he degradation of the urban poor was represented at length in graphic art of the 1840s and continued into the 1850s. Though some material appeared in The Illustrated London News, the foremost vehicle for the publication of this material was the more radical Punch, which under the leadership of Mark Lemon set out to challenge the complacency of its middle-class readership by showing the sufferings of the proletariat in the context of witty observations on social events. These satirical protests were projected in the form of the weekly ‘big cuts’, topical cartoons focusing on the destitute or over-worked. The position seems clear, yet the Punch artists place themselves in an ambivalent space: they raise awareness of poverty but do little to condemn the political arrangement that was responsible for the grotesque disparities between the classes. Directed at an innately conservative audience, social satire had to be carefully calculated. The usual approach necessitated the deployment of a coded idiom so that visual irony and allusion are used to negotiate subjects on a fine line between educating and alienating the middle-class consumers whose sympathies are targeted; go too far, and the cartoon’s effectiveness was cancelled by the accusation of extremism.

"Substance and Shadow. — Drawn by John Leech." Punch; or, The London Charivari (15 July 1843): 23. 17.7 cm high by 24.3 cm wide. Click on images to enlarge them.

John Leech’s Substance and Shadow, Big Cut no. 1 (1843) subtly conveys its message. Playing ironically on the interplay between ‘shadow’ and ‘substance,’ it shows the poor viewing an exhibition at the Royal Academy in which the original designations are reversed: the paintings have more ‘substance’ than the ragged poor, who are, by implication, mere ‘shadows’ of real life. Measuring reality against the attributes of the picture-buying public, Leech condemns a society of vast inequality; some are so wealthy that they can waste money on the purchase of decorative objects, a painting to glance at, while others can barely live. The comparison is clinched by contrasting the rags of the poor with the fine clothes of the painted figures, with some, such as the boy at the bottom left, peering at an image of their equivalents in the other world of privilege and comfort.

A Court for King Cholera. John Leech. Punch. 23 (25 September 1852): 139).

Leech’s design is sophisticated in its avoidance of direct contrast, there being no intermingling of working and middle-class visitors, and there is no direct attribution of social blame. Its power lies in its juxtaposition of two sets of assets: the inert emblems of wealth in the form of particularly ostentatious paintings, and the condition of what should be society’s more important assets, embodied in its people. Capitalism is thus anatomized as a dehumanizing regime while skirting accusations of dangerous radicalism; as usual in Victorian art and literature, the critique is framed in moral rather than political terms.

Parallel approaches, which both avoid and embrace difficult material, are exemplified by Richard Doyle’s Britannia’s Thanksgiving Day Dream (Punch 1849) and Robert Jacob Hamerton’s Capital and Labour (1843). Hamerton conveys his criticism of class inequality in a simple, powerful juxtaposition. Responding to recent reports on the condition of miners, he uses their suffering to critique the plight of the working classes in general. He shows the poor, largely composed of children, the disabled, and the elderly, labouring in a mine, broken down by over-work and illness; while in the montage placed above them is luxurious imagery of the beneficiaries of their toil as the master tastes fine wine brought to him by a servant and the family dog, yawning indolently, is comfortably accommodated on a cushion. The message is seemingly unambiguous: the wealthy idle have based their wealth on the efforts of their workers, creating a social divide with one class quite literally reclining on top of another. At the same time, Hamerton diffuses its effect by invoking the imagery of fairy tale: the workers are shown as caricatures, supervised by a goblin-like oversee who sits on bags labelled gold, while at the left hand margin Christian hope in the form of an anchor held by Plenty, is placed outside the door, an emblem of faith. Hope, it seems, is the only recourse, not action.

Doyle’s cartoon of Britannia’s Thanksgiving Day Dream is similarly conceived in terms of condemnation and avoidance. Britannia is shown sleeping through the recent crisis of the Lambeth cholera epidemic, 1848–49, which killed thousands of the poor, while much suffering remains in the form of a workman picked off the road, having died of exhaustion, a family turned away from a workhouse and hollow-eyed women (in echo of Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’). The very fact that Britannia sleeps through these crises suggests a radical opposition to national complacency – why is she sleeping, the artist seems to demand? What sort of ‘Thanksgiving’ could it be when the passing of the cholera is matched by terrible social suffering, death through poverty if not through disease? Yet there is no hint that action should be taken and Doyle seems to imply that all that can be hoped for is a better future; the dozing dream, it seems, can be read as either complacency or hopefulness. The solution is carried not in the image but in the accompanying text, which insists ‘the bond of brotherhood’ between classes can only be achieved by a greater concern for workers’ welfare (Punch 16: 207). Once again, a moral, rather than a political solution is projected.

These samples suggest how Punch cartoons were intended to appeal to the conscience of the bourgeois audience. By turns hard-hitting and ambivalent, the artists’ ‘big cuts’ were a prime example of early Victorian didacticism. Though their effect is difficult to measure, the illustrators’ approach must have contributed if not directly to changes in government policy, then at least to a change in tone that ultimately helped to create a social climate more amenable to assisting the poor, particularly in the domain of public health.

Social Commentary and Victorian Illustration: The Representation of Working Class Life, 1837–1880

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Created 20 April 2019