George Cruikshank the Caricature Artist and Humorist

George Cruikshank, the caricature artist and humorist, was born in London on a Thursday on 27 September. His mother was Mary Macnaughten and his father, Isaac Cruikshank, a leading caricaturist of the late 1790s. Mary and Isaac had five children: two died in infancy and then there was artist Isaac Robert born in 1789, George born in 1792, and Margaret Eliza, a promising artist born in 1808 who died of tuberculosis at the age of eighteen.

George Cruikshank

George Cruickshank. Courtesy of Royal Academy.

George had a limited education with his most valuable education being taught to him by his father when he served as his apprentice. When George was twelve, he received his first paid job and produced an etching of a child’s lottery picture. He also drew Horatio Nelson’s funeral car after the inspirational hero was shot and killed during his final victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. George’s earliest signed work was dated about two years later when he created the “demagogue Cobbet on his way to St. James’s.”[1]

George Cruikshank

George Cruikshank in 1836. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1811, George’s father died after a drinking contest, probably from alcohol poisoning. It was then that 19-year-old George realized he needed to make his own way in the world, and he began doing any work that came his way. However, art was not what he was most interested in, which is noted by one biographer:

“But though George was thus born, as it were, with an etching point in his hand, the stage, rather than art, was the object of his youthful predilection He often performed at juvenile theatres, and was received with such applause both in comic and serious parts, as to cause him to think seriously of becoming an actor by profession. Unwilling, however, to face the hardship of an itinerant career, he obtained an introduction to … the then manager of Drury Lane … from whom he sought to obtain employment as a scene-painter, in the hope that this might eventually lead to the stage. In this capacity he is said to have painted a drop-scene, representing Sir William Curtius … so irresistibly ludicrous that it brought down the audience with roars of laughter.”[2]

When art jobs began to steadily roll in, George Cruikshank gave up the idea of the theatre and soon became known for his caricatures and humor. Because of his talent he was said to be “next in succession” to the great James Gillray, who was considered to be one the greatest of the caricaturists of the eighteenth century and called the “Prince of Caricaturists”. In 1811, George completed some of Gillray’s works that were left unfinished, yet in spite of this George never thought of himself as Gillray’s equal once saying, “I was not fit to hold a candle to Gillray.”[3]  

As the Napoleonic Wars coincided with George’s career, one of his earliest subjects was Napoleon Bonaparte. From the traditional Londoner’s point of view, George Cruikshank produced Napoleon as a “cocked-hatted, spindle-shanked, with high cheek bones and shrugging shoulders [enemy].[4] These early colored etchings from his satirical pencil were coarsely executed, but by 1816, there was a marked improvement, and, in 1817, he created an important illustrated work of 30 engravings, “The Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos by Dr. Syntax, 1817.” Of it, one twentieth-century historian wrote:

“Bonaparte appears in nearly every etching a virtual midget in relation to the other figures portrayed. His childish stature is the main caricatural thing about him, in contrast with the gross and deformed heads of the French soldiers; … Napoleon is simply the artist’s victim, reduced to utter powerlessness, and retaining little of menace or malevolence.”[5]

Cover to “The Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos by Dr. Syntax, 1817.” Courtesy of British Museum.

In 1819, George created a remarkable series of illustrations that established his reputation as the “first comic draughtsman of the day.”[6] Among them was his work with William Hone, an English writer, satirist, and bookseller. Despite George’s favorite medium being etchings, he produced black-and-white woodcuts for Hone’s radical pamphlet that satirized lawyers, the church, the army, and the monarchy based on the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” His caricatures also created a lasting impression of the future George IV:

“Such was its impact that the pamphlet’s depictions of the Prince Regent became a lasting part of the mythology surrounding him. The coat-tails drawn together between his legs in the shape of a phallus and his exaggerated backside were a staple of radical memories of the Regency and cemented his image as a ridiculous bloated character from folk-tale.”[7]

A caricature by Cruikshank of King George IV and his ministers attempting to blow out the flame of a rush light or, Queen Caroline and her reputed acts of misconduct. Courtesy of British Museum.

