John Leech and The Comic History of Rome

Leech1Caroline Wazer at berfrois:

Drawn by caricaturist John Leech, the illustrations of Gilbert Abbott à Beckett’s The Comic History of Rome are a Victorian fever dream of ancient Rome. Senators pair their togas with top hats, generals wear muttonchops under their helmets, and priests styled as snake charmers draw gullible crowds with the help of coal-powered rotating billboards. The blending of past and present in Leech’s illustrations is on one level a simple visual joke that reinforces the humor of the text, dragging the glories of Roman history down to the level of the contemporary London street. A closer look at the context of the book, however, reveals a series of interesting tensions beneath the surface humor.

Leech and à Beckett first worked together on the staff of Punch, the satirical London periodical. First published in 1841, Punch quickly gained a reputation for capturing – and mocking – the cultural zeitgeist of Victorian London, from pompous politicians to the unwashed masses. Henry Silver, a Punch contributor, wrote in his diary in 1864 that Leech “sneers at the Working Man, as usual.” A staunch Tory, Leech frequently came into conflict with the more progressive members of the early Punch staff about the content of the magazine. His cartoons often portrayed the urban poor as stupid and the wealthy as frivolous. À Beckett, on the other hand, was a member of the progressive-minded Reform Club and earned a reputation for understanding and generosity when he served as Poor Law commissioner in 1849.

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