Wednesday, March 10, 2010

American Comicalities

My good friend Joe Rainone sent me this photograph of an American “comicalities” broadsheet approximately 19 by 24 inches tall, printed one side, and dated 1832. The Saturday Courier newspaper was published in Philadelphia by Woodward and Spragg in 1832 and featured at least five early works by Edgar Allen Poe and this EXTRA may be the earliest example of broadsheet “comicalities” produced in the United States. One drawing in particular caught my eye, “The Odd Fish” with the caption “A strange fish found by one Mick Maguire, on the coast of Ireland, in the year of grace 18--. For a full description of this wonderful animal, and his humorous propensities, see Philadelphia Lady’s Book for May 1831.”

I recognized this transatlantic travelling oyster as the work of George Cruikshank from Points of Humour illustrated by the designs of George Cruikshank, London: C. Baldwyn, Newgate Street, 1823, reprinted by J. Robins (no date). The American version was probably pirated from Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle where it would have appeared about 1827 or 1828. It would be an easy matter to have a staff artist draw a free hand copy onto a fresh block of wood and have it engraved and published in Philadelphia. By 1832 there were numerous broadsheet galleries being published in London with unsigned work, some pirated, some commissioned, by the brothers Cruikshank, Robert Seymour, John Leech, Hablot Knight Brown and Charles J. Grant. The Courier would have had plenty of samples to choose from and may even have used some home-grown caricaturist’s work.

Below: Points of Humour

George Cruikshank’s first comical newspaper wood-engravings were drawn for Pierce Egan’s Life in London and Sporting Guide but these were simple humorous drawings sans captions. He granted permission to Vincent Dowling, editor of Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, to reproduce in 1827 half-a-dozen cuts from his collection of “scraps” (originating in Illustrations of Time) which appeared one at a time as “Gallery of Comicalities” on the front page of Bell’s newspaper with captions added, presumably by the editorial staff. Circulation went up and Bell’s began raiding Cruikshank’s Phrenological Illustrations and Mornings at Bow Street, without the artist’s permission, in order to keep up with the demand. Large broadsheet collections were issued separately from the newspaper cuts as “Gallery of Comicalities” and “Comic Album.” Complaints and threats of a lawsuit led to Bell’s discontinuing the piracy of Cruikshank’s engravings in 1828 and substituting “scraps” by Robert Seymour, John Leech, and Kenny Meadows. Twenty-seven of Bell’s Cruikshank (and other artist’s) “comicalities” were pirated by The Observer newspaper on 21 July 1828

Below: Cruikshank heading for Pierce Egan's Life in London March 20, 1825.

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