Two panels from 'The Ruler Ruled, Overruled & Routed - O'Opera Operarum', 1813. 

George Cruikshank is considered by some to be one of the best illustrators Britain ever produced. Together with William Hogarth and James Gillray he is part of the "Big Three" of British cartoonists. Cruikshank came from an artistic family. His father, Isaac Cruikshank, was a noted caricaturist in his lifetime and George's brother Isaac Robert also had a career as a cartoonist. However, their cartoons have been overshadowed by his own fame. George Cruikshank’s sharp satire lampooned British and European politics and society for most of the early 19th century. King George IV was so outraged by his work that he went so far to bribe him in order to be spared from any further ridicule. Later in his career Cruikshank also gained fame as an illustrator of various classic novels, particularly Charles Dickens' 'Oliver Twist' (1838). Within William Ainsworth’s novel 'Jack Sheppard' (1839) the artist even added two notable illustrations which depict two dramatic scenes in the form of a comic strip-like sequential narrative. He even created some actual prototypical comics, namely 'The Comic Alphabet' (1836), 'Mr. Lambkin' (1841), 'The Preparatory School for Fast Men' (1849) and 'The Tooth-Ache' (1849).

Early life
Born in London in 1792, George Cruikshank could draw as soon as he could write. Originally he wanted to study at the Royal Academy, but his father learned him the profession firsthand in his studio. By the time he was 13 years old Cruikshank already contributed titles, backgrounds, furnishings and the lettering to his fathers' cartoons. Apart from his own father, he was also influenced by William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, the latter whom he regularly visited at his home. Since Gillray was already suffering from blindness at that age Cruikshank didn't experience the master at his best, but did complete some plates for him.

Little Boney Gone To Pot
'Little Boney Gone to Pot' (1814), depicting Napoleon at Elba. The exiled emperor is sitting on a chamber pot, while the Devil offers him a gun to commit suicide. Napoleon replies he might take the offer, but only "if the flint in the gun (which would ignite the bullet) is taken out." The crow pinned to the tree above Napoleon's head mocks the Imperial Eagle used in his banners.

Cruikshank designed hundreds of illustrations for advertisements and lyric sheets. He published caricatures of British politicians and members of the Royal family in the satirical magazine The Scourge (1811-1816). He also illustrated publisher William Hone's satirical books 'The Political House that Jack Built' (1819), 'The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder' (1820), 'The Man in the Moon' (1820) and 'The Political Showman' (1821). Two of his most famous cartoons are 'Massacre at St. Peter's' (1819) and 'Manchester Heroes' (1819), which depict two politically radical demonstrations at St. Peter's Field being violently suppressed earlier that year. Despite being a vicious satirist and popular with the common people Cruikshank wasn't very staunch in his political beliefs. He made anti-radical cartoons as well, such as 'Death and Liberty' and 'The Radical Reformer' (1819).

comic art by George Cruikshank
'A Radical Reformer, - (i e) A Neck or Nothing Man! Dedicated to the Heads of the Nation.' (1819). The radical ideas of the French Revolution are symbolized as a huge monster who scares away several "heads of the nation". The creature wears a red bonnet on its head - symbol of the French revolutionaries - and is half guillotine - symbolizing the numerous executions spawned by the new French revolutionary regime.

One of Cruikshank's favorite targets was king George IV, whom he already lampooned when he was still prince regent. The royal was notorious for his obesity and womanizing. In 1820 a huge sex scandal broke out at the royal court. George IV tried to divorce his wife Caroline, because she had an extramarital affair with an Italian ex-soldier, Bartolomeo Pergami. Many cartoonists had a field day with this material, especially since the king was an adulterer himself. Satirical writer William Hone wrote several texts ridiculing the monarch, among them 'The Political House That Jack Built' (1819) and 'The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder' (1820), which were illustrated by Cruikshank. These were then distributed as pamphlets all across the country. Of these, 'The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder' is the most interesting for comic history. It features the king and Caroline's love life as a series of 14 sequential drawings in vertical reading order, where the image below is the starting point and the upper image the conclusion. Each illustration is accompanied by a word rhyming with "-ation", depicting a scene in the royals' life, for example "degradation", "accusation", "consternation", and so on. 

King George by George Cruikshank
'Two Green Bags' (1820). Cartoon mocking king George IV and queen Caroline. The queen had an affair with an Italian ex-soldier, Bartolomeo Pergami, which was investigated by a commission in Milan. The evidence was gathered in big green bags, which explains why the royal couple in the cartoon is tied up in a similar manner. The garter belt on George's bag hangs down, looking suspisciously like a flacid penis.

