The Life of a Soldier (1823)
The Life of a Soldier (1823)

William Heath was an early 19th century caricaturist, known for his satirical cartoons. He holds historical significance as a contributor to the first genuine cartoons and comics magazine ever, the Glasgow Looking Glass (1825-1826). He made three early text comics: 'History of a Coat' (1825), 'The Life of a Soldier; a Narrative and Descriptive Poem' (1825) and 'An Essay on Modern Medical Education' (1825). He was furthermore the first to use the cliffhanger statement 'To be continued...' in a comic and was also arguably the earliest Scottish comics artist.

Heath was born in Northumbria in 1794. Few biographical information is available about the man. He was fourteen years old when he debuted as as a satirical cartoonist in 1809. Throughout the 1810s he mostly made drawings depicting military battles, such as 'Attack On The Road To Bayonne' (1813), 'The Battle of Nivelle' (1813), 'The Battle of Morales' (1813), 'The Battle of Roliça' (1815) and 'The Battle of Assaye' (1815). Many of his illustrations were published in military books or used as panoramas of notable battles during the Napoleonitic wars.


"A Correct View of the New Machine for Winding Up the Ladies"

In the 1820s demand for military prints declined. Heath focused on making more topical caricatures in the style of James Gillray, who was his biggest influence. Much like his contemporaries Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, Heath made many drawings lampooning politicians and fashions. He caricatured king George IV and various British Prime Ministers, but also portrayed well known entertainers of his time, such as clown Joseph Grimaldi, the Siamese twin Chang and Eng Bunker and the Zulu woman Saartjie Baartman, who was notorious for her impressive buttocks. Some of them were published under the pseudonym "Paul Pry", which was a nod to John Poole's well known theatrical play of the same name (1825). Heath mostly used this pseudonym between 1827 and 1829 at the height of the play's popularity. He usually drew a tiny figure of Pry on the bottom left-hand corner of his engravings between the inner and outer frames.

'Dr. Arther & His Man Bob Giving John Bull A Bolus' (1829)
'Dr. Arther & His Man Bob Giving John Bull A Bolus' (1829). The cartoon depicts Robert Peel, founder of the British Conservative Party, and fellow party member Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, jamming a new constitutional reform down the throat of John Bull, the national personification of Great Britain. The reform in question was the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

Plagued by debts, Heath left London around 1825 and fled to Glasgow. There he joined lithographic printer Thomas Hopkirk and his print manager John Watson in the creation of their magazine dedicated entirely to cartoons and caricatures. First published on 11 June 1825, The Glasgow Looking Glass went down in history as the first cartoons and comics magazine ever created. There had been publications that published illustrations before, but usually just stand-alone drawings. The Comick Magazine, which first saw light on 1 April 1796, featured mostly written articles. The only "comic strips" it published were just reprints of William Hogarth's picture stories which he drew half a century earlier. Even then, only one illustration a month was published. Another contender for the title of earliest comics magazine is The Caricature Magazine (1808), which published Thomas Rowlandson's picture-story 'Dr. Syntax' in episodes. Yet none of these magazines were exclusively devoted to just comics and cartoons alone. In that regard The Glasgow Looking Glass stands out as the first genuine comics magazine in history.

Monster Soup
'Monster Soup' (1828): A woman looks in a cup of water scooped from the Thames. It’s a literal "monster soup", because the drinking water is so contaminated and toxic.

The Glasgow Looking Glass featured news and cartoons about national and international politics and society, but also more regional content that would appeal to a Glaswegian demographic. After five issues it broadened its spectrum and changed its name to The Northern Looking Glass. Heath apparently became a regular contributor from the tenth issue. In its fourth issue however, an early comic strip was published, 'History of a Coat' (1825), which is also generally credited to Heath. The story followed the adventures of a coat which moved from owner to owner. It ran over three episodes and was notable for the first appearance of the immortal cliffhanger line: "To be continued..." in a comic strip. The true authorship shall remain a mystery. Heath always claimed that the entire magazine was his idea, and therefore John Watson's role in comic book history is often overlooked. The young publisher was however the magazine's driving force. He had come up with idea to use the lithographic printing technique for the fully illustrated periodical, and initiated the name change to The Northern Looking Glass.

History of a Coat by William Heath
History of a Coat, drawn by Heath?

Heath also drew a comic in the tenth issue, titled 'The Life of a Soldier; a Narrative and Descriptive Poem'. Delving into his own interests for army life the picture story is thematically clearly influenced by Thomas Rowlandson's 'The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy' (1818). Another notable picture story by Heath published through this outlet is 'An Essay on Modern Medical Education' (1825), which satirizes medical university.

Essay on Modern Medical Education
Essay on Modern Medical Education (1825)

For all of its historical value The Glasgow Looking Glass didn't sell well. Hardly a year after its first issue it already folded. The seventeenth and final issue hit the market on 3 April 1826. Heath's cartoons were so biting that some people didn't like being ridiculed. The artist also enjoyed spending time in pubs, which left him with many debts. In May 1826 he moved back to London, while Watson went out of business a couple of years later. Thomas Hopkirk passed away in 1835.

In London, a notable series of sequential cartoons Heath made was 'Theatrical Characters in Ten Plates' (1829), which depicts ten famous people from British politics in the guise of various characters from theatrical plays. George IV is for instance depicted as a manager, while his mistress Lay Conyngham is lampooned as an obese prima donna. The etchings were printed in 1829 by Thomas McLean, with whom he revived The Northern Looking Glass in the following year, albeit under a different title: "McLean's Monthly Sheet of Caricatures, or, The Looking Glass" (1830).

'March of Intellect' (1829)
'March of Intellect' (1829), an interesting vision of what the future will be like thanks to advanced technology. 

The paper now aimed at a more upper-class demographic. The monthly publication was issued by Thomas McLean and Heath was promoted as its main artist. After only seven issues Heath was fired from his job and succeeded by Robert Seymour. His alcoholism had worsened and not only brought him into debt, but also made him miss his deadlines. His career never recovered. In 1827 part of his work was compiled in a special book published by McLean named: 'A Selection of Humorous Engravings, Caricatures &c. by Various Artists, Selected and Arranged by Thomas McLean'. Heath passed away at Hampstead, London on 7 April 1840.

A Wellington Boot, or the Head of the Army
'A Wellington Boot, or the Head of the Army' (1827). It depicts Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, as a literal "Wellington Boot".

Series and books by William Heath in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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