British author and academic Gatrell (British history/Univ. of Essex; The Hanging Tree, 1994) explores exhaustively, albeit most pleasantly, the golden age of graphic satire that flourished in licentious London from 1770 to 1830.
London under George III and George IV was an economically and politically dynamic city, fast-growing, foggy and sinister, where the upper classes enjoyed enormous excesses and the lower classes writhed abjectly, with a chasm between. A new hunger for more graphic, explicit imagery was the result of an expansion of print culture and the attendant growth in demand from sophisticates as well as lower professionals and craftsmen. The older, classical tradition epitomized by the work of William Hogarth gave way to “commercial products [rooted] in the realities their purchasers recognized”—namely, politically roiling, scatological and sexually scandalous prints by artists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank. The dreamscapes of William Blake and Henri Fuseli also merit attention here. The miseries of the city, the goings-on inside private clubs and the Prince of Wales's profligate behavior (and marital battles) were the favorite subjects of the era, all treated in densely informative chapters. Gatrell's reading is vast and scholarly; he moves from the diverse personalities of London neighborhoods to evolving expectations of manliness and femininity; from the nature of laughter to the different kinds of humor expressed in prints (i.e., satire, caricature, literary grotesque). He highlights some of the innovators, like Thomas Tegg, who transformed the print trade “by cutting costs and prices,” and ends with the era's “silencing” by the rise of the Cant and the middle class. The pages are lavishly illustrated by prints from the period.
A lively, erudite study.