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- John Leech's Pictures of Life and Character - 1/3 -

John Leech's Pictures of Life and Character

by William Makepeace Thackeray

* Reprinted from the Quarterly Review, No. 191, Dec. 1854, by permission of Mr. John Murray.

We, who can recall the consulship of Plancus, and quite respectable, old-fogyfied times, remember amongst other amusements which we had as children the pictures at which we were permitted to look. There was Boydell's Shakspeare, black and ghastly gallery of murky Opies, glum Northcotes, straddling Fuselis! there were Lear, Oberon, Hamlet, with starting muscles, rolling eyeballs, and long pointing quivering fingers; there was little Prince Arthur (Northcote) crying, in white satin, and bidding good Hubert not put out his eyes; there was Hubert crying; there was little Rutland being run through the poor little body by bloody Clifford; there was Cardinal Beaufort (Reynolds) gnashing his teeth, and grinning and howling demoniacally on his death-bed (a picture frightful to the present day); there was Lady Hamilton (Romney) waving a torch, and dancing before a black background,--a melancholy museum indeed. Smirke's delightful "Seven Ages" only fitfully relieved its general gloom. We did not like to inspect it unless the elders were present, and plenty of lights and company were in the room.

Cheerful relatives used to treat us to Miss Linwood's. Let the children of the present generation thank their stars THAT tragedy is put out of their way. Miss Linwood's was worsted-work. Your grandmother or grandaunts took you there and said the pictures were admirable. You saw "the Woodman" in worsted, with his axe and dog, trampling through the snow; the snow bitter cold to look at, the woodman's pipe wonderful: a gloomy piece, that made you shudder. There were large dingy pictures of woollen martyrs, and scowling warriors with limbs strongly knitted; there was especially, at the end of a black passage, a den of lions, that would frighten any boy not born in Africa, or Exeter 'Change, and accustomed to them.

Another exhibition used to be West's Gallery, where the pleasing figures of Lazarus in his grave-clothes, and Death on the pale horse, used to impress us children. The tombs of Westminster Abbey, the vaults at St. Paul's, the men in armor at the Tower, frowning ferociously out of their helmets, and wielding their dreadful swords; that superhuman Queen Elizabeth at the end of the room, a livid sovereign with glass eyes, a ruff, and a dirty satin petticoat, riding a horse covered with steel: who does not remember these sights in London in the consulship of Plancus? and the wax- work in Fleet Street, not like that of Madame Tussaud's, whose chamber of death is gay and brilliant; but a nice old gloomy wax- work, full of murderers; and as a chief attraction, the Dead Baby and the Princess Charlotte lying in state?

Our story-books had no pictures in them for the most part. Frank (dear old Frank!) had none; nor the "Parent's Assistant;" nor the "Evenings at Home;" nor our copy of the "Ami des Enfans:" there were a few just at the end of the Spelling-Book; besides the allegory at the beginning, of Education leading up Youth to the temple of Industry, where Dr. Dilworth and Professor Walkinghame stood with crowns of laurel. There were, we say, just a few pictures at the end of the Spelling-Book, little oval gray woodcuts of Bewick's, mostly of the Wolf and the Lamb, the Dog and the Shadow, and Brown, Jones, and Robinson with long ringlets and little tights; but for pictures, so to speak, what had we? The rough old wood-blocks in the old harlequin-backed fairy-books had served hundreds of years; before OUR Plancus, in the time of Priscus Plancus--in Queen Anne's time, who knows? We were flogged at school; we were fifty boys in our boarding-house, and had to wash in a leaden trough, under a cistern, with lumps of fat yellow soap floating about in the ice and water. Are OUR sons ever flogged? Have they not dressing-rooms, hair-oil, hip-baths, and Baden towels? And what picture-books the young villains have! What have these children done that they should be so much happier than we were?

We had the "Arabian Nights" and Walter Scott, to be sure. Smirke's illustrations to the former are very fine. We did not know how good they were then; but we doubt whether we did not prefer the little old "Miniature Library Nights" with frontispieces by Uwins; for THESE books the pictures don't count. Every boy of imagination does his own pictures to Scott and the "Arabian Nights" best.

Of funny pictures there were none especially intended for us children. There was Rowlandson's "Doctor Syntax": Doctor Syntax in a fuzz-wig, on a horse with legs like sausages, riding races, making love, frolicking with rosy exuberant damsels. Those pictures were very funny, and that aquatinting and the gay-colored plates very pleasant to witness; but if we could not read the poem in those days, could we digest it in this? Nevertheless, apart from the text which we could not master, we remember Doctor Syntax pleasantly, like those cheerful painted hieroglyphics in the Nineveh Court at Sydenham. What matter for the arrow-head, illegible stuff? give us the placid grinning kings, twanging their jolly bows over their rident horses, wounding those good-humored enemies, who tumble gayly off the towers, or drown, smiling, in the dimpling waters, amidst the anerithmon gelasma of the fish.

