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Thursday, 27 May 2021

Caught in the Act: Theatrical cartoons and caricatures (Part 1)

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theatrical cartoons 1200Richs Glory or his Triumphant Entry into Covent-Garden by William Hogarth, 1732. British Museum, London.

From John Rich to W.S. Lyster and Henry Irving to George Coppin, members of the theatrical profession have been well documented by artists working in pen and ink. Numerous illustrators, over the centuries, have specialised in the drawing of satirical cartoons, many well known today and many more deserving of rediscovery. In this, the first in a series of articles looking at the history of theatrical cartoons, ELISABETH KUMM begins the story in Britain and follows its popularity to Australia during the nineteenth century.

The word ‘cartoon’ was originally used to describe the outline sketches made by artists in the preparation of large pictorial works. In the mid-nineteenth century, the term was adopted by London Punch in relation to their comic black and white illustrations. Today it is used to describe not only satirical drawings, but animated films, such as those created by Loony Tunes and Disney.

Whereas cartoons generally evoke a humorous scene or event, caricatures are generally satirical portraits of individuals, usually famous people. Caricatures may gently mock their subjects or be out and out insulting. By exaggerating a single feature, be it face, figure or dress, at the same time retaining the identity of the subject, the artist is able to capture their personality, often with only a few deft stokes of the pen.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the term ‘black and white artist’ was used to describe those who used a pen rather than a paintbrush, with many of these artists associated more often than not with newspapers rather than the Royal Academy.

While politics and politicians are the most widely mocked, actors and members of the theatrical profession have not escaped the attention of the graphic satirist.

In Britain, William Hogarth (1697-1764) pioneered the satirical cartoon, lampooning the political and social conventions of the day. Hogarth made a few theatrical drawings, such as Richs Glory or his Triumphant Entry into Covent-Garden (c.1732), a satire on John Rich and company arriving at the newly constucted Covent Garden theatre. John Gay, the playwright, is being carried on a porter’s back, while Rich, dressed as harlequin, is driving an open carriage.

During the Regency period, James Gillray (c.1756-1815) and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) continued the satirical tradition.

Gillray’s 1801 depiction of the celebrated opera singer Elizabeth Billington gently mocks that lady’s large frame and stagey gestures. As Mandane in Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes, she thumps her bosom and throws out her left hand, most probably while singing the virtuosic aria “The Soldier, Tir’d of War’s Alarms”.

In 1811, Rowlandson produced a close-up view of one of the pigeon holes which flanked the upper gallery at Covent Garden, illustrating the cramped conditions experienced by the audience.

George Cruikshank (1792-1878) emerged as one of the leading satirists of the early nineteenth century. He took on a number of theatrical subjects, notably Edmund Kean. His 1814 print The Theatrical Atlas shows the great actor-manager, dressed as Richard III, supporting Drury Lane Theatre on his back; a satirical comment on the financial support received by the theatre’s owner Mr Whitbread through Kean’s performances of Shakespeare.

Seventy years later Horace Morehen (1841-1905), signing himself “H.M.”, depicted Henry Irving about to take on the perils of management. Irving is shown standing outside the Lyceum Theatre, a banner across the building’s facade announcing: “To be opened shortly with an entirely new management”. Morehen was a nephew of Alfred Bryan (see below) and had studied under his uncle. He enjoyed a modest career as a theatrical caricaturist.

During the nineteenth century black and white artist came into their own. One artist who deserves to be better known is Frederick Waddy (1848-1901). His work featured in Once a Week and other illustrated magazines from the 1860s. In 1873 a large selection of his drawings was published in Cartoon Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Men of the Day. Of the fifty men depicted many are from the theatrical profession including Dion Boucicault, J.L. Toole, Henry Irving and Lionel Brough. His portrait of Toole, originally published in Once a Week, shows the actor dressed as Paul Pry, captioned with that character’s favourite catchphrase, “I hope I don’t intrude”.

A contemporary of Waddy, Alfred Bryan (1852-1899) also specialised in theatrical caricatures. Born Charles Grineau in London, he was a regular contributor to Entr’Acte magazine and its almanack. In 1881 he supplied fifty portraits of actors and actresses to Charles H. Ross’s Stage Whispers and Shouts Without: a book for players, playgoers, and the public generally. A rare copy of this book, disassembled, is included in the Coppin Collection at the State Library Victoria. Bryan’s 1876 portrait of J.L. Toole shows the actor in his street clothes holding a bag bearing his name. The three examples from Stage Whispers and Shouts Without are of the playwright/novelists Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade and the actor Charles Coghlan.