When George IV became king in 1820 his popularity was at an all-time low. The cartoons had fed his negative public image, but by lack of a lèse-majesté law he couldn't prosecute people. On 19 June 1820 he turned to bribery to silence his satirists. He paid both Cruikshank and his brother a large sum under the condition "not to caricature His Majesty in any immoral situation". While they accepted the money they simply continued their graphic attacks, until they were summoned to the palace two months later. From then on the Cruikshank Brothers choose safer targets to ridicule. They co-illustrated humorous publications, such as 'The Humorist' (1819-1821), 'Life in London' (1821) and 'Life in Paris' (1822).

Book illustrations
In 1823 Cruikshank reinvented himself as a book illustrator. He provided drawings to the first English translation of 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' in 1823 and classic novels and poems, such as John Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress', Laurence Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy' and John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. Cruikshank's illustrations were groundbreaking at the time, because they enriched the stories rather than just visualize the text.  He closely studied the writings to provide atmosphere and more vital characterization. By 1835 Cruikshank was the most celebrated graphic artist of his country and decided to launch his own almanac, 'Cruikshank's Comic Almanack', with stories written by novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. 

Oliver Twist by George Cruikshank
Illustration for 'Oliver Twist' by George Cruikshank.

Charles Dickens
However, Cruikshank made his most famous book illustrations for Charles Dickens. Together with Robert Seymour and John Leech he is considered one of the 'Big Three' of Dickens' original illustrators. Cruikshank livened up the pages of 'Sketches by Boz' (1836), 'The Mudfog Papers' (1837-1838) and the most famous of them all: 'Oliver Twist' (1838), as they were serialized in Bentley's Miscellany. Their first prints in book format also used his illustrations. Cruikshank's atmospheric drawings contributed a lot to the consequent theatrical, cinematic and comic strip portrayals of 'Oliver Twist' in the centuries that would follow. Particularly the main cast members Oliver, Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Bill Sykes are still frequently modelled after his graphic designs. Billy DeBeck's comic strip 'Bunky' (1926-1948) featured a recurring villain named Fagin. In 2005 Will Eisner made a graphic novel, 'Fagin the Jew' (2005), which provides a backstory to Fagin and investigates the unpleasant stereotypical Jewishness that surrounded the character in Dickens' original manuscript. 

Cruikshank and Dickens got along fine in the beginning. The cartoonist even acted in Dickens' theatrical company. But they soon had a fall-out. As Cruikshank became more fanatical in his political and ideological opinions his views clashed considerably with those of Dickens. The famous novelist struck back by satirizing Cruikshank in his story 'Frauds of the Fairies' (1853), while the latter retaliated with another text, 'A Letter From Hop-O'-My-Tumb', albeit written under a pseudonym. Professional jealousy seems to have played a part too. When Dickens passed away in 1870 Cruikshank wrote a letter to The Times, claiming that most of the plot of 'Oliver Twist' was his creation.

Gent, No Gent, Regent
'Gent, No Gent and Regent' (around 1816).

Prototypical comics
Cruikshank was also a pioneer in comics. He made several picture stories which are not only notable for their amount, but also because some include speech balloons. 'Vaccination Against Small Pox, or Merciless Spreaders of Death and Devastation Driven Out of Society!' (1808) is a one-panel cartoon making use of speech balloons. In 'The Ruler Ruled, Overruled & Routed - O'Opera Operarum' (1813), the then ongoing Napoleonic Wars between France and the United Kingdom are staged as if they were an opera in various acts. England and France are represented as characters on a stage, using sequential illustrations. 'John Bull's Three Stages or, From Good to Bad' (1 March 1815) shows British national personification John Bull in three sequences, all using speech balloons. The cartoon shows how Bull and his family ate a large meal before the war, less during it and with bones on the plate by the time peace is declared. 

'Gent, No Gent and Regent' (1816) lampoons prince regent George (the later George IV) in a three-panel cartoon. 'Comic Alphabet' (1836) illustrates 26 words in alphabetical order, drawn out in a series of small humorous sequences. Another notable prototypical comic strip is 'The Preparatory School for Fast Men' (1849), published in Punch's annual almanac. This satirical attack at education tells its gags in a series of narrative sequences, complete with speech balloons and title cards to indicate the passing of time. 

Comic by George Cruikshank
'The Preparatory School for Fast Men', from The Comic Almanack For 1849.

