"Tell Tale" by George Cruikshank for Scraps and Sketches. — "Please, your Honor. Tom Tower has tied my tail so tight that I can't shut my eyes!" (1828-32), 11.2 cm high by 13.3cm wide, vignetted. The image constitutes a verbal-visual pun as the "tale" or "narrative" concerns a naval "pig-tail" tied so tightly that Royal Marine's face is distorted into a caricature, a classic example of Cruikshank's humour. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


At its simplest, his art puns. He was not original in this. Most of the visual jokes in Tom Hood's Comic Annuals (1830-42) were, as one might expect, visual puns. Cruikshank (who occasionally contributed to Hood's annuals) was so much livelier a draughtsman than Hood that there is no comparison between their designs; but the two pages of "Tails" in Cruikshank's Scraps and Sketches (Pls. 19, 22) are in Hood's idiom. [Cruikshank contributed thirteen such etchings to Scraps and Sketches between 1828 and 1834.] "Curtailing," for instance, shows a dog seizing a man by the seat of his pants. Cruikshank, however, is rarely satisfied with a simple pun. One idea provokes another. And so, on his second page of "Tails," we find "Tell Tail," in which a grimacing sailor with a pigtail is saying to his commanding officer, "Please your Honor Tom Towzer [the nautical wag in the upper left, laughing at his friend and the whole situation] has tied my tail so tight that I cant shut my eyes." Here the joke is not in the pun but in the grotesque situation it has suggested to the artist. Oddly enough, in My Sketch Book, a year or two later, we find (Pl. 9) a "portrait of a remarkable little dog who's [sic tail curled so tight that it lifted him off his hind legs" — an instance of Cruikshank's inexhaustible ability to produce variations on an idea once it had got into his head. — Burton, p. 95.

The visual joke works so effectively because it blends such highly realistic details as the naval uniforms and the gigantic canon (upper centre), convincing the viewers that they are indeed aboard a vessel in the Royal Navy, and such non-realistic or absurd details as the nutcracker face of the Commander and the grotesque face of the pig-tail owner, suggesting that we are in the middle of a joke about or satire of the Royal Navy in particular, or seafarers generally.

Shortly after this period, Cruikshank launched his own Sketch Book, which he pub;ished in nine parts between 1834 and 1836, each with four etched plates and a frontispiece, and then nineteen volumes of The Comic Almanac (1835-53). Simultaneously, He contributed thirty-four etchings to a 48-volume edition of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley Novels (1836-8) and worked briefly (1836-38) with Charles Dickens on four books. Also in the mid-eighteen thirties he began a close connection with novelist and quondam Bentley's Miscellany editor William Harrison Ainsworth, illustrating six of his novels from Rookwood in 1836 to St. James's in 1844, always trying to assert the primacy of the image over the word.


Burton, Anthony. "Cruikshank as an Illustrator of Fiction." George Cruikshank: A Revaluation. Ed. Robert L. Patten. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1974, rev., 1992. Pp. 92-128.

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Part One, "Dickens and His Early Illustrators: 1. George Cruikshank. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1980. Pp. 15-38.

Paulson, Ronald. "The Tradition of Comic Illustration from Hogarth to Cruikshank." George Cruikshank: A Revaluation. Ed. Robert L. Patten. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1974, rev., 1992. Pp. 35-60.

Kitton, Frederic G. "George Cruikshank." Dickens and His Illustrators. London: Chapman & Hall, 1899. Pp. 1-28.

McLean, Ruari. George Cruikshank: His Life and Work as a Book Illustrator. English Masters of Black-and-White. London: Art and Technics, 1948.

Last modified 10 July 2017