Drawn by caricaturist John Leech, the illustrations of Gilbert Abbott 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 a Beckett first worked together on the staff of Punch, the satirical London periodical. First published in 1841, Punch quickly gained a reputation for capturing – 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. 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.
Leech’s images sometimes stick close to the text, as in the full-color plate that portrays the legend of Romulus and Remus as a Mother Goose-esque fairy tale. Often, however, Leech used his illustrations to draw explicit and sometimes cutting connections with modern Victorian life. The subject matter of the text, which covered Roman history through the fall of the Republic, certainly lent itself to comparisons with mid-nineteenth century London. Especially in the latter part of the period covered, Rome saw a booming poor urban population, the growth of a snobby urban intelligentsia, and the development of what many saw as overtly demagogical politics – in other words, the same things that Leech regularly skewered in the pages of Punch.
The subject of Roman history allowed Leech to make some satirical references too obscure or too reactionary for Punch’s pages. A color plate portraying a 5th century BC popular uprising against the patrician Appius Claudius Crassus following his abduction of the plebeian Verginia resembles nothing so much as a scene from the French Reign of Terror, complete with ragged street urchins and a stout cat-wielding proletarian wearing a Phrygian cap.
More frequently, however, Leech used the Roman setting simply to poke fun at familiar urban characters, particularly the working classes. Another favorite target was the rich man who, whether out of desire for power or cultural cachet, overinvolved himself with the poor. In one illustration, Tiberius Gracchus, a populist Roman reformer, becomes a top hat-wearing, baby-cheek-pinching demagogue, seedily winning popular favor by charming poor women. In another, Leech depicted a gladiator and his owner as a brutish modern-day boxer and his foppish patron.
Back at Punch, Leech had developed a reputation for overwhelming the text with the approachability and humor of his illustrations. Despite a Beckett’s earnest assertion that the book was not meant to make light of history, by projecting his satirical view of the present back onto ancient Rome, Leech injected a certain nastiness into The Comic History of Rome that echoed and reinforced his nasty view of the present.
Adapted from Caroline Wazerm, The Eternal Guffaw: John Leech and The Comic History of Rