Whiskery symbol of a High Bohemian tradition

George Cruikshank's influence on Dickens and Thackeray has been hugely underestimated, says D J Taylor; George Cruikshank's Life, Times and Art Volume 2: 1835-1878 by Robert L Patten, Lutterworth Press, pounds 45
It takes a career like that of George Cruikshank (1792-1878) to remind us just how long the Victorian age extended, and of the myriad phases into which its artistic life divided up. "Phiz'' (Hablot K Browne) may have achieved instant celebrity with his illustrations to Dickens; Tenniel may have landed the knighthood; but Cruikshank's is the great brooding presence that hangs over 19th-century periodical illustration. "Boz'' was the Cruikshank of literature, the Spectator thought, appraising Dickens's early sketches, and in some ways this is less a compliment to the author than an acknowledgment of the whole tradition in which the majority of early Victorian writers did their best work.

One doesn't need to have more than glanced through a novel such as Dombey and Son (illustrated by Browne) to realise the importance of engravings, either done in steel or wood-blocked, for the average early Victorian text. Dickens's correspondence with his illustrators gives an idea of the significance early Victorian practitioners attached to the portrayal of particular scenes and symbols. Thackeray's own illustrations to Vanity Fair are full of complex metaphorical games, endlessly refining on the letterpress or providing fresh insights into character and motivation. Realism started to invade Victorian magazines in mid-century - the illustrations to Trollope's later works tend to be of Identikit exquisites of both sexes - but until at least the early 1860s this kind of perfunctoriness was kept at bay, and at their best early Victorian novels are a genuine collaboration between author and artist.

The notion of writer and illustrator working in harness was pre-Victorian, of course: one of the abiding themes of Cruikshank's punctilious biographer is the difficulty his subject found in acclimatising himself to the new mid-century world. Already, in his forties, when Victoria came to the throne, Cruikshank could look back on a career that had begun as long ago as 1805; one of his finest moments had been the racy illustrations to Pierce Egan's Life in London, published in 1821.

Attitude, as much as age, marked Cruikshank out from his younger contemporaries. His early work, much of it commissioned by the satirist William Hone, had a sharp, political edge that he was to spend much of his later career trying to repudiate, and beneath the portraiture lay the bristling figure of the man himself - hot-tempered, Bohemian and famous for turning up the worse for drink.

If Cruikshank sometimes seems like a survivor of the lost world of the regency, a venerable throwback to the age of Vauxhall Gardens and Miss Decamp's dance, then to a certain extent these characteristics worked in his favour. Thackeray - to take only one young acolyte - had been deeply impressed as a boy by Life in London; Dickens, too, was a fan. By developing connections with the latter's publisher, Bentley, Cruikshank was able to exploit the Dickens-derived boom in early Victorian serial fiction, following up his work on Sketches by Boz with some stark illustrations to Oliver Twist. WH Ainsworth, the author of Jack Sheppard (1839), was another patron, and in The Tower of London (1840), a Victorian bestseller, Cruikshank showed what he could do when given his head: no fewer than 40 full-page steel engravings, as well as a host of incidental woodcuts.

Inevitably there were occupational hazards. In particular, as Patten demonstrates, Cruikshank got caught up in the "Newgate'' row of the early 1840s, when the growing volume of low-life and delinquency novels, Ainsworth's highwaymen and Dickens's street gangs, led to a public backlash. There are interesting parallels with the current agitation over a film such as Natural Born Killers - at one point vendors were supposed to be selling "Shepherdbags'' containing housebreaking tools, and the murderer Courvoisier was alleged to have got the idea from seeing a theatrical adaptation of Ainsworth's novel - but public opinion tended to follow Thackeray's rebuke: "Gentlemen and men of genius may amuse themselves with such rascals, but not live with them altogether. The public taste, to be sure, lies that way, but these men should teach the public.'' The low-life novel died, and was not really revived - in a rather different form - until the end of the century.

It would be wrong to ascribe Cruikshank's subsequent decline to these abrupt transformations in public taste. Much more of it was to do with an inability to look out for himself in an increasingly complex marketplace, where personal connection was all and authorial touchiness (Dickens's in particular) had to be conciliated at all costs. The list of judgemental errors which Patten attributes to him in the l940s makes melancholy reading: the estrangement from Ainsworth halfway though publication of St James's: or The Court of Queen Anne (he was replaced by Phiz, symbolically enough), the falling out with Bentley, the refusal to have anything to do with the vastly successful Punch. After he lost both voice and audience, his uneasiness over the difficulties of reinventing himself to meet the demands of a new middle-class public are all too obvious. His old friend Hone, he told readers of his short-lived vehicle, The Omnibus, was "the most notorious infidel of his day''; he himself was a liberal only in the sense of "becoming a gentleman, generous not mean''. This loss of nerve quickly transferred itself to his art, which hovered between a sympathy with Victorian conservatism and a harking back to the radical days of his youth.

Drink ("Hic haec always sticks in my throat'' he is supposed to have remarked, of his ignorance of Latin, "but the hoc goes down'') and temper did the rest. From the mid-1840s he went in for temperance, contributing a lucrative series of plates to The Bottle, but his great days were gone and he knew it. In old age he was reduced to issuing pamphlets claiming that many of Dickens's and Ainsworth's ideas had been his own, and he had to suffer the embarrassment of having his designs for the Bruce statue in Stirling turned down by the judging committee.

In fact, as Patten convincingly shows, one or two of Cruikshank's claims about his influence on Oliver Twist merit some kind of consideration (Dickens certainly discussed chapters with him in advance) and Ainsworth, a markedly inferior writer, seems to have composed large parts of The Tower of London to an illustrative plan devised by his artist. Cruikshank's influence was incalculable. Patten, for instance, thinks that Thackeray, who collaborated with his mentor in the 1830s, may have picked up the idea for Vanity Fair from a design for a new edition of The Pilgrim's Progress.

George Cruikshank: Life,Times and Art is a phenomenally good book - detailed but never dull, learned, thorough and entertainingly written. If the Cruikshank who wanders through it occasionally seems a rather sketchy figure, this is only because of the dearth of extant material about his personal life - his consumptive first wife, Mary Anne, for example, is simply an absence. Many of the best glimpses of him come from Dickens (they eventually quarrelled over temperance), including a comic portrait from William Hone's funeral: "George has enormous whiskers which straggle all down his throat ... and stick out in front of him, like a partially unravelled bird's nest." When a Methodist minister complained about an obituary of Hone, which he believed to have been written by Cruikshank, "George (upon his knees, and sobbing for the loss of an old friend) whispered to me 'that if it wasn't a clergyman, and it wasn't a funeral, he'd have punched his head'."

Patten is suspicious of this, thinking it written for patronising comic effect, but the tone is reinforced by a much more matter-of-fact account of an evening spent by author and illustrator: "George Cruikshank got rather drunk here, last Friday night, and declined to go away until four in the morning, when he went - I don't know where, but certainly not home." If nothing else, Cruikshank is a symbol of the High Bohemian tradition on which so much early Victorian art was built, and also of the difficulties of moving beyond that base. Thackeray, a younger man by 20 years, would eventually adapt himself to the sensibilities of his audience. For Cruikshank, despite the affection in which the late-Victorian public held his name, there was only cold water and self-serving letters to the Times.