“Punch, or The London Charivari”

Philip Kennedy wrote at illustrationchronicles.com in May 2016:

“It is hard to escape the legacy of Punch Magazine. From 1841 to 2002, the magazine cast a satirical eye on life in Britain. It charted the interests, concerns and frustrations of the country and today it stands as an invaluable resource for social historians. Over its one-hundred and sixty-one years, it carried articles from the likes of William Thackeray (1811–1863), P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) and A. A. Milne (1882–1956). It featured illustrators like H. M. Bateman (1887–1970), Ronald Searle (1920–2011) and Gerald Scarfe (b. 1936). It had a unique way of charting the events of the nineteenth-and twentieth-centuries. Sometimes it even shaped them…

Launched on 17th July 1841, the magazine was inspired by the popular Parisian papers of the day. The original idea came from an engraver called Ebenezer Landells (1808–1860). Landells was a huge fan of the satirical weekly Le Charivari (Wikipedia):“The name refers to the folk practice of holding a charivari, a loud, riotous parade, to shame or punish wrongdoers.” and loved the magazine’s use of wood engravings. He hoped that by producing a similar magazine he would have plenty of scope for producing his own work. While the idea was not new, there was enough money and talent in Fleet Street for it to at least seem worthwhile…

(Birkbeck College) “Henry Mayhew (1812-1887), novelist, journalist, playwright, and social explorer. In 1841 he helped to establish Punch Magazine, and was joint editor for 2 years. However, in 1845 he severed his connection with Punch…”

The early issues of Punch were more about politics than pictures. During the 1840s the magazine was far more famous for its radical writing than its humour and illustrations. That said, each issue did feature ‘Punch’s Pencillings’; a full-page satirical drawing that appeared at the centre of the magazine. The task of illustrating this was given to a different illustrator each week and the subject of it was decided upon by a committee of writers and artists at the weekly editorial meeting.

In the early days, the magazine had a variety of illustrators working for it including the likes of Kenny Meadows (1790–1874), Archibald Henning (1805–1864) and Henry George Hine (1811–1895). They were all solid draughtsmen who were formally trained and artistically skilled yet their output was, for the most part, fairly unremarkable.

These early issues were unsuccessful. The magazine struggled to attract readers and it wasn’t until it released an annual called the Punch Almanack in 1842 that it finally struck it big. An even greater stroke of luck came through the hiring of John Leech (1817–1864). From issue four Leech became a staff contributor and his work gradually went on to define the look and tone of the magazine…

At a meeting for the issue of July 15th, 1843, it was decided that the target for that week’s ‘Punch’s Pencillings’ would be the upcoming exhibition of fresco designs for the not-yet-opened Palace of Westminster. The committee felt that this exhibition was a complete waste of public money. At the time, London was the London of Charles Dickens (1812–1870); it was a city of poverty, ill-health, slums and workhouses. An exhibition of competing rough designs for Westminster seemed like a pompous thing to do when the city had far more pressing issues at hand. The exhibition had been commissioned by the politicians and Punch saw it simply as a means for the elite to celebrate their own importance.

Leech was chosen to illustrate the piece and in his finished work, he depicted a group of poor and ragged Londoners visiting the exhibition. The huddled crowd look out-of-place amongst the grandiose drawings and it’s clear that they find no comfort in the work. For those who know frescos, they’ll know that a finished preliminary sketch is commonly known as a ‘cartoon’. When it came to Leech choosing a name for this work he abandoned ‘Punch’s Pencillings’ and sprung for ‘Cartoon No.1 – Substance and Shadow’. The use of the word ‘cartoon’ ridiculed the pretensions of the establishment and lampooned their grandiose attitudes. The work was a success and from that issue on Punch‘s central political illustration was known as the cartoon. The popularity of the Punch cartoon led to the terms widespread use and Leech was known as the first ‘cartoonist’…

After Leech’s death the magazine was thrown into crisis. Many felt that it was inconceivable for the publication to go on without him. Thankfully his influence was strong and Punch had a habit of breeding talent. Charles Keene (1823-1891) proved himself to be perfectly capable of continuing Leech’s legacy. He was admired by the likes of Degas and Whistler and his cross-hatched illustrations are arguably some of the most beautiful work that Punch ever printed. John Tenniel (1820-1914) was also able to fill the gap that Leech left. Best known as the illustrator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Tenniel succeeded Leech as Punch‘s main political cartoonist.

Yet the satire of this new wave was far more conventional than that of the past. Perhaps this is exemplified best by the fact that Tenniel had been among those chosen for the Westminster frescoes that Leech had lampooned just two decades earlier. At this point, Punch was no longer interested in attacking The Establishment, it had become The Establishment. Its humour was designed to appeal to Britain’s rising middle classes. At the time, these new cartoons were considered wholesome but by today’s standards, many of them feel nasty and tasteless. Foolish women, silly servants and the stupid Irish were all typical targets for Punch and these cruel clichés chimed with the country’s belief that the British Empire was around to stay. Punch had become the smug superiors that it had once ridiculed.

From the superb to the insensitive, these cartoons form an invaluable resource for social historians. Over its one-hundred and sixty-one years, the magazine documented the changing face of British humour and played a central role in the formation of British identity. Yet in many ways, Punch‘s contribution to the history of illustration is even greater. To study the magazine is to study the evolution of the cartoon itself. It chronicles the shift of satirical illustration from a reliance on caricature into an era of sophistication…”

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