“The Plumb-pudding in danger” by James Gillray is probably the most well-known political cartoon of the Napoleonic period, with British Prime Minister William Pitt sitting opposite Napoleon Bonaparte, both of them slicing up the globe in a bid to gain a larger portion.
But Gillray was not the only satirical cartoonist plying his trade during the period and I recently came across George Cruikshank. Though probably not as well known as Gillray, he had a most remarkable life, living to an age when photography had been invented and, in later years, leading a double life!
George was born into a family of political caricaturists. His father Isaac, and his elder brother Robert were cartoonists and the younger sister Eliza was also a dab hand with a pen or brush.
By the age of about seven George was sketching competently. At ten he was supplying simple designs to wood engravers for children’s games and books. His father taught him the fundamentals of etching into copperplates and by thirteen George was executing the titles of his father’s caricatures, and also putting in backgrounds, furnishings and dialogue.
By the age of twenty he was a a famous cartoonist in his own right providing material for rival radical publications The Scourge and The Meteor. This cartoon is typical of Cruikshank towards the end of the Napoleonic wars.
Here Napoleon is sitting on a chamber pot ( “Imperial Throne ” ) on the island of Elba. He is in a forlorn condition, suffering from the itch, with large excrescences growing on his toes. He is all alone in his island prison, and tempted by a fiend, who offers him a pistol—“If you have one spark of courage left,” it says, “take this.” “Perhaps I may,” replies Napoleon, “if you’ll take the flint out.”
By his side is a pot of brimstone, numerous medicine bottles, and “a treatise on the itch, by Dr. Scratch.” One of the imperial boots, mounted on a carriage, forms a dummy cannon. His back leans against a tree, to which is nailed the “Imperial Crow,” while from the branches hang a ragged pair of breeches and stockings. The whole effect is to symbolize the Emperor’s decline of power.
After the war George created his best-remembered work as an illustrator for Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist by his ‘on-off’ friend, Charles Dickens. Sketches by Boz was published in February 1836 with Cruikshank’s 16 etchings, which were praised by Dickens in the introduction.
In 1827, George married Mary Ann Walker. They were childless, with Mary Ann suffering from ill health, possibly tuberculosis, until her death in 1849. Two years after her death, in March 1851, he married Eliza Widdison. Throughout this period he supported his younger sister and his mother, his father having died of alcohol poisoning in 1811.
On the surface, the bohemian lifestyle of Cruikshank’s youth gave way to sobriety, and the friendship between Cruikshank and Dickens soured when Cruikshank became a fanatical teetotaler in opposition to Dickens’s views of moderation. Though all was not what it seemed in Cruikshank’s private life. He seduced one of the young housemaids, Adelaide Attree, and set her up in her own house virtually round the corner from the house he shared with his wife. He fathered 11 children with his mistress and his maintenance of two households was not fully revealed until after his death in 1878 at the ripe old age of 85.
Punch magazine, which I assume did not know of George’s double life, said in its obituary: “There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.”