Updated: Jan 31
George Cruikshank (1792-1878) is considered the first artist to establish a standard of illustration for children’s books in the early 19th century. His etchings are testament to his skill as an artist and visual interpreter, fully covering each steel plate or wood block with lively activity and humour. Cruikshank’s etchings were detailed designs to the very corners of his plates.
It is Cruikshank’s etchings for the first English translation of Grimm’s German Popular Stories in 2 vols that set the benchmark in the early 19th century for children’s book illustration. In 1823 Cruikshank illustrated volume one with 12 etchings. Volume two was published in 1826 containing 10 of Cruikshank’s etchings. So impressed with his illustrations were the Grimm brothers that they insisted the Cruikshank’s illustrations should be used in later editions of German Popular Stories.
Cruikshank lived through many dramatic events of the Victorian period experiencing first hand social, political and industrial changes. At the age of 13 he made a sketch of Horatio Nelson’s funeral carriage after the Admiral was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. At 20 Cruikshank made a caricature of Napoleon after the Great Army retreated from Moscow. In 1851 he sketched the opening ceremony of the Great Exhibition.The majority of his black and white illustrations were life drawing caricatures, serious and humorous scenes of high and low life, such that his work can be considered a satirical visual diary.
Cruikshank was born in the late 18th century, a time when books were rare and valuable items, printed by hand, and bound individually. Most novels produced at this time were published simultaneously in 2 or 3 volumes funded through subscription. Only a small proportion of the population could read, and light to read by reduced reading hours. The 19th century brought accelerated population growth, mechanised printing and increased literacy. Illustrators became integral to publishing when in the 1820s the English book trade began publishing novels in monthly instalments. Cruikshank could superbly depict moments in life with candour and humour drawing upon his love of song and theatre. He made a full time living with his artwork in this environment.
In 1831 Cruikshank made steel etchings for the frontispieces of the 2 volumes of Robinson Crusoe in addition to 37 smaller wood engravings. It was about this time that Cruikshank’s reputation for his wood engravings and etchings eclipsed demand for his caricature work. In August 1836 Charles Dickens edited and wrote Oliver Twist in serial form for the monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany. Cruikshank was engaged to illustrate the novel in this form, for which he prepared 24 etchings. So popular was Dickens' serial that Oliver Twist was subsequently published in the same format as Robinson Crusoe accompanied by all Cruikshank's 24 etchings. These became Cruikshank’s most famous illustrations.
The steel etching process mastered by Cruikshank took up a twelve hour day in his studio. Researcher Robert Patten (1992) gives a detailed account of the steel etching process beginning with Cruikshank’s sketches of characters, scenes and incidents assembled for the working concept. Preparation of the copper or steel plate followed with meticulous care and craft. Using etching needles, the illustration tracing having been transferred to the ground, Cruikshank would cut through the wax exposing the raw metal. Once the outline was incised Cruikshank worked on the detail including cross hatching shadows. The thousands of lines covering most of the plate in each design reflect his creative genius.
In 1847 Cruikshank publicly espoused the temperance movement after a lifetime of drink and wild escapades. Some commentators suggest Cruikshank’s best work was done after he gave up smoking and drinking, including his illustrations for the children’s books The Fairy Library (1853-1854, 1864), and Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Brownies (1871).
Cruikshank was reproached for altering the texts of these tales but his illustrations survived that criticism and were republished in one volume in 1885. Perrault researcher Judd Hubert (2011) notes that Cruikshank could have found many precedents for rewriting fairy tales (p. 287) and that in fact Charles Perrault had rewritten several tales by earlier 16th and 17th century authors. Much of the criticism of Cruikshank was that he used the tales didactically, though his illustrations depict the original Perrault text and don’t promote the cause of temperance. In Hop-O-My-Thumb Cruikshank transforms the text from Perrault’s woodcutter into an aristocrat who loses his fortune through gambling and addiction to drink. This enables his didactic message of the perils of gambling and alcohol.
Hubert comprehensively compares the Perrault and Cruikshank versions of three of the tales. An example from his analysis of the two versions of Cinderella notes that in Perrault’s version ‘Cinderella’s henpecked father never loses his fortune or his status… [while] In Cruikshank’s “Cinderella” the mean and proud second wife, by gambling and giving expensive parties, ruins her submissive husband, leading to his incarceration in a debtor’s prison.’ (p. 293). Thus Cruikshank locates his version in the Victorian era while simultaneously revealing the evils of gambling and living beyond the household means.
Book production expanded in the 1860s, and the process needed wood engravings rather than steel etchings to meet demand. The Dalziel brothers George (1815-1902), Edward (1817-1905), John (1822-1869) and Thomas (1823-1906), were the leading wood engravers in mid-Victorian England. Their engravings were elaborate, highly skilled craftmanship that superseded steel etchings. They made blocks for Cruikshank’s series of fairy tales and other children’s book artists including Edward Lear and John Tenniel. Etchings could not be printed with type and meet publisher need for volume of copies. The style of illustration changed too and Cruikshank’s commissions for book illustration fell away. His final etching submitted for a children’s book appeared as the frontispiece for the fairy tale The Rose and the Lily (1877), by Mrs O. Blewett with his characteristic humour.
Blewett, Mrs O., The Rose and the Lily, Chatto and Windus, 1877.
Cruikshank, George, George Cruikshank’s Fairy Library, Routledge, 1885.
Cruikshank, George, Scraps and Sketches, 1828.
Dalby, Richard, The Golden Age of Children’s Book Illustration, Michael O’Mara Books, 1991.
Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist, Richard Bentley, 1838.
Encyclopaedia Britannica entry https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Cruikshank
Ewing, Juliana H., The Brownies and Other Tales, Bell and Daldy, 1871
Grimm, Jakob and Wilheim, German Popular Stories, first English edition, 1823.
Hubert, Judd D., ‘George Cruikshank’s graphic and textual reactions to Mother Goose’ in Marvels & Tales, vol. 25 (2), pp. 286-297, Wayne State University Press, 2011.
McLean, Ruari, George Cruikshank his Life and Work as a Book Illustrator, English Masters of Black and White Series, Art and Technics, 1948.
Norman Rockwell Museum illustration history https://www.illustrationhistory.org/artists/george-cruikshank
Online Gallery of Book Illustrations by George Cruikshank http://www.cruikshankart.com/illustrations/
Patten, Robert L., George Cruikshank’s Life, Times and Art, Vol. 1: 1792-1835, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1992.
Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Cruikshank