Cara/Andrea here, getting back to research now that the lazy days of summer are just about over . . .
These days, it’s hard to read a publication or watch television without getting bombarded with stories about a movie star’s misbehavior or a politician’s sexual shenanigans. But our current fascination with gossip and scandal is nothing new. Regency England reveled in ‘tittletattle,’ and had its own colorful scandalsheets and “paparazzi.” Newspapers and pamphlets reported in lurid detail on the celebrity bad boys—and bad girls—of high society. Like today, sex, money and politics were hot topics.
As for pictures, there were, of course, no cameras to capture candid snapshots and personal transgressions. But the artists of the Regency could be even more cutting than modern-day photographers, and their sharp wit make them famous in their own right. (Prinny, shown at left, was a popular target, and you can see why. This print by George Cruikshank carries the clever title of "A View of the R-g-t's Bomb.)
The first book in my new trilogy for Grand Central Forever (To Sin With a Scoundrel, coming in March ’10) features a hero and heroine who both find themselves the subject of graphic ridicule. So naturally, I decided to do a little research into the subject. I’m lucky enough to live close to the British Art Center at Yale, which has an amazing collection of vintage Regency prints in its study room.
You can make an appointment, sort through the card catalogues to decided what you want to see—and voila! The boxes are brought to your work table. The chance to study originals was a wonderful experience. (Not to speak of getting to sort through a whole box of J. M. W. Turner’s watercolor sketches of his trip through the Alps with my hot little hands—well-washed of course. They make you scrub!) To see the actual colors and richness of detail is, well, eye-opening. (Don't you just love this parody by Cruikshank of dandies and their delicate sensibilities!)
The art of satire was honed to a fine edge by London’s top printmakers, who were masters at creating caricatures of famous figures of the day—anyone from leading politicians to notorious courtesans—as well as crafting commentaries on current events. The prints were widely available at printshops all over Town, and were wildly popular with the public, who ate them up, gleeful at seeing their betters—or their peers— exposed to ridicule. (One of my favorites, this wickedly wonderful image by James Gillray is complemented by an equally creative title: Fashionable Contrasts, Or the Duchess;s Little Shoe Yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke's Foot.)
As for politics, the printmakers captured public sentiment on war, taxes, and other controversies. Often irreverent, sardonic and scathingly funny, their work provides a wonderful mirror of the social and cultural temper of the times. ("A March on the Bank" by Gillray shows an impossibly arrogant officer of the Guards strutting over the common man . . .and woman.)
According to Vic Gatrell in his book City of Laughter, 20,000 satirical prints were published in London between 1770-1830. He calls those years the Golden Age of Graphic Satire, for after 1830, new printing technologies made hand-colored engravings obsolete as a means of social commentary. Three of the most famous print artists from the Regency were James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, who all followed in the tradition of William Hogarth, one of the great English satirists of the 18th century.
James Gillray (shown at right) was born in Chelsea and trained as an engraver of letters. He grew bored and left to spend several years with a troop of strolling players (which may be where he developed his humor.)
Returning to art, he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy, and began supporting himself by creating caricatures. His publisher and printseller was Miss Hannah Humphrey—and she was also his mistress. Gillray lived with her throughout his career.
Some of his most scathing satire was directed at King George III, who once said, “I don’t understand these caricatures.” Like the king, Gillray descended into madness and died in 1815.
A good friend of Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson (shown at left) was from a well-to-do family and attended Eton. From there, he became a student at the Royal Academy and spent two years in Paris honing his drawing skills. In 1777, he set up his own studio in Wardour Street, where he worked as a portrait artist, as well as a chronicler of daily life. A keen traveler, he also recorded his impression of his trips to the Continent.
Rowlandson didn’t prosper as a painter and so sought employment as an engraver at Ackermann’s print shop. In 1808, he collaborated with Randolph Ackermann on a series of books on London life. He was a heavy gambler, and in his later life, he often paid his debts with drawings.
George Cruikshank (shown at right) had art in his blood—his father was the well-known Scottish painter and caricaturist, Isaac Cruikshank. He earned fame for his comic illustrations for “Life in London,” a landmark Regency satirical book that followed three young men through the the city, where they experience the highs and lows of its pleasures.
The Regency artists were all greatly influenced by William Hogarth, who was one of the most important print artists of the 18th century. His observations of the world around him were gritty and unflinching, and by portraying reality, warts and all, he inspired the new generation of artists to add even more color to their era.
Much as I loved perusing the prints and laughing at their mocking—and sometimes malicious—humor, I am heartily glad that I don’t live in a time where I have to fear their basilisk eye. We have our modern day equivalent in editorial cartoonists, who can still create a stir. (Remember the Danish cartoon about Islam that provoked outrage in the Muslim world) But for the most part, satirical art has faded from the forefront of everyday life.
Taking its place is the sneaky snapshot—you know, the ones you see on the cover of People magazine of celebrities not at their best. And of course, gossip is more rampant than ever. I find all this obsession with other people’s lives a little strange, and in truth I feel a little sorry for the celebrities who are constantly stalked by photographers looking to capture some small misstep or indiscretion for eternity.
So, what do you feel about gossip? Do you enjoy reading about the foibles of others? Is everyone fair game for the press, or should there be limits on how intrusive journalists should be in their coverage? (And for a look at more Regency prints, visit my website at www.caraelliott.com and click on the Diversions page.)