Additionally, George’s lampooning and parodying of the monarchy and the king were so biting that the king once offered him a 100 pounds in June 1820, to stop drawing him in immoral circumstances or compromising situations.

George Cruikshank found great success with his caricatures and almost all the newspapers of his times published his drawings, including an outrageous weekly satirical paper called The Scourge. His prints were also produced both in black and white and color, and part of the reason for his great success was improvements in printing capabilities. Publishers were at last able to produce fine prints thereby making them more readily available to a growing group of collectors among the middle class. In fact, prints were so popular with the middle class during this time, George sold thousands.

Children were also big fans of the artist. The British novelist and author, William Makepeace Thackeray “who gave up confections to be able to buy Cruikshank’s prints [once said] ‘He is the friend of the young especially.’”[8] One writer also noted the appeal he felt as a child for George’s drawings and why that appeal carried into adulthood, stating “[his] hold on us – which is lifelong if we have first encountered him in childhood – and which ties the other qualities together, is that his work is beautiful, at times sensuously so.”[9]

In 1825, George’s friend, William Clarke, published the first biography of him. Other biographers and historians used Clarke’s biography to write theirs of George Cruikshank. Unfortunately, Clarke’s biography was filled with colorful untrue facts and inaccurate anecdotes. In addition,

“Clarke had draped Hogarth’s mantle about Cruikshank’s shoulders … two years later he placed him in the company of the prime boxers of the age … [and then established] three other identities: the successor to the greatest English graphic moralist, the roistering buck, and the humorist.”[10]

Prior to Clarke’s biography, in the early 1820s, George began doing book illustrations and in fact gained international fame because of it. He was so prolific that he illustrated over 800 books, along with innumerable magazines and periodicals. In his lifetime, he is said to have created nearly 10,000 prints, illustrations, and plates. His illustrations filled the book pages of such people as Sir Walter Scott, William Ainsworth, and Charles Dickens, and his artworks were said to assure that such authors would sell their books, a lot of them.

There were several of Dickens’ books that George illustrated: Sketches by Boz, The Mudfog Papers, and Oliver Twist. However, the friendship between the two men eventually soured after George became a fanatical teetotaler. George’s father and brother were alcoholics, and perhaps, George had no right to be moralistic or judgmental as he was a reformed heavy drinker. However, in the 1840s, he became zealous about temperance and started illustrating for the National Temperance Society. Dickens embraced views of moderation, so, when George produced The Bottle and its sequel The Drunkard’s Children, Dickens saw his works as too moralistic and thought they contained illustrations that protested too much against the evils of alcohol.

Illustration from “Sketches by Boz” by Cruikshank. Courtesy of British Museum.

During his lifetime, George Cruikshank also married twice. His first marriage was to the sweet-tempered Mary Ann Walker, “a cousin who may have been the granddaughter of his mother’s uncle.”[11] She was about sixteen or seventeen when they married, and forty-two when she died in 1849. Two years later, on 7 March 1851, he married Eliza Widdison, the niece of a politician named Charles Baldwyn and a friend of Mary’s. No children were produced with either wife.

That wasn’t the only interesting thing about George. One interesting story about him happened in 1862 (and may or may not be true). It supposedly happened when he was seventy, and it involved him capturing a desperate burglar.

“While keeping a firm grasp on the thief with his left hand, the doughty little painter felt his own pulse with the other, and finding that the accustomed 75 beats of the minute had not been increased by a single one in spite of exertion and excitement, he gravely began to enlarge upon the benefits of temperance, comparing his own claim with the thief’s panting condition. That the rogue was also a drunkard he assumed as a matter of course. In this strange condition the pair were found by the policeman.”[12]

George suffered a stroke in 1869 or 1870. It affected his hands, partially paralyzing and causing them to tremble. His ability to draw and produce artworks was affected, and that in turn resulted in fewer commissions, until eventually he found himself facing financial difficulties. His last work was published in 1875.