Another artist specialising in theatrical portrait was Lewis John Binns (1871-1931). This British-born artist is largely forgotten today, however, the New York Public Library holds over 100 original watercolours in their collection depicting English actors and actresses. One such drawing is of the actress Fanny Brough in her role of Dorcas Gentle in the 1892 sporting drama The Prodigal Daughter. Many of Binns’ drawings are well known and his artistic skill widely admired, yet after 1900 he was involved in a series of thefts and other misdemeanours for which he served a number of prison sentences.

The late 1880s saw the emergence of the theatrical souvenir. One of the first was prepared for George Edwardes at the Gaiety Theatre in London to commemorate, in April 1887, the 100th performance of the burlesque Monte Cristo Jr. This was followed in late 1889 by one for Ruy Blas. It comprised a small folio containing ten chromolithograph colour prints of the principals in the burlesque, including Nellie Farren, Fred Leslie, Sylvia Grey and Fred Storey. The prints are not signed but are very probably by the noted designer Percy Anderson (1851-1928) who created the costumes for both productions.

The most influential of the satirical magazines of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly Punch. First published in London in 1841, it employed some of the greatest black and white artists of the day, including John Leech, John Tenniel, George du Maurier, Linley Sambourne, Bernard Partridge, Phil May and Edward Tennyson Reed.

One of the finest satirical illustrators on Punch was Linley Sambourne (1844-1910). Associated with the newspaper from the 1860s, he reached his peak as a cartoonist in the 1880s, when, for example took aim at Oscar Wilde and the aesthetic movement. His pictures are filled with detail and he amassed a huge photographic collection that helped him to attain this level of accuracy, especially in relation to his caricatures of famous people, whose expressions he perfectly captures.

In 1898, Punch artist Edward Tennyson Reed (1860-1933) published a curious volume titled Mr Punch’s Animal Land. Comprising fifty-two likenesses of leading figures, the portraits are presented as though the subjects were newly discovered species, bearing a classification and brief explanation. The only actor included was Henry Irving, given the genus ‘Stagynite’ (presumably the ‘nite’ referred to Irving’s 1895 knighthood) with the following description:

This funny creature gets up things very nicely. When people go to see it it makes the queerest noises and stamps on the floor and drags itself about. I expect he says it all night but you can’t tell.1

As the nineteenth century wore on, illustrated magazines were in profusion, from The Illustrated London News and The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News to Once a Week and Vanity Fair.

When Vanity Fair launched in January 1869, it caused a stir by introducing the first chromolithographic caricatures. These coloured drawings of ‘prominent men of the day’ were printed on stiff card and ideal for framing. Sitters no longer sported large heads or exaggerated features, but instead exuded a casual and easy going air. Each week new portraits were released and for the first couple of years politicians and peers predominated, but soon novelists, artists, architects and actors joined their number.

Vanity Fair’s principal artist was the Italian-born Carlo Pellegrini (1839-1889), who signed himself “Ape”, producing over 2,000 portraits between 1869 and 1889. The theatrical profession is represented by Henry Irving (1874), Tommaso Salvini (1875), W.S. Gilbert (1881), Dion Boucicault (1882), and Oscar Wilde (1884), this last named pictured as the consummate dandy with curled locks and a button hole.

Pellegrini’s successor was Leslie Ward (1851-1922), who worked under the pseudonym “Spy”. He continued the tradition of producing beautiful colour prints that were more akin to actual portraits than comic caricatures. Over the course of four decades he drew over 1,300 ‘characteristic portraits’ of leading men of the day. His 1889 portrait of Arthur Cecil does not betray the actor’s profession. With his brief case, cane and top hat in hand he could easily be mistaken for a stockbroker or a solicitor.

Cartoons and caricatures featured in many Australian newspapers and magazines. Melbourne Punch, founded in 1855, was closely modelled on the London publication. Though politicians were constantly lampooned, the theatre was also the butt of many a satirical cartoon. Noteworthy artists who contributed to the early success of Melbourne Punch, included Nicholas Chevalier, Samuel Calvert and S.T. Gill.

As actor-manager, property developer and politician, George Coppin was popular with cartoonists. During the mid-1850s his Olympic Theatre and Cremorne Gardens amusement park were depicted numerous times within Melbourne Punch. Generally the cartoons are unsigned, but the one of Coppin standing outside the rotunda at Cremorne Gardens is probably by Samuel Calvert (1828-1913), and the one depicting the audience at one of Anna Bishop’s recitals has been identified as by Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902).

In 1863, Melbourne Punch enjoyed much merriment with a theatrical incident that was to become known as the Melbourne Shakespeare War. When George Coppin engaged the renowned English tragedians Charles and Ellen Kean to play a season of Shakespeare at the Haymarket Theatre in Melbourne, he was not prepared for the response elicited by Barry Sullivan, a young Irish tragedian, performing at the nearby Theatre Royal.

