George Cruikshank at The Holburne Museum

Cruikshank’s satirical political images are some of the most famous of the late 18th/early 19th century England. He showed no sign of his own politics, but took great joy in sending up the politicians of all shades and royalty of the age. But he was much more than a precursor of today’s political cartoonists; he was, like his forbear Hogarth, an astute observer of humans and their foibles, with images of bloated gentry struggling to squeeze into clothes that were far too small for them, of artistocrats restricted to wheelchairs by their huge size and the infirmity of gout, of ignorance and vanity and a whole spectrum of misbehaviour that deserved to be exposed to his mockery.

He had spent 6 years studying at the Royal Academy, so was a talented artist and designer whose scenes were superbly designed: a hungover party shows a man draped across two women, one of whom was vomiting, seemingly by accident, into his tricorn hat. His image of ‘Bath Races’ was a superb send up of the horse race, with a line of gouty men in wheelchairs and on walking sticks and crutches racing down the hill from cripple’s corner, with an audience animatedly urging them on and even a dog excitedly joining in.

He was also a water colour artist of some talent, depicting scenes of towns and spas; these were often surrounded by painted frames, showing the pictures were not meant to be hung on a wall, but pasted into an album as discussion pieces. He was also involved in a rather unique collaboration, providing the humans whilst Wyatt drew the architecutre, for Ackerman’s ‘Microcosm of London’ which was a hugely popular book of the capital’s main attractions. Some of his work included ribbons or bubbles with words in them, not as a conversation as in modern comics, but more like religious art in which the speech summed up the person, the scrawl adding to the sense of he individual.

In 1793 he was commissioned to engrave a polemic against the French, showing two forms of liberty – the true one of England with Britannia holding scales of justice, whilst her French counterpart had a head on her trident and the guillotine in the background. It is unlikely that Cruikshank was in support of this, a he had a Huguenot aunt, and had studied in France, so apparently liked the country, but a commission is a commission.

He also did a few portraits, most notably of Rachel Pringle, one of the richest people in Barbados and a major property owner, also of African descent, so this portrait was one of the first of its kind, and showed her as a large, strong, intelligent woman staring straight out of the picture.

But perhaps the most interesting in terms of media was a laquered screen covered in cut outs of Cruikshank’s characters. These were popular in Georgian and into Victorian times as mobile pieces of furniture, but were also a way of displaying his art, and when including risque images, could be folded out of sight so as not to offend the vicar or the ladies.
All of which shows how varied and popular his work was. Print shops often had his latest work on display in their windows, attracting large crowds as did appliance shops in the early days of tv. People would discuss the politics of the drawings, and pickpockets would also find rich pickings. It was not just individuals who kept albums of his prints; booksellers also produced them, and they could be hired as discussion pieces/entertainments when people had dinner parties.
So it can be seen that Cruikshank was much more than an immensely clever and insightful political cartoonist; he depicted a wide range of images and social situations and was incredibly popular, both for his fine art and for his sales in cut-price prints for the poorer fans. There is also as strong sense of him being on the side of ordinary people by his glorious satirising of the rich.

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