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.

George Cruikshank is considered by some to be one of the best illustrators that Britain has 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 George's fame.

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 he already contributed titles, backgrounds, furnishings and the lettering to his fathers' cartoons. Apart from his own father, Cruikshank 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 finish some plates he was too ill to complete.

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 depicted the bloody suppression of a demonstration by political radicals at St. Peter's Field, 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).

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.

One of Cruikshank's favorite targets was king George IV, whom he already lampooned when he was still the prince regent. On 19 June 1820 the monarch turned to bribery in order 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).

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 for feeling more as an enrichment of the stories. He closely studied the texts and provided atmosphere and more vital characterization. Historians see his work as a milestone in the history of illustrated novels.

Oliver Twist by George Cruikshank
Illustration for Oliver Twist by George Cruikshank

In 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. However, he is best-known for illustrating novels by Charles Dickens, including 'Oliver Twist' (1838). Many of these illustrated stories were prepublished in 'Bentley's Miscellany'. At first Cruikshank got along fine with the famous novelist. He even acted in Dickens' own theatrical company. But as the cartoonist became more fanatical in his political and ideological opinions their views clashed. Dickens satirized Cruikshank in 'Frauds of the Fairies' (1853) while the latter responded with another text, 'A Letter From Hop-O'-My-Tumb', albeit written under a pseudonym. After Dickens' death Cruikshank wrote another letter, published in the Times, where he claimed that most of the plot of 'Oliver Twist' was his creation.

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

In terms of comics history Cruikshank was one of the pioneers. His cartoon 'Gent, No Gent and Regent' lampooned prince regent George (the later George IV) in a three sequence drawing. His 'Comic Alphabet' (1836) illustrates 26 words in alphabetical order, which is drawn out in a series of small sequences. Another notable prototypical comic strip is 'The Preparatory School' (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
Comic by George Cruikshank from The Comic Almanack For 1849

His illustrations to William Ainsworth's novel 'Jack Sheppard' (1839) are the most remarkable. 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)

Together with William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, Cruikshank's drawings were a strong inspiration for Rodolphe Töpffer, who is hailed as the first comics 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.

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.

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. 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 David Claypool Johnston, John Leech, Steve Bell, Ronald Searle, Arnold Roth 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

Series and books by George Cruikshank in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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