Diana Donald, The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III. New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1996. viii + 248 pp. $65/cloth;$30/paper [Yale University Press, 1998].
Upon seeing it, most scholars of Blake and Romanticism will immediately want to read and even to own this book, which promises to cover a lot of material, little of it easily available elsewhere, that is essential background for any literary or art-historical study of the period. The book includes 210 high-quality reproductions of satirical prints, many in color and most in a large enough scale to permit study, and the text is extensive. Once one starts reading it, it becomes clear that Donald knows a great deal about these prints and that she thinks about them in sophisticated and original ways. But many readers are likely to be somewhat frustrated, not so much by shortcomings of the book as by the fact that the topic is simply too large and too complex to be susceptible to summary on this scale, however astute the summarizer. Each of the chapters could have been a lavishly illustrated book in itself, and while it is obvious that Donald has enough good ideas to fill a dozen volumes, this book provides only tantalizing and sometimes exasperating glimpses of the main topics. Donald knows well that works in popular culture embody and convey meaning in extremely complicated ways, and she tries gamely to indicate how various audiences would have responded to these works, but the result is barely adequate even as an overview. Other recent books that investigate the role of popular culture in Georgian political and literary discourse, such as those by Vincent Carretta, Iain McCalman and David Worrall, have been more satisfying and more coherent, mostly because they address similar material from well defined if comparatively limited perspectives. Donald’s broader approach permits only cursory examination of the way a given constituency might read a few aspects of a given piece. As a result, we rarely get much feeling for the work as a whole, much less its place in the vast web of relevant contexts that inform it. It is captious to criticize a book for not being what it is not meant to be, but a narrower or a longer book would have been a better one.
A related problem is that the work of Gillray so thoroughly dominates the illustrations and the discussion of them. This is understandable—Gillray was the most powerful caricaturist of the period (perhaps of any period), and his works remain much more interesting than those of his begin page 75 | contemporaries. His fierce approach to caricature went to molecular depth: each form—animal, vegetable, and even mineral—appears to have a completely imagined grotesque anatomy, with hideous bones below the skin and nasty little corpuscles coursing through the veins. Further, Gillray’s extraordinary command of the languages of high and low art, combined with his intellectual depth, broad learning (and that of his collaborators), profound political cynicism, and well documented susceptibility to influence and bribery from all quarters, permit (even require) every etching to be read in at least a half-dozen ways. His work is so powerful, so rich, and so influential that he inevitably dominated the scene, just as he continues to dominate modern studies of it. But as Donald tries to show, he was only one of many influential caricaturists: to understand the Age of Caricature, one must also be steeped in the work of James Sayers, Isaac Cruikshank, Richard Newton, William Dent, Thomas Rowlandson, and many others. And to understand even one work by Gillray or these secondary artists one must usually place it in the whole bubble of prints (and other ephemera) that arose about each public issue; most prints, even those by one-hit wonders and amateurs, respond elaborately to both immediate and broader contexts. A similar claim could be made about almost any work of art, and especially of such elaborately cross-referential works as Renaissance sonnets, but I am persuaded that caricature prints of this period are uniquely interdependent: they respond so intricately to each other and to the cultural currents around them that the essential context for a given print often seems limitless. Donald offers a pretty good selection of non-Gillray material—the work of all the artists listed above are represented by several good examples—and she even ventures beyond the world of satirical prints to show how they respond to other media and cultural forms. But one can’t get a proportionate sense of Gillray’s contribution to the caricature tradition unless one is willing to read this book while juggling M. Dorothy George’s fat volumes of the British Museum’s Catalogue of Personal and Political Satires and simultaneously rolling through the thousands of images in the Chadwyck-Healey microfilms of the British Museum collection.
Because most readers of this journal are likely to approach this book as an adjunct to studying Blake and his circle, it makes sense to consider it in those terms. David Erdman and others have demonstrated that Blake borrowed widely from contemporary caricatures, especially in his illuminated books, and although Blake famously claimed that excessive exposure to Rowlandson’s caricature prints had “perverted” the eye of Dr. Trusler, there is plenty of evidence that Blake himself studied and responded to the work of both major and minor caricaturists. Donald is aware of all this, and at various times she reads the prints as a sophisticated artist of the 1790s might have done, but few will come away from reading this book with a substantially different sense of the context of Blake’s work. That is not to say there is nothing of interest to Blake scholars. Although the ideas are not developed very thoroughly, Donald comments suggestively about Gillray’s debt to Lavater and current physiognomical literature, which were of great interest to Blake. Further, she outlines several ways in which modes of caricature that are not obviously political or personal—such as the low comic “drolls” by “Tim Bobbin” [John Collier]—could have varying political implications. Her insights on this point are also important for Blake scholars because they can help us in thinking about the significance of Blake’s only foray into the caricature print trade, the work he did in engraving after Stothard (who couldn’t quite get the hang of it) and Collings for The Wit’s Magazine in 1784, when it was edited by the radical Thomas Holcroft. Blake’s mixed-method etching/engravings after Collings’s loopy drawings are firmly within the shaggy tradition of “Bobbin,” Isaac Cruikshank and others, even if they seem very odd when we come upon them among his other commercial works.
Donald is particularly successful when she brings to bear her training as an art historian, which is probably why she is so good at spotting the many ways in which Gillray and to a lesser extent the others responded to higher art. She is deeply learned about Hogarth, and often notes that a particular device or theme in a caricature print is a crib or an homage—and that the later artists are often aware of the sources to which Hogarth himself was responding. Especially because the Tory wing of Hogarth criticism still howls whenever Ronald Paulson argues for a political and subversive Hogarth, it is instructive to see that the subtle mechanisms of conveying meaning that Paulson has elucidated were also recognized by artists only a generation away from Hogarth, and that they repeated them, often without his subtlety.
This is a well made book. The reproductions are usually large enough to reveal the features to which Donald’s text refers, and while a few are too small to study even with a magnifying glass, most are very good. The paper is a little too glossy for comfortable reading, but it is fairly opaque, the typeface is small but readable, and the quality of the printed images is very good indeed. If the format, the illustrations, or the typeface had been larger, the book would have cost much more, and if the illustrations had been massed at the back and the text printed on less glossy paper it would have been much more difficult to follow Donald’s exposition.
Carretta, Vincent. George III and the Satirists from Hogarth to Byron. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1990.
George, M. Dorothy. Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings begin page 76 | in the British Museum, vols. 5-11. London: British Museum, 1940-54.
McCalman, Iain. Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.
Worrall, David. Radical Culture: Discourse, Resistance, and Surveillance, 1790-1820. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992.