Penn Library

The Illustrated Book, 1780-1830: selected from the collection of Harris N. Hollin

Comic and Caricature

"I have played the fool," the English illustrator Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) once said, "but here is my resource." His resource was his unequaled skill as a draftsman, which he combined with an acute social sensitivity to provide a panoramic sweep of late Georgian life. In his forte, the caricature, he focused upon the comedy of everyday life, particularly as it befell his principal readers, the well-to-do bourgeoisie. Under the tutelage of the publisher Ackermann, he and the author William Combe produced The Tour of Doctor Syntax, In Search of the Picturesque (1812, 3rd edition 1819) and two sequels, constituting the most influential comic series of an era in which the English public held the genre especially dear. The black-coated Doctor, limbs flailing on his awkward horse, started the fashion for aquatint engravings paired with rhyming text and served as a model for emulation and parody. Rowlandson himself imitated his creation first in 1815 in The Adventures of Doctor Comicus or the Frolicks of Fortune, later in Doctor Syntax in Paris or a Tour in Search of the Grotesque (1820), The Tour of Doctor Syntax through London, or the Pleasures and Miseries of the Metropolis (1820), The History of Johnny Quae Genus (1822) and The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcombe (1818). In The English Dance of Death (1815), Rowlandson demonstrated that he could add a comedic element to the traditional significance of the themethe concept of Death as the great leveler.

In his comic work for Thomas McClean's Repository of Wit and Humour, the renowned sports illustrator Henry Alken employed elements of English elite and popular culture, especially art, sport and song. The satire and social criticism evident in A Touch of the Fine Arts (1824), Illustrations of Popular Songs (1826), Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man (1824) provide a distinctive contrast to the more strictly picturesque and comedic qualities of Rowlandson's caricatures.


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