Friday, October 12, 2012

The Frontispiece of
The English Spy

When, a year and a half ago, I wrote a post on Charles Molloy Westmacott and his book of 1825 The English Spy, I thought that the illustration The Five Orders of Society was the frontispiece. I have just recently discovered that there was another, official, frontispiece to the book--a glorious, full-colour illustration by Robert Cruikshank.
Isaac Robert Cruikshank (1789-1856) was born into an artistic family and became one of the leading satiric artists of the Regency, along with his brother George. This illustration is, to my mind, a perfect microcosm of my favourite historical period, and a triumph of his genius.

Westmacott's (aka Bernard Blackmantle) own description of the picture is worth reproducing. Italics are original to the text.
 The Frontispiece
is intended to convey a general idea of the nature of the work; combining, in rich classic taste, a variety of subjects illustrative of the polished as well as the more humble scenes of real life. It represents a Gothic Temple, into which the artist, Mr. Robert Cruikshank, has introduced a greater variety of characteristic subject than was every before compressed into one design. In the centre compartment, at the top, we have a view of a Terrestrial Heaven, where Music, Love, and gay Delight are all united to lend additional grace to Fashion, and increase the splendour of the revels of Terpsichore.
In the niches, on each side, are the twin genii, Poetry and Painting; while the pedestals, right and left, present the protector of their country, the old Soldier and Sailor, retired upon pensions, enjoying and regaling themselves on the bounty of their King. In the centre of the Plate are three divisions representing the King, Lords, and Commons in the full exercise of their prerogatives. The figures on each side are portraits of Bernard Blackmantle (the English Spy), and his friend, Robert Transit (the artists), standing on projecting pedestals, and playing with the world as a ball; not doubting but for this piece of vanity, the world, or the reviewers for them, will knock them about in return. On the front of the pedestals, are the arms of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and in the centre armorial shields of the Cities of London and Westminster.
The picture of a modern Hell, in the centre, between the pedestals, has the very appropriate emblems of Misery and Death, in the niches on each side.
Crowning the whole, the Genius of Wit is seen astride of an eagle, demonstrative of strength, and wielding in his hand the lash of Satire; an instrument which, in the present work, has been used more as a corrective of vice than personal ill-nature.
I disagree with Mr. Westmacott's final statement, for I find the whole book indicative of ill-nature. Westmacott was an unsuccessful social climber, and he used The English Spy to ridicule the society that would not accept him. But I have discussed the book elsewhere and it is this illustration that now fascinates me. The 'twin genii' of Poetry and Painting are absolutely charming little creatures, each in its own detailed setting.
The ballroom tableau at the top is wonderful, the dancers and the harpist clearly delineated, and even a waiter with a tray of glasses included in the tiny scene!

The bottom-most drama is chilling in its accuracy. Destitute Misery sits in a filthy alley, or perhaps a prison, and on the other side a desperate gentleman blows out his brains, his despair caused by loss at the tables that form the main vignette. The dark tension of the picture displays the reason for the designation of a gaming table and its environs as 'Hell'.

This illustration encapsulates the Regency world to perfection, its heights to its depths. The satiric drawing of Cruikshank surpasses the satiric writing of Westmacott/Blackmantle. The latter is tainted by the ill-nature he denies, the former--the artwork--is undiluted brilliance. At the very top of the picture the Genius of Wit--a fat little cherub who carries the scourge of satire--is crowned by the Prince of Wales' three feathers. Satire, indeed.

'Til next time,


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