After Doctor Syntax, the apparition of Corinthian Tom, Jerry Hawthorn, and the facetious Bob Logic must be recorded--a wondrous history indeed theirs was! When the future student of our manners comes to look over the pictures and the writing of these queer volumes, what will he think of our society, customs, and language in the consulship of Plancus? "Corinthian," it appears, was the phrase applied to men of fashion and ton in Plancus's time: they were the brilliant predecessors of the "swell" of the present period-- brilliant, but somewhat barbarous, it must be confessed. The Corinthians were in the habit of drinking a great deal too much in Tom Cribb's parlor: they used to go and see "life" in the gin-shops; of nights, walking home (as well as they could), they used to knock down "Charleys," poor harmless old watchmen with lanterns, guardians of the streets of Rome, Planco Consule. They perpetrated a vast deal of boxing; they put on the "mufflers" in Jackson's rooms; they "sported their prads" in the Ring in the Park; they attended cock- fights, and were enlightened patrons of dogs and destroyers of rats. Besides these sports, the delassemens of gentlemen mixing with the people, our patricians, of course, occasionally enjoyed the society of their own class. What a wonderful picture that used to be of Corinthian Tom dancing with Corinthian Kate at Almack's! What a prodigious dress Kate wore! With what graceful ABANDON the pair flung their arms about as they swept through the mazy quadrille, with all the noblemen standing round in their stars and uniforms! You may still, doubtless, see the pictures at the British Museum, or find the volumes in the corner of some old country-house library. You are led to suppose that the English aristocracy of 1820 DID dance and caper in that way, and box and drink at Tom Cribb's, and knock down watchmen; and the children of to-day, turning to their elders, may say "Grandmamma, did you wear such a dress as that, when you danced at Almack's? There was very little of it, grandmamma. Did grandpapa kill many watchmen when he was a young man, and frequent thieves' gin-shops, cock-fights, and the ring, before you married him? Did he use to talk the extraordinary slang and jargon which is printed in this book? He is very much changed. He seems a gentlemanly old boy enough now."

In the above-named consulate, when WE had grandfathers alive, there would be in the old gentleman's library in the country two or three old mottled portfolios, or great swollen scrap-books of blue paper, full of the comic prints of grandpapa's time, ere Plancus ever had the fasces borne before him. These prints were signed Gilray, Bunbury, Rowlandson, Woodward, and some actually George Cruikshank-- for George is a veteran now, and he took the etching needle in hand as a child. He caricatured "Boney," borrowing not a little from Gilray in his first puerile efforts. He drew Louis XVIII. trying on Boney's boots. Before the century was actually in its teens we believe that George Cruikshank was amusing the public.

In those great colored prints in our grandfathers' portfolios in the library, and in some other apartments of the house, where the caricatures used to be pasted in those days, we found things quite beyond our comprehension. Boney was represented as a fierce dwarf, with goggle eyes, a huge laced hat and tricolored plume, a crooked sabre, reeking with blood: a little demon revelling in lust, murder, massacre. John Bull was shown kicking him a good deal: indeed he was prodigiously kicked all through that series of pictures; by Sidney Smith and our brave allies the gallant Turks; by the excellent and patriotic Spaniards; by the amiable and indignant Russians,--all nations had boots at the service of poor Master Boney. How Pitt used to defy him! How good old George, King of Brobdingnag, laughed at Gulliver-Boney, sailing about in his tank to make sport for their Majesties! This little fiend, this beggar's brat, cowardly, murderous, and atheistic as he was (we remember, in those old portfolios, pictures representing Boney and his family in rags, gnawing raw bones in a Corsican hut; Boney murdering the sick at Jaffa; Boney with a hookah and a large turban, having adopted the Turkish religion, &c.)--this Corsican monster, nevertheless, had some devoted friends in England, according to the Gilray chronicle,-- a set of villains who loved atheism, tyranny, plunder, and wickedness in general, like their French friend. In the pictures these men were all represented as dwarfs, like their ally. The miscreants got into power at one time, and, if we remember right, were called the Broad-backed Administration. One with shaggy eyebrows and a bristly beard, the hirsute ringleader of the rascals, was, it appears, called Charles James Fox; another miscreant, with a blotched countenance, was a certain Sheridan; other imps were hight Erskine, Norfolk (Jockey of), Moira, Henry Petty. As in our childish, innocence we used to look at these demons, now sprawling and tipsy in their cups; now scaling heaven, from which the angelic Pitt hurled them down; now cursing the light (their atrocious ringleader Fox was represented with hairy cloven feet, and a tail and horns); now kissing Boney's boot, but inevitably discomfited by Pitt and the other good angels: we hated these vicious wretches, as good children should; we were on the side of Virtue and Pitt and Grandpapa. But if our sisters wanted to look at the portfolios, the good old grandfather used to hesitate. There were some prints among them very odd indeed; some that girls could not understand; some that boys, indeed, had best not see. We swiftly turn over those prohibited pages. How many of them there were in the wild, coarse, reckless, ribald, generous book of old English humor!

How savage the satire was--how fierce the assault--what garbage hurled at opponents--what foul blows were hit--what language of Billingsgate flung! Fancy a party in a country-house now looking over Woodward's facetiae or some of the Gilray comicalities, or the slatternly Saturnalia of Rowlandson! Whilst we live we must laugh, and have folks to make us laugh. We cannot afford to lose Satyr with his pipe and dances and gambols. But we have washed, combed, clothed, and taught the rogue good manners: or rather, let us say, he has learned them himself; for he is of nature soft and kindly, and he has put aside his mad pranks and tipsy habits; and,

John Leech's Pictures of Life and Character - 1/3

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