The secret life of a virtuous artist: John Wardroper turned sleuth to find the startling truth about George Cruikshank, illustrator and friend of Dickens, and a man revered as a stern moralist

'OH, WHAT will become of my children?' The words spoken on his deathbed by the artist George Cruikshank would sit well in a novel by his old friend Charles Dickens.

The children, however, came as a surprise to his wife Eliza. She had none - and his long-dead first wife had had none either. Cruikshank had revealed his secret. Three streets from their home in Hampstead Road, north London, he had another household where the love of his life had borne him 11 children.

Devastating news for any wife, but especially for Eliza. Cruikshank was known, not just as a famous artist, but as a model of Victorian rectitude - a teetotal campaigner for 30 years who would denounce his early indulgence in 'late nights, blue ruin (gin) and the dollies'.

The deathbed scene in 1878, and what followed, have only just come to light, as an indirect result of an exhibition I have organised to celebrate the bicentenary of Cruikshank's birth.

Who was his secret love and what became of her and her children? Until recent years, the power of shame and guilt has caused such women to be written out of history - as Dickens's mistress Nellie Ternan was until Claire Tomalin recently published her biography, The Invisible Woman.

I found that Cruikshank's mistress, Adelaide, died in Croydon in 1914, so I tried a long-shot: a few inquiring paragraphs in the Croydon Advertiser. The result was that I discovered Hazel Snaith, a great-granddaughter of Adelaide's sister.

Thus I learned that Adelaide was born in 1831 at Claygate, Surrey, daughter of a farm labourer. Soon after Cruikshank married Eliza, then 43, in 1850, this girl with blue eyes and golden ringlets came to 263 Hampstead Road as their maid.

In 1853, two things happened that can be seen as liberating for Cruikshank: his mother, a stern Presbyterian died; and he, aged 61, began visiting Adelaide in her attic room. 'He forced himself into her bedroom,' is how Mrs Snaith puts it. Her daughter, Jacqueline Owen, who lives in Croydon, says: 'He was smitten with her.' It could have been her ruin, but she emerges as a survivor.

The story can be told because Adelaide spent her final years in Croydon in the house where Mrs Snaith's mother grew up. Some details survive because Jacqueline Owen, as a teenager a dozen years ago, persuaded Mrs Snaith's mother to talk about Adelaide.

At 263 Hampstead Road Adelaide became pregnant. Despite what Mrs Snaith calls 'a strong affection' between Eliza and Adelaide, the maid would not reveal that Cruikshank was the father: and a pregnant maid had to go.

However, Cruikshank set her up in a house about two minutes' walk away, at 31 Augustus Street, and thus a young woman who might otherwise have ended on the streets became ostensibly the wife of a mature gentleman, 'George Archibold'.

When census returns had to be filled in, his occupation veered between artist, commercial traveller and wood engraver. He fathered six daughters (one died young) and five sons, the youngest conceived when he was 82.

This stocky, broad-shouldered, combative man was always proud of his fitness. In his eighties, it was noted, 'he walked like a man still young'. He ascribed his robust health to the fact that he had been teetotal since he was 55 and had given up smoking. All his life, too, he was young in heart.

In Regency London he had won fame as a bold and sometimes scurrilous caricaturist, but he had gone on to create a vast body of work suitable for all the family, as comic artist and as illustrator for Dickens, among others. And he was venerated by the Nonconformist churches in particular as a high Victorian moralist. So what did Eliza do when, bending over the deathbed in February 1878, she learnt that George had a swarm of children by the maid of whom she had been so fond? She went round to Augustus Street, says Mrs Snaith: but not to play the outraged wife. For the first time in nearly a quarter of a century she saw Adelaide, and insisted on helping the mother of her late husband's children. Cruikshank had made some provision for them, but Eliza nobly added to it.

'She would do anything for them,' says Mrs Snaith - even helping to send the girls to finishing schools.

All that had to stay secret. To the public, Cruikshank had to remain a paragon. As Punch said in its obituary: 'There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.' He is buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

He must have scores, even hundreds, of descendants. I have made contact with descendants of the first-born, George Robert Archibold, whose son became an engineer in charge of London's bridges. His granddaughter, Frances Hedges, aged 81, and her granddaughter, Joanne Purves, who is 24 and works in London, came to the recent London opening of my Cruikshank exhibition.

Joanne, Cruikshank's great-great-great-granddaughter, saw a picture of Adelaide for the first time: 'It's very romantic to have a story like that in the family,' she said. But where are the descendants of the other Archibolds, Adelaide (born 1858), William Henry (1860), Albert Edward (1863), Alfred (1865), Eliza Jane (1867), Ada Rose (1868), Emma Caroline (1869), Nellie Maude (1873), and Arthur (1875)?

When Mrs Snaith's mother was a girl, just before the First World War, she would often ask the aged Adelaide, 'Who was your husband, Auntie Adelaide?' And Adelaide, sitting in her rocking-chair, would always say, 'I can't remember, my dear.' Jacqueline Owen says: 'She had a little twinkle in her eye when she said it.'

The exhibition Cruikshank 200 will be at Towneley Hall Art Gallery, Burnley, Lancs, 15 Nov-24 Dec, and in January-May at Maidstone, Sheffield and Twickenham.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: International Trade Advisors - Hertfordshire or Essex

£30000 - £35379 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is based in Welwyn ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Controller - Response Centre

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Resource and Recruitment Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Resource and Recruitment Manage...

Recruitment Genius: Junior IT Support Technician

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn