temperament! Whatever it was, Jane Eyre was effectively the character that launched my all-consuming love affair with Victorian literature, particularly as a vehicle for criticism aimed at bourgeois culture and its hypocrisies.

My consumption with the 19th century articulates itself in a myriad of dorky ways. For example, I own two copies of the A&E Pride and Prejudice adaptation (on DVD and VHS, lest one should fail me). I collect paper silhouette portraits and 19th-century fashion prints with an enthusiasm that borders on the deranged, and the highlight of all the many months I have spent in England over the years was a trip to the Bronte parsonage in Haworth.

[Portrait of the Bronte sisters, courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery]

Most recently, this fascination — by all accounts quite grandmotherly, I know — has fixated on the 19th-century book. Not for literary content, this time, but rather for sheer beauty. As the adage goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, what if you judge it by its engravings, particularly if they’ve been interpreted from the text and wrought by George Cruikshank himself? Reader, I am reserving my right to judge a book entirely on its superficial merits.

Within the original serial novels by the literary giants of the day were engravings that told as much of cultural expectations and realities as the writer’s words themselves. I’ve taken to delicately leafing through my family’s canonical collection of first editions over the years, like a voyeur spying through a lens onto another era as illustrated by Cruikshank, Phiz and Poole. As my former professor Catherine Golden, who fostered my love of Bronte in college, wrote in her introduction to another great book collection, that of Hannah M. Adler, “These nineteenth-century illustrators launched what is often considered the most distinguished period of the English illustrated book.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

Though Pierce Egan’s novel, Life in London, does not have the gravitas of Dickens or Thackeray, it is my favorite book in the collection to look at. The first edition has brilliant and animated scenes of just what you would think — life in 1821 London, via the adventures of Corinthian Tom and Jerry Hawthorn, Esquire (the inspiration, in fact, for another animated odd couple). It was a wildly popular story of its time — a true precursor, a pop culture phenomenon that that resonates with our current social experience. While Egan’s serial has not nearly made it into any sort of Victorian literary compendium, it was his decision to hire George Cruikshank and his brother, Isaac Robert, to create Life in London’s color engravings that ultimately made his book one of lasting import.

Dedicated to King George, Life in London was, ironically, one of the first major works that established George Cruikshank’s career as England’s preeminent engraver and caricaturist — especially of the monarchy, who would later bribe Cruikshank to steer his scathing graphic commentaries in another direction. Cruikshank proudly followed the tradition of Gillray and Rowlandson, who paved the way for political satire in the form of caricature to become a recognized art — or at least, a skilled and sought-after craft.

It was also ironic that George Cruikshank should have in part solidified his artistic position through the serial, as Tom and Jerry’s adventures were of the decadent and debaucherous kind. Cruikshank, an infamous teetotaller, was a fierce temperance advocate (his highly dramatic visual narrative, “The Bottle,” clearly illustrates his perceptions of alcohol’s perils). Whether or not moral scruples gave them pause while creating Life in London’s illustrations, George and his brother certainly created one of the most visually dynamic stories I have ever seen.

The Cruikshank brothers’ engravings follow the friends from highest social strata to “lowest,” and the result is a rather comprehensive capsule of how British society perceived itself in 1821. The two go from ballrooms — straight out of an Austen depiction of the upper class — to drinking halls, “sporting events” (e.g., animal fights), masquerade parties and many, many more booze-filled fetes of all stripes. Tom and Jerry were definitely two men about town.

The casually vicious dogfight features an unexpected opponent — Jacco Macacco, the monkey. The animated and enthusiastically entrenched expressions of each character Cruikshank portrays make you feel like a peeping tom. This image, to me, is like pulling back the curtain on something I definitely shouldn’t be looking at. And, just as quickly as you’ve arrived, you find yourself back in “polite society.”

It is not without note that the contemporary viewer of these engravings reacts to the portrayal of race in this book. Black men, women and occasionally children are featured in the “lower class” bars, or as elegantly dressed servants. (Interestingly, poor blacks and whites drink together.) The portrayal of blacks is very unsympathetic — though unsurprising. This engraving of a nearly all-black brothel bears the vile title, “Lowest life in London: Tom, Jerry, and Logic among the unsophisticated sons and daughters of nature at ‘All Max’ in the east.”

For me, the most delightful aspect of these engravings is seeing so many interiors. As a design editor, I marvel at the meticulous detail of the Cruikshanks’ rendering of the decorated home. The preferred taste for neoclassical design — both in the artwork on the walls, shapes of the furniture, and several instances of architecture — particularly resonates with my appreciation for the style.

The neoclassical style was a reaction to the aesthetically extravagant rococo period, which it supplanted with a desire for “classic” simplicity in design. In England and France, it manifested itself as Neoclassicism; in Germany, Biedermeier. For fashion lovers, this emerging taste also very clearly translated to the empire style of ladies’ dress, which is luxuriously detailed in these engravings (though suggestive in its ample display of cleavage!).

There are over 36 ultra-animated, buoyant color engravings in Life in London. The sheer volume of artistry is only rendered more exceptional by the diversity of scenery. It is a testament to the way the Victorian reader absorbed a novel — it was a visual endeavour as much as a literate one. I like to think Cruikshank and his fellow engravers presaged the graphic novel and cartoons, and even the “moving picture.”

Whatever George Cruikshank’s moral dilemmas were in creating Pierce Egan’s engravings, he sure took his audience on one hell of a decadent ride. I only rue there is nothing in the genre of the contemporary novel to compare it to. With the advent of the e-reader, a return to the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” rings sadly true.

Mieke ten Have, formerly with Domino magazine, is the editor of the recently launched mydeco.com. She also publishes a blog, The Paper Trail, which we recommend for aficianados of the paper arts.

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