Prints Profoundly Proper: Unveiling the Works of George Cruikshank

George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was an English caricaturist known for creating political satire pieces and famous illustrations for notable authors like Charles Dickens. While taking printmaking classes, I came across his name multiple times. This piqued my interest to learn more about his story and style. When I started my internship at the Toppan Rare Books Library, it led me to find out more about Cruikshank and his exciting life. Whether it was for the renowned prints he made during his life or his collaboration with Charles Dickens, I wanted to investigate the life and works of this famous caricature artist loved by so many during the heyday of his career in the 19th century.

A colored print from Sketches by Boz (1905). The illustration, originally created in 1836, is titled, “The Beadle. The Parish Engine. The Schoolmaster” and appears in the book’s first chapter, “Our Parish”. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.
Illustration titled “Tell Tale” by George Cruikshank for Scraps and Sketches (1828-32), which was designed and published by Cruikshank. The image constitutes a verbal-visual pun as the “tale” or “narrative” concerns a naval “pig-tail” tied so tightly that Royal Marine’s face is distorted into a caricature, a classic example of Cruikshank’s humor. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

Cruikshank started as an apprentice in his father’s print shop. From there he began creating political satire works that featured caricatures of famous figures. They ranged from lampooning British royalty to illustrating current events in the U.S. Most of these caricatures were made for various popular newspapers in England to expand his portfolio. Once he gained popularity from his caricatures, Cruikshank decided to expand his artistic repertoire to include book illustrations. This was when he began drawing for Dickens. The most notable set of pieces he did for Dickens were for Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (1838). Both Dickens and Cruikshank gained renown when Oliver Twist became highly popular.

Cruikshank’s illustration titled “Oliver recovering from fever,” for a scene in Dicken’s Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (1838). AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

After working with Dickens, Cruikshank next focused on solo projects. His first notable work was the Comic Almanack (1835-1853) which he started during his collaboration with Dickens. The Comic Almanack was a satirical almanac that was full of tales, poetry, and illustrations. The next solo work that stood out from Cruikshank’s repertoire was The Bottle (1847). The Bottle was an eight-plate story detailing the ideas of how alcoholism could destroy an entire family. He continued the story with a sequel called The Drunkard’s Children (1848). Both works were completed during a time when Cruikshank advocated for temperance movements.

A print from the Comic Almanack (1835-1853) for the month of May which is showing a Mayday parade in a town. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.
A print from The Drunkard’s Children (1848) shows a dance hall full of people. The daughter of the Drunkard is in the center. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

Another noteworthy work of his is called Cruikshank’s Table-book (1845). This piece was a set of twelve books that followed the months of the year. They contained Cruikshank’s prints alongside poems, stories, and depictions of current events. Inside the books, there was a statement that claimed Cruikshank was the sole creator, which is borne out in the title page which only mentions him and an editor. When looking over each month, I got a sense that Cruikshank wanted this to be a more mature work or of a higher standard than just the typical satire that was seen in Comic Almanack or his early caricatures. Cruikshank’s Table-book shows the progression to his more mature style.

Cover for the January issue of Cruikshank’s Table-book (1845). The figures depicted are reading and discussing the latest issue of the Table-book. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

When looking at his works from Oliver Twist or The Bottle, Cruikshank had a distinct style and a specific way he did his illustrations. Every face has eclectic expressions or details, while the backgrounds had cross-hatching, creating shadows or three-dimensionality in a flat piece. This sophistication of technique is interesting considering that, although he was instructed by his father, he was mostly self-taught. He used a style of etching that is called glyphography. Glyphography was a trendy way to print drawings and illustrations. It uses a chemical process that is like traditional etching. The process starts with covering a metal plate with wax and the image is drawn in the wax. Then the plate is put through electrotyping or stereotyping which creates a positive version of the image. Ink is applied to the plate and pressed into a piece of paper.

A plate print depicting the family of The Bottle (1847). The illustration caption reads, “The bottle is brought out for the first time. The husband induces his wife ‘just to take a drop.’” AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

With Cruikshank’s etching style, he produced an impression that every image was hand drawn into the book or journal. His drawing style remained the same over the years but refined over time. Figures in works such as the Comic Almanack were a little messy and had a youthfulness to them. Conversely, the characters created for The Bottle or Oliver Twist were clean and detailed. Cruikshank was an artist who became confident in his style and made it his trademark.

A scene from Oliver Twist (1838) titled “Oliver plucks up spirit.” Cruikshank excelled at grotesquerie as seen in the grimace of the bully Oliver is confronting. AHC Toppan Rare Books Library.

When looking at Cruikshank’s body of work, one realizes that his pieces were full of hilarity and solely focused on connecting others with moments in time. He was considered one of the first political caricaturists to make a mark on society, thus bringing him renown and fame for his name and signature. It astounds me that this illustrator had been hidden all this time from my knowledge until I started to dive deeper into the world of printmaking. This is just one instance of how certain art mediums have been forgotten and need to be brought to the forefront once again. Cruickshank’s art is something that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

Post contributed by Toppan Rare Book Library intern Kaleigh Johns.


Sources consulted from the AHC’s Toppan Rare Book Library:

Cruikshank, George. The Bottle, in eight plates; The Drunkard’s Children: a sequel to “The Bottle”: in eight plates, 1847 and 1848, Fitzhugh Collection.

Cruikshank, George. George Cruikshank’s Table-book, Edited by Gilbert Abbott À Beckett, 1845, Fitzhugh Collection, PR4519.C4 T3.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, 1838, Fitzhugh Collection, PR4567.A1.

Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz: illustrative of every-day life and every-day people, 1905, Spec. Collection, PR4570.A1.

Cruikshank, George. The Comic Almanack … : an ephemeris in jest and earnest, containing “all things fitting for such a work” / by Rigdum Funnidos, gent ; adorned with … “righte merrie” cuts, pertaining to the months …, 1850-1853, Fitzhugh Collection, AY758.C7C7.

Thackeray, W.M. An Essay on the Genius of George Cruikshank, 1840, Fitzhugh Collection, 741.5 C888yt.

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