George Cruikshank was an English artist who worked mainly with caricatures and book illustrations. He was extremely prolific and one of the most influential graphic artists of his time. During his lifetime, the artist was regarded as a modern Hogarth. He became primarily known for the illustrations he created for several books by Charles Dickens, his close friend.
George Cruikshank was born in 1792 in the English capital and descended from a Scotch family. There is little information on his mother, Mary Macnaughton, and his father, Isaac Cruikshank, was one of the leading English caricaturists of the 1790s. From humble origins, his father became an orphan early in his life and turned to art as a means of survival.
Isaac employed his talent in many different lanes, like illustrating children's books, etchings for comic designs, and even participated in a Royal Academy exhibit in 1789, 1790, and 1792. This adaptable quality, branching his artistic skills in different paths, is one of the valuable lessons that Isaac passed to his sons.
Isaac's efforts seemed to have worked out well since young George was born in Bloomsbury, a respected and fashionable neighborhood. George started his career as his father's assistant and apprentice. This experience is how the young artist was familiarized with drawing, watercolor painting, and etching.
The artist's first assignment as assistant and apprentice was completing backgrounds, coming up with artwork titles, as well as preparing dialogues. Isaac Robert, his older brother, also followed in the family business as an illustrator and caricaturist. George started to participate in art competitions when he was only twelve.
In 1811, while still a teenager, Cruikshank started to gather widespread recognition for his work in a local journal. The Scourge was a monthly periodical in which Cruikshank created caricatures dealing with political themes. The journal publications made sim so famous that he was compared to William Hogarth for the first time.
Other than Hogarth - which for a considerable part of his career wanted to be recognized not only as a caricaturist but also as a painter - a significant influence on Cruikshank was James Gillray's work. Producing almost 1000 prints during his life, Gillray dealt directly with the figures of Napoleon and George III, the monarch of England during his times. The caricaturist tried to commit suicide in 1811, jumping from the second floor of a building and becoming intensely ill after that.
Hannah Humphrey, James Gillray's landlady, took care of him for the rest of his life. But since she needed a replacement, and Cruikshank's output was remarkably similar to the older cartoonist, she decided to hire George. The artist worked for Humphrey, finishing copper plate etchings that his colleague had already had started.
Indeed, the opportunity couldn't be declined. At that time, Cruikshank felt insecure about his skills, stating through correspondence that he couldn't match Gillray's work. Facing the challenge, the artist progressed throughout the 1810s showing refinement in his production and eventually surpassing his own expectations.
His growing local fame, achieved by collaborations, was heightened by some of his associations. With the input of other English artists such as Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, and William Hogarth, he popularized the image of John Bull.
This character represents England, much like the United States' Uncle Sam. John Bull was created by John Arbuthnot, a Scottish mathematician, with the intent of being ridiculed, but was depicted by Cruikshank as a common British man, symbolizing humility and honesty.
In 1819, Cruikshank contributed to William Hone's political satire, The Political House That Jack Built. Hone's text was radical and filled with acid humor. Written in verses, it tells the narrative of the upper class, alluded to as "vermins" and parasites that benefit the rest of the population. The artist contributed with ten woodblock prints that mocked lawyers, soldiers, and politicians.
The next year was marked by the end of his satirical work. He and his brother, Isaac Robert, frequently used the image of the Prince of Wales, which can be seen in masterpieces such as The Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor. In 1820, the Prince became George IV after the death of his father.
George IV first tried to silence the Cruikshank brothers through the court, which he failed. Spending around £2.600 to bribe them, the king had to summon them to deal directly with the matter. After this, the caricatures of George IV ceased.
Cruikshank's early work was mostly comprised of caricatures, but after his altercation matter with King George IV along with satirical artworks falling out of fashion, he turned to illustration.
In 1823, he illustrated the first English translation of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, by David Jardine and Edgar Taylor. It was published as German Popular Stories, in two volumes. The artist illustrated more than 850 texts during his life.
Cruikshank was friends with the highly celebrated English poet and writer Charles Dickens, for whom he illustrated some works, such as The Mudfog Papers (1837-38), Sketches by Boz (1836), and the much renowned Oliver Twist (1838). Cruikshank also acted in the amateur theatrical company ran by Dickens.
Unfortunately, their friendship would sour due to Cruikshank's claim that he was responsible for a considerable part of Oliver Twist's storyline. Their conflict happened after the refusal of a particular copper print for the book. Dickens started another magazine, resigning from the one he and Cruikshank worked together and hired two new artists for the illustrations.
In the late 1840s, Cruikshank became somewhat obsessed with temperance activism, especially anti-smoking campaigns, a radical shift from his previous work in book illustrations. His new posture can be understood as a late reaction to his father's death in 1811, which happened due to alcohol addiction.
He produced several pictures for the National Temperance Society, among others. On this theme, his best-known works are The Bottle and its sequel The Drunkard's Children, with eight plates each.
Another piece worth mentioning is the Worship of Bacchus, which took three years to complete and is located at the Tate Gallery in London, with a total of 7 x 13 feet. With impressive dimensions, the artwork narrates the different cycles of alcohol consumption, with a Roman God statue in the center.
During the last years of his life, Cruikshank developed palsy, which slowly deteriorated his health and the quality of his artwork. George Cruikshank died in February 1878. Cruikshank created some of the most famous caricatures of the Victorian period.
Even though he didn't have the same technical skill as artists like Hogarth or even James Gillray, Cruikshank's trajectory is an example of art at its most critical and popular dimension, unafraid to portray political subjects directly.