The Tooth-Ache
The same year Cruikshank also made 'The Tooth-Ache' (1849), a six-page long comic strip about the ordeals and eventual relief of a man with tooth ache. The story was written by London journalist Horace Mayhew, who worked for Punch. What makes 'The Tooth-Ache' particularly unique is the fact that it appeared in a book which folds out in accordion-style from the covers. A few years later 'The Tooth-Ache' was reprinted in the French magazine Le Petit Journal, under the title 'Le Mal de Dents. Molaire arrachée à Cruickshank' (1851). French cartoonist Nadar redrew the entire story, but at least gave Cruikshank credit, though misspelled his name in the process. A copy of 'The Tooth-Ache' is kept in the collection of The British Museum. 

'The Tooth-Ache' (1849).

Jack Sheppard
Cruikshank's illustrations to William Ainsworth's novel 'Jack Sheppard' (1839) are his most remarkable contribution to comic history. The book was based on the life of notorious criminal Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), who escaped no less than four times out of prison, before being hanged. The novel is a straightforward story where the pictures all illustrate key moments in Sheppard's life. However, two scenes stand out. The first one depicts one of Sheppard's prison escapes, the second his execution. Rather than use one single illustration to capture these events Cruikshank took a more unusual approach. He dramatized the escape in ten successive panels and the execution in six panels, three showing Sheppard being brought to the gallows and another three depicting the actual execution. In both instances the narrative sequences are depicted on one page, rather than spread out over several pages. Nowhere else in the novel does Cruikshank use a similar lay-out. It gives these particular illustrations an unique, more dynamic feel compared with the other pictures in the book.

Jack SheppardJack Sheppard
'Jack Sheppard' (1839).

Mr. Lambkin
Together with William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, Cruikshank's drawings were a strong inspiration to Rodolphe Töpffer, who is hailed as the first comic artist in history. Their mutual admiration was brought full circle when Cruikshank designed the title page for the English translation of Töpffer's 'The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck'. Cruikshank tried out a picture narrative of his own, 'Mr. Lambkin' (1841), which unfortunately wasn't a success and thus held him back from creating a sequel.

The Cholic by George Cruikshank
'The Cholic' (1819), depicting a woman suffering from bowel pains who is literally tortured by demons.

Cartoons supporting temperance
For the modern observer Cruikshank's personal attitude often seems in odd contrast with his free spirited satirical wit. Together with Frederick Marryat he created 'The New Union' (1819), criticizing the anti-slavery movement. After battling alcoholism for many years he joined the National Temperance Society and Total Abstinence Society in 1847. Almost overnight he suddenly became a fanatical opponent of drinking and smoking, which he satirized in countless cartoons such as 'The Bottle' (1847), 'The Drunkard's Children' (1848) and his monumental 'The Worship of Bacchus' (1862). His obsession went so far that he rewrote the fairly tale 'Cinderella' to add morals of temperance. He also wrote a tirade against the fairy tale 'Puss in Boots', which he saw as an inappropriate story for children: "As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages". Ironically Cruikshank wasn't an honest man himself. After his death from palsy in 1878, it turned out he had a long extramarital affair with his maid. Their relationship had spawned 11 illegitimate children, the youngest born when Cruikshank was 82 years old!

The Bottle, by George Cruikshank
'The Bottle' (1847). The cartoon shows a family who spent so much money on alcohol that they are in debt. Their furniture is taken away by a bailiff, while the husband drowns away his sorrows with more booze.

Final years and death
Despite his large oeuvre, more than 15,000 drawings in his lifetime, Cruikshank was never well off. He required financial assistance from friends in 1866, and late in life relied on a modest pension. He passed away in 1878.

Celebrity fans, legacy and influence
One of Cruikshank's admirers was famous French poet Charles Baudelaire, who claimed: "The special merit of George Cruikshank is his inexhaustible abundance of grotesque. The grotesque flows inevitably and incessantly from Cruikshank's etching needle, like pluperfect rhymes from the pen of a natural poet." British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray ('Vanity Fair', 'Barry Lyndon') said: "He has told a thousand truths in as many strange and fascinating ways; he has given a thousand new and pleasant thoughts to millions of people; he has never used his wit dishonestly." George Cruikshank influenced Edward Williams ClayDavid Claypool Johnston, John Leech, Steve Bell, Anton PieckRonald Searle, Arnold RothOscar de WitQuentin BlakeRoger Law and Adam Dant. The caricatures by Rob Page in the title sequence of the ITV TV sitcom 'Rumpole of the Bailey' (1975-1992) were also inspired by Cruikshank's art.

comic art by George Cruikshank
'Monstrosities of 1825' (1825): A cartoon ridiculing fashions of that year.

George Cruikshank posts on John Adcock's blog

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