The Prints of England.

September 17, 2013

The English political magazine Vanity Fair published over 2,000 lithographic caricatures between 1868 and 1914, the bulk of which documented the Empire’s social, sporting and governmental notables. The subjects were as often the fodder of snide editorial asides, though a sympathetic establishmentarian stance pervaded. As the magazine’s title indicated, the caricatures tore into the assorted vanities of their targets – though in the good-natured way of an inside joke. They appeared weekly and became the journal’s distinguishing feature.

Originally assailants of royalty and politicos only, the caricaturists soon enlarged their focus to include actors, artists, sporting types, judges, men about town, and the assorted ornaments and oddments of the imperial military. Victims learned to appreciate that lampooning came as recognition for some accomplishment (laudable or less so) and took it in stride, like the subjects of friars’ roasts. Few protested. Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder, explained his magazine’s purpose in response to a critical Daily News article: “There are grim faces made more grim, grotesque features made more grotesque, and dull people made duller… but there is nothing that has been treated with a set purpose to make it something that was not already originally in a lesser degree.” Bowles himself provided biographical accompaniment to the art under the pen name Jehu Junior.

Two of the more popular caricaturists proved to be Carlo Pellegrini and Leslie Ward, each also thankfully prolific. Their work was published under the pseudonyms Ape and Spy – Ape considered the wittier and more insightful of the two, Spy drier and more aloof, often studying subjects clandestinely for hours. Judges presiding over court were especially vulnerable.

Each man sketched in public, then returned to the magazine’s studios to create final drafts in water color. Lithographers printed the product by way of the innovative transfer paper, the invention of which was critical to the enterprise. Lithography eliminated the necessity of drawing backwards to account for the reversal of printing presses. Their prints remain highly collectible today, as both bits of anecdotal history and political art.

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