Some years earlier, on 9 June 1870, Dickens died, and after his death, on 30 December 1871, George sent a letter to The Times remarking on the authorship of Oliver Twist and taking credit for creating most of the plot. His letter caused a great deal of controversy about who created Oliver Twist, just as another Dicken’s illustrator, Robert Seymour, had created controversy when he claimed that the idea for Dickens’ Pickwick Papers came from him. George’s letter to The Times stated:

“When … Bentley’s Miscellany was first started, it was arranged that Mr. Charles Dickens should write a serial and which was to be illustrated by me; and in a conversation with him as to what the subject should be for the first serial, I suggested to Mr. Dickens that he should write the life of a London boy, and strongly advised him to do this, assuring him that I would furnish him with the subject and supply him with all the characters, which my large experience of London life would enable me to do. My idea was to raise a boy from a most humble position up to a high and respectable one – in fact, to illustrate one of those cases of common occurrence, where men of humble origin by natural ability, industry, honesty, and honourable conduct, raise themselves to first-class positions in society.”[13]

George Cruikshank then gave numerous facts as he saw them, and summarized his letter stating:

“I think it will be allowed from what I have stated that I am the originator of “Oliver Twist,” and that all the principal characters are mine, but I was much disappointed by Mr. Dickens not carrying out my first suggestion. Mr. Dickens named all the characters in his work himself, but before he commenced writing the story he told me that he had heard an omnibus conductor mention some one as Oliver Twist, which name, he said he would give the boy, as he thought it would answer his purpose. I wanted the boy to have a very different name, such as Frank Foundling or Frank Steadfast; but I think the word Twist proves to a certain extent that the boy he was going to employ for his purpose was a very different sort of boy from the one introduced and recommended to him by me.”[14]

George Cruikshank - Monstrosities of 1818

Cruickshank’s “Monstrosities of 1818,” showing extravagant clothing styles of men’s and women’s fashions. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 1 February 1878, George Cruikshank died at the age of 85. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, and after his funeral his will, which was dated February of 1876, was read. It was a great surprise to almost everyone to discover that he had fathered eleven illegitimate children with his mistress. She was a former servant named Adelaide Attree, and he had installed her in a house just a couple of doors away from his own house with his wife.

At his death, several obituaries were published, and newspapers lauded him as a “veteran artist” or a devoted artist of “extraordinary assiduity.” There was also this tidbit from George Augustus Henry Sala, an author and journalist who wrote extensively for the Illustrated London News:

“I never knew a man who made such effective exits as did George Cruickshank; and it is (as all actors know) and extremely difficult thing to quit the stage with éclat. When George left you with a flourish of the umbrella, or a snapping of the fingers (or sometimes with a few steps of a horn-pipe or the Highland fling), he never failed to extort from you a round of mental applause, and you felt yourself saying, watching his rapidly departing form (for he was as active at eighty-one, ay, and at eight-five as a County Court bailiff), ‘God bless the dear old boy! how well he looks, and what spirits he has.”[15]


  • [1] W. Bates, George Cruikshank: The Artist, the Humourist, and the Man: With Some Account of His Brother Robert. A Critico-bibliographical Essay (London: Houlston and sons, 1879), p. 9.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 9–10.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 11.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Michael Steig, “George Cruikshank and the Grotesque: A Psychodynamic Approach,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle Princeton University Library, p. 191.
  • [6] W. Bates, p. 13.
  • [7] A. Taylor, Down with the Crown’: British Anti-monarchism and Debates about Royalty since 1790 (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), p. 34.
  • [8] M. Steig, p. 189.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 190.
  • [10] R. L. Patten, George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art: 1792-1835 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), p. 384.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 215.
  • [12] The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron District of South Wales, “Anecdotes of George Cruikshank,” February 15, 1878, p. 4.
  • [13] Birmingham Mail, “The Origins of “Oliver Twist,” December 30, 1871, p. 2.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Dublin Evening Telegraph, May 3, 1878, p. 4.

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