George Cruikshank - A Great Victorian Illustrator
This article describes the life and art of George Cruikshank with examples of some of his best works.
George Cruikshank was probably the greatest of Victorian book illustrator. His artwork embellished the works of literary giants such as Charles Dickens as well as a host of popular Victorian authors. His output was prodigious and ranged from satirical drawings to faithful recreations of historical events and imaginative depictions of literary characters. At its height, his popularity rivaled that of the authors whose books he illustrated.
The Work of George Cruikshank
George Cruikshank was born in London on September 27, 1792 and he died on February 1st 1878. He came from a family of noted illustrators and artists. His father Isaac Cruikshank was a celebrated cartoonist and illustrator and his brother Robert Cruikshank also achieved some success in the same field.
George Cruikshank began his artistic education in his father's workshop, at first simply adding detail to sketches done by his father, and then eventually undertaking complete works of his own. At the same time that Cruikshank was developing his mature talent as an artist, the British publishing industry was changing and this opened up many opportunities for Cruikshank. Improvements in printing technology meant that it was now easier and cheaper to add illustrations to printed books, while at the same time the growth of a literate middle class increased the market for all kinds of books and periodicals. In order to compete for readers, publishers began adding illustrations to books and magazines, which created a market for someone with Cruikshank's skills.
Very soon Cruikshank was in demand as an illustrator of books as well as newspaper and magazine articles. Cruikshank's work became quickly popular and helped sell books, so he was much in demand. In order to earn a living and to meet short publication deadlines, Cruikshank was forced to churn out a large number of pieces one after an other, but despite the quantity of his output, the quality of his work remained high. Cruikshank himself attributed his success to his ability to create characters, or as he once jokingly suggested in the drawing to the right, the characters created themselves.
His brother Robert Cruikshank became an alcoholic and this eventually ruined his life and career. George Cruikshank became a vocal opponent of alcohol and a supporter of the temperance movement. In his later years, Cruikshank devoted much of his skills to creating anti-alcohol propaganda as well as advocating in favor of British imperialism, particularly in favor of the continued occupation of Ireland.
Examples of Cruikshank's Work
During his career George Cruikshank created over 10,000 drawings and illustrations. Today his prints are starting to become sought after by collectors.
Cruikshank illustrated many books including various historical novels by Ainsworth, a popular Victorian novelist at the time. This illustration is from a book called Jack Sheppard, which chronicled the true exploits of a highway robber renowned for his daring crimes and even more daring escapes from custody.
The above drawing is from The Tower of London, and is a good example of the detail and characters that Crukshank was able to cram into a relatively small drawing.
Cruikshank's wide range of subjects is exemplified by his illustrations of famous Fairy Tales. He was equally at ease depicting serious historical subjects as he was drawing lighthearted scenes from children's literature.
One of Cruikshank's more serious subjects. This drawing depicts alcohol fueled domestic violence.
George Cruikshank illustrated Maxwell's History of the Irish Rebellion, which depicted the Irish rebels as brutish monsters and the British occupiers as valiant bringers of civilization. There is a tinge of racism in Cruikshank's more patriotic work, which seems born from an inability to admit that the other side might have any redeeming qualities.
Later in life, Cruikshank developed tremors and his work suffered. He died at the age of 86 and his last words were 'OH, WHAT will become of my children?' Since Cruikshank and his wife were known to be childless, these final words were somewhat of a mystery, until the truth was uncovered.
During his lifetime * was known as a strict moralist and supporter of the anti-drinking and anti-smoking movements, though he had been both a heavy drinker and a smoker. Like many social conservatives in American politics today, whose private lives have led to scandals which rocked their carefully crafted images as Bible thumpers, Cruikshank lived a secret life which was contrary to the values and morals which he publicly espoused. Though married, Cruikshank maintained a separate household just three doors down from his home, complete with mistress and 11 children, whose existence he kept secret from friends and family until his death.