George Cruikshank (1792-1878)

George Cruikshank was a humorist of the school of Hogarth, and is considered by some to be one of the best that Britain has produced. He was the son of a Scottish painter, Isaac Cruikshank, and apparently his talent was such that he could draw as soon as he could write. From the beginning he was concerned with satire, achieving public notice with painting theatre backdrops (the first was for Drury Lane Theatre, London). In the early 1820s he made etchings for the pamphleteer William Hone, but his political caricature work was soon overtaken by his work as a book illustrator. Life in London (1821) was followed by Tales of Irish Life (1824), and then a series of further books at an ever increasing rate. His best known work was for Charles Dickens, starting with Sketches by Boz and reaching its zenith, perhaps, with Oliver Twist. Among his large number of other illustrated books were a Grimmís Fairy Tales (1827), a Pilgrimís Progress and Paradise Lost, and seven novels by Harrison Ainsworth. He also had a late interest in oil painting, enrolling in the Academy Schools as a student at the age of 64. He did not achieve much success in that technique, but the Tate Gallery has his The Worship of Bacchus.

Despite his large oeuvre, more than 15,000 drawings in his lifetime, Cruikshank was never well off. He required financial assistance from friends in 1866 (led by Ruskin), and late in life relied on a modest pension from the civil list and a Turner annuity from the Academy.

Today, it can be a little hard to appreciate the rather blatant unsubtle humour of illustrators such as Cruikshank. Also, the fugitive nature of many of the events alluded to in his drawings means that much is lost to the viewer. For me, Cruikshank suffers from the 'Punch problem' - when looking through a volume of Punch from, say, the 1870s or 1900s, most of it is not humorous and seems rather feeble. Of course there is a lot to admire in technique, but that only holds the interest so far, and on coming to a particularly excellent goddess or warrior, the main feeling is that the subject could have been better chosen as other than a humorous one.

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