In a move to undermine his rivals, Sullivan sought to match the Keans’ repertoire by presenting Richard III on the same night and staging his production of The Merchant of Venice one night before them. The situation was further inflamed with the newspapers taking sides. The Argus sided with the Keans, while the Age rooted for Sullivan. Meanwhile, Melbourne Punch took full advantage of the situation by offering a humorous commentary. A cartoon published on 15 October 1863 shows Kean and Sullivan playing a card game to determine who is the better actor, with Mr Punch as referee. Two weeks later, on 29 October, in response to Sullivan pasting posters all over town, Punch suggested that Kean should do the same with copies of the Argus reviews.

Best known for his vivid watercolour sketches of life on the Victorian gold fields, S.T. Gill (1818-1880) also painted scenes of urban Melbourne. His pictures are often comic in tone and include portraits of character types rather than identifiable individuals, such as his c.1880 depiction of the dress circle boxes at Melbourne’s Queen’s Theatre in 1853. However, he did tackle actual people, notably with his ‘Heads of the People’ series. The first series, published in 1849, comprised five portraits, including an early caricature of George Coppin.

In Australia, visiting musician and opera singer, Charles Lascelles (1835-1883) was also an accomplished caricaturist. Born Charles Gray in England, he was a cousin of the novelist Wilkie Collins. Twelve surviving portraits by him in the National Library of Australia depict members of W.S. Lyster’s opera company. Drawn around 1870, they include Fannie Simonsen (as Maritana), Mariano Neri, Enrico Dondi (as Mephistopheles) and conductor Martin Simonsen.

In the 1870s, Melbourne-born artist Tom Durkin (1853-1902) contributed 36 caricatures of prominent men (and one woman) to the Weekly Times. The series titled ‘Masks and Faces’ (an illusion to Charles Reade’s play of the same name) was published between 1873 and 1875. Durkin also drew cartoons for other newspapers and periodicals including Bull-Ant, Queensland Punch and Australian Graphic. From 1889, he was a regular contributor to the Sydney Bulletin, and from 1893 he was responsible for the Melbourne page.

From its establishment in 1880 the Bulletin took the art of caricature and cartooning to a new level of sophistication. Though they principally dealt with topical political issues, leading figures of the theatre were also represented, such as the portrait of George Coppin by Phil May (1864-1903) which graced the cover of the paper in December 1888. The caption “I hope I don’t intrude” references Paul Pry’s catchphrase. Like Toole in England, Paul Pry was one of Coppin’s favourite characters. British-born May spent three years in Australia, 1886 to 1888, during which time he produced over 800 drawings for the Bulletin. On his return to England he worked for Punch and also produced numerous annuals and anthologies of his work. He was one of the most popular illustrators of his day. In 1895 he received the honour of being included in Vanity Fair’s anthology of ‘men of the day’ when “Ape” drew his likeness.


To be continued


Principal Sources

John Adcock, Alfred Bryan (1852-1899), Yesterday’s Papers,

Stanley Applebaum, Great Drawings and Illustrations from Punch, 1841-1901, Dover Publications, New York, 1981

British theatrical caricatures from Hogarth to Cruikshank in the Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard Theatre Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006

Cartoon Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Men of the Day: the drawings by Frederick Waddy, Tinsley Brothers, London, 1873

William Feaver, Masters of Caricature: from Hogarth and Gillroy to Scarfe and Levine, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1981

Kate Flaherty & Edel Lamb, ‘The 1863 Melbourne Shakespeare War: Barry Sullivan, Charles and Ellen Kean, and the play of cultural usurpation on the Australian stage’, Australian Studies, vol. 4, 2012

Marguerite Mahood, ‘Melbourne Punch and its Early Artists’, La Trobe Library Journal, vol. 1, no. 4, October 1969

Edward Tennyson Reed, Mr Punch’s Animal Land, Bradbury, Agnew & Co., London, 1898

R. Smith, ‘Cartoonists of Australia’, Australian Left Review, Feb-March 1968



With thanks to Bob Ferris, Mimi Colligan, Judy Leech

Last modified on Monday, 28 June 2021
Elisabeth Kumm

Elisabeth is a founding member of the Victoria Theatres Trust. Her series Pets of the Public was a regular feature of On Stage from 1999 to 2005, looking at “forgotten” nineteenth century performers. She continues to contribute articles for the THA website, and from 2018 has been editor of the THA Newsletter. As a theatrical historian and biographer she assisted Viola Tait with her book on pantomime – Dames, Principal Boys…and All That (published by Macmillan in 2001) and also worked with her on her memoirs I Have a Song to Sing (published by THA in 2018). Elisabeth has also undertaken research for the Riley/Hailes Scrapbook and JCW Scene Books projects. Most recently she has been working on the Falk Studios album project including acting as editor of The Falk Studios book (published by THA in 2021).