Thursday, June 2, 2011

John Doyle (1797-1868)

By Mathew Crowther

Doyle, like many satirists of the period, began his career with aspirations of becoming a serious artist. He was schooled at the Royal Dublin Society and had even worked as the official artist to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, before he decided to emigrate to London in 1825. However, after an initially promising start which included an exhibition at the Royal Academy, his career as a serious artist began to founder in England and within two years of his arrival he had begun working as a jobbing satirist and illustrator for Thomas McLean's publishing house.

His most famous work is probably the long-running 'The Political Sketches of HB" series which was published without interruption from 1822 until 1849. The nom de plume HB (an essentially meaningless moniker which was constructed by Doyle writing his initial over each other twice), was perhaps concocted by Doyle in the hopes that his attempts to build a career in the world of 'high art' would not be tainted by his association with the 'low' world of caricature and the print shop. He need not have worried however because his 'Political Sketches' were wildly popular and by the early 1840s the income Doyle accrued from publishing the series was sufficient to buy him a house in the well-to-do Hyde Park area and allow him to move in the same fashionable circles as Dickens, Thackeray and Scott.

Today Doyle's work as a satirist is often looked upon as being distinctly mediocre in comparison with the great names of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century English satire and even with contemporary satirists, such as C.J. Grant, who achieved far less success than Doyle in their own life time. In particular Doyle's critics tend to argue that his work 'sanitized' political satire by removing much of the caricature and humour which had typified the works of earlier satirists. However we should remember that Doyle was a commercial artist who was merely reflecting the changing tastes of his audiences. If Doyle's work was a little more staid in its style than that of Gillray or Rowlandson this is in part because the Victorian audiences of the 1830s and 40s were far less inclined to laugh at the grotesque and rather base humour which had excited their parents and grandparents generations.

These are all relatively early examples from "The Political Sketches of HB" and date from the years 1829 and 1830. They all relate to events which took place during the Duke of Wellington's first government and two them; The Prophecy and Political Harmonics are particularly focused upon the Catholic Emancipation Act. Wellington's determination to remove legislation which was prejudicial to Irish Catholics evidently struck a chord with Doyle as by 1830, when the Iron Duke was being pilloried by a large section of the Liberal and Radical presses, Doyle was still willing to publish a pro-Wellington print like The Nocturnal Reverie.

1 comment:

  1. More early word balloon usage - wonderful to see. Good bio work letting us know who he was - thanks!

    Robert Beerbohm