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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Five Questions: Ian Haywood on Romanticism and Caricature

Romanticism and Caricature - Ian Haywood

Ian Haywood is Professor of English at the University of Roehampton and co-directs Roehampton’s Centre for Research in Romanticism.  He has published widely on literature, history and politics from the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century, focussing particularly on radicalism, revolution, popular literature and visual culture.  He is currently serving as Vice-President of BARS and previously co-organised the association’s eleventh International Conference, Romantic Circulations.  In this interview, we discuss his latest book, Romanticism and Caricature, which was published by Cambridge University Press last October.

1) How did you come to decide that this was the next book you wanted to write?

In my last two books, The Revolution in Popular Literature (2004) and Bloody Romanticism (2006) I had gravitated towards using popular visual images as a primary rather than a secondary source.  I began to appreciate some very obvious points about popular prints: they were the nearest thing to a visual record of Romantic history and politics in the pre-photography era; they often made a greater immediate impact than the ‘slow burn’ of verbal texts; and, above all, they were more complex – both aesthetically and ideologically, than I’d realized.  I was both attracted and wary: anyone who works in the period is attracted to caricature’s vivacity, wit, inventiveness and sheer rudeness, but taking on the whole field is daunting (the British Museum collection alone runs to many thousands), and that may be one reason – rather than artistic disdain – why serious scholarship in this area has been quite limited.  I also faced an apparent political obstacle: before the amazing success of Hone and Cruikshank’s cheap woodcut satires in the Peterloo period, most caricaturists seemed to fall into the anti-Jacobin camp, critical of government policies but also rarely presenting the opposition positively.  I got round this hurdle by deciding to approach caricature dialectically, as an exploration of abuses of power and as an artistic site where ideological forces collide in all kinds of interesting ways.  Caricature has many implied spectators and soaks up the spirit of the age; it transforms trigger events into fantasias of visual excess.

2) Each chapter of your book focuses on close readings of one or two particular caricatures.  What led you to select this approach?

There are probably two factors.  The basic methodology was a logical outcome of the discovery that caricatures repaid detailed analysis of both their content and visual form; fortunately, M. Dorothy George’s British Museum Catalogue of satires (now online with supplementary curatorial comments) is a terrific starting point for historical analysis that allows you to hit the ground running.  It identifies all the historical players and the incidents that triggered the caricature; even better, it lists other prints on the same theme – this allows you to build up networks of inter-visual connections and by doing this I realised how much caricaturists borrowed from each other as well as deploying idioms and motifs from both high and popular artistic traditions.  Once the image is embedded within both its verbal and visual contexts, it is not difficult to build up a sophisticated pattern of correspondences and interpretations.  Having tried this approach out on a couple of prints, I became convinced that we could treat caricatures with the same respect as paintings; in fact the former has the edge over the latter in illuminating political controversies.  So the second factor was to make the new book reflect this higher status by presenting a sufficient number of case studies; hopefully the reader will be convinced, though I’ve yet to see any reviews!  There was no need to offer a survey of the period as this has already been done in excellent books by Vic Gatrell and Diana Donald among others.

3) How did you choose the subjects for your close readings, and were there other caricatures you initially considered that you had regretfully to omit?

As you can imagine this required a lot of browsing but in the end I decided to let the prints find me – I mean that I waited until particularly memorable prints jumped out at me, usually due to striking visual features.  For example, Rowlandson’s ‘Two Kings of Terror’ is a remarkable image that shows Napoleon and the skeletal figure of Death seated opposite each other in melancholic poses while the battle of Leipzig rages around them. It was this contrast between the carnage (bloody Romanticism if you will) and the still centre that I found so arresting and simply demanding of analysis.  Similarly, Gillray’s version of the well-known Milton allegory Satan, Sin and Death is memorable for its mock-heroic jouissance and its appropriation of one of Romanticism’s most sublime tableaux for popular culture.  But there were other triggers, sometimes in the title – for example, Gillray’s ‘Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency’ is bursting with self-referential codes, as is ‘Matchless Eloqunce’, a Reform Bill print that attacks radical oratory.  As I began to assemble a sufficient number of chapters, I then realised that it would be best to choose images that represented major political controversies, so I began to dig around in these tipping points and this generated iconic prints such as Gillray’s ‘Midas’ (a satire on paper money) and Hone and Cruikshank’s ‘Damnable Association’, a defence of the free press.  One of the prints I had to let go was Gillray’s very first major design, ‘The Liberty of the Subject’, another intriguingly entitled image which attacks press-ganging – however, I have written an article on this.  Basically, the methodology of the book encourages scholars to start from the print and work outwards.

4) Your book is arranged chronologically, beginning with Gillray’s monstrous Miltonics from the 1790s and concluding with responses to the Reform Bill in 1832.  In your view, are there narratives of development in the art of caricature that run through these years, or is the situation more complex and confused?

There are so many caricatures in the Romantic period that any narrative of development is going to be a simplification, but I do trace some pathways and patterns.  To begin with, there is no doubting that the monstrous iconography of the revolutionary 1790s re-emerges in the 1810s, firstly directed at Napoleon then at British reformers, though it can always be appropriated by radicals – one of my main claims is that the visual language of caricature is highly mobile.  This re-emergence also reflects the apostolic succession of Gillray to Cruikshank.  I also trace sub-genres within this grotesque trajectory; one of these I call the ‘English Dance of Death’, a revival of the late medieval allegory that is both apocalyptic and comedic at the same time – in fact I assert that the spry figure of Death is almost like a signature of the caricaturist’s lethal art: terrifying, catastrophizing, entertaining, guying, menacing.  The motif and related diabolical symbols such as mouth of Hell are still being recycled in Reform Bill satires.

5) What’s next for you?

I’m involved in setting up a couple of new networks, one on ‘Romantic Illustration’ and the other on ‘Romantic Spain’; both are being launched this summer.  I’m also continuing to work with caricatures as I do find them such a provocative and fertile source.  I’ve just written a paper on Gillray’s last original composition, ‘The Life of William Cobbett’ – again, these images are well-known, but have not been interrogated.  One-off essays will undoubtedly continue to emerge, but the bigger project I promise at the end of Romanticism and Caricature is a ‘sequel’ of sorts that will continue the story into the Victorian period.  This is ambitious both in scope and methodology – as there is as yet no comprehensive study of this period, I will need to provide an overview in addition to case studies.  The next book (provisionally and not very imaginatively entitled Victorian Caricature) will to some extent challenge the widely held orthodoxy that caricature declined in quality after the Romantic period as a result of moral reforms and the demise of the single print format.  I’ll probably begin with the fountainhead – Queen Victoria herself.  After the appalling monarchist sycophancy in the media over the last few years, I relish the opportunity to debunk the royal gaze.