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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Books & Manuscripts > Caricatures

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Many people are attracted to cigarette cards primarily for the pictures, but there is also much pleasure and instruction to be gained from the 'fine print'. The typography is often an impressive feat of design in miniature and the captions contain valuable information as well as a great deal of entertaining trivia. For the serious collector no detail is too small to notice.


Early Caricatures


 In the late 18th century, these humorous prints poking fun at royalty, politicians and well-known personalities were in popular demand.

 Caricature is an Italian invention, but it is a form of art that the British have particularly taken to their hearts, and it never flourished more vigorously than in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At that time, comical prints poking fun at well-known figures of the day or at human imperfections and pretensions in general could be bought abundantly and cheaply at numerous shops in London and major provincial cities. In their way, these prints were the forerunners of satirical magazines such as Punch and Private Eye and of television programmes like Spitting Image. And they had the same popular following, with people eagerly queuing at the print shops for the latest humorous comment on topical events.

 There were two main types of caricature during its golden age in Britain: political satire, aimed at specific individuals in positions of power; and social satire, depicting human frailty and folly in all its forms. It was at this time that political caricature as we know it was as created, and for vividness, imagination nd merciless mockery the finest caricature of the Georgian and Regency periods have never been surpassed and only rarely equalled. Social satire, on the other hand, was often much more good-natured, treating life as a vast comedy of manners.


 The two greatest political caricaturists were James Gillray (1765-1815) and George Cruikshank (1792-1878). Their work was extremely effective: from 1797 Gillray was paid annual pension by the Tory party because his service to their cause was regarded as so important; and in 1820, the year in which the Prince Regent became George IV, Cruikshank was paid 100 'not to caricature His Majesty in any immoral situation'.

 The undoubted master of social satire was Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), one of the most lovable of English artists, who lived as rakish a life as some of the characters he satirized. Vice and depravity sometimes occur in his work, but its keynote is jollity. His subjects are often bawdy or boisterous (fat ladies are constantly falling over and revealing vast areas of flesh as their dresses fly upwards), but his attitude is delightfully wholesome rather than merely vulgar. His most famous creation was 'Dr Syntax', a grotesque clergyman and schoolmaster who meets with various absurd adventures and disasters.

 Other well-known political and social caricaturists of the period include such artists as Robert Dighton and William Heath.

 In the heyday of British caricature, satirical prints were eagerly collected by all sections of society and were sometimes gathered together in an album or displayed on the wall in a gentleman's library or study.


 Many caricatures were published in books as well as it the form of separate prints, and books have often been broken up so that the contents can be sold individually. However, most of the works of the great Georgian and Regency caricaturists were prints issued separately. The print enthusiast is in a more favourable position than most collectors because the prints themselves usually carry information about the artist, publisher, the date of publication and so on. There is thus usually little need to worry about authenticity.

 The most popular prints were produced in enormous numbers and can still be picked up remarkably cheaply. Individual character heads tend to be at the lower end of the market, with larger and more complex compositions costing more. Prints which lack margins detailing the artist, title and publisher are generally scorned by collectors and can often be licked up for a mere few pounds. Examples if the same print are likely to come up for salt fairly often (at auctions, at specialist dealers. in bookshops, or in junk shops), so it is not difficult to develop a feeling for prices. The prints were hand-coloured individually so no two versions of the same print will be identical in colour. When buying, however, make sure the colours have not faded.

 As so few of the caricatures of the period can be described as rarities, you should be able to choose ones which appeal to you visually. 'Foxing' (a brownish discolouration caused by damp) and general grubbiness are among the likeliest factors to affect value.

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