From 1868 to 1914, over 2,300 lithographic caricatures were published in the English publication, Vanity Fair. The publication was one of the most successful Society magazines in the history of English journalism, offering a brief look into the lives and reputations of the men and women who achieved fame in the heyday of the English Empire. The magazine, which each week summarized the important events in the world, also focused its attention and (sometimes snide and gossip-ridden) remarks at the people behind these significant events: politicians, royalty, earls and bishops, socialites, as well as leaders in the fields of the arts, science, and sport. Written for and by the English establishment, it invited readers to recognize the vanities of human existence. First published on January 30, 1869, the caricatures appeared every week, and became an integral part of the magazine. With their similar style, composition and colors, the caricatures are instantly recognizable as a Vanity Fair print, even today.
The caricatures originally focused on the depictions of dignitaries, royalty, judges, and politicians. Vanity Fair later extended their focus to include more diverse characters- admirals, sportsmen, actors, and artists. Jokingly nicknamed “victims”, each week’s subject was depicted with their features exaggerated and embellished. Many were reluctant to be featured in Vanity Fair, but growing popularity of the caricatures made individuals less hesitant. It quickly evolved into a mark of recognition, a sort of public honor, to grace the magazine’s printed pages. Despite the somewhat unpleasant light in which they were depicted, few eminent people refused.
In response to both disgruntled “victims” who claimed they were misrepresented and to readers who claimed the caricatures were not comic or grotesque enough, the founder of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles, explained that the original purpose of caricature was not to invent line or color, but to amplify and exaggerate the existing lines and tones. In a public response to critical Daily News article, he wrote, “There are grim faces made more grim, grotesque features made more grotesque, and dull people made duller… but there is nothing that has been treated with a set purpose to make it something that was not already originally in a lesser degree.” The drawings were accompanied by a short biographical commentary, printed below each illustration. Written by Bowles himself, under the pen name of Jehu Junior, these passages offered veiled references, play on words, and sharp, honest appraisals of character.
The success of these caricatures rests soundly on the talented hand and insightful eye of the artist, who, in one picture, summed up both the public’s view of a subject and the subject’s estimation of himself. Among the handful of talented artists working for Vanity Fair, Carlo Pellegrini and Leslie Ward were two most popular and prolific. They operated under the “nom de plume” of Ape and Spy, respectively. Ape was valued as the more insightful of the two artists, and was described as witty, volatile, and gregarious. In contrast, Spy was seen to many as droll, reserved, and a snob. Working in a more methodical manner, he would study a victim for hours, completing numerous preliminary sketches and drawings. He had a proclivity for depicted judges, because he could sit and observe them working for hours.
The two artists would sketch their subjects in public places, take their sketches back to the studio, and complete a final water color draft on transfer paper. This transfer paper was then given to the lithographers and printed in the publication. The invention of transfer paper was crucial to their success, as it allowed an artist to work in his studio without being made to draw in reverse for application on the printing stone. As Ape and Spy were not lithographers, they were totally dependant on lithographers to reproduce their watercolor sketches from transfer on stone.
Below are a handful of Vanity Fair caricatures we have at The Old Print Gallery. We have many more on view at our Georgetown gallery, and invite our blog readers to stop by and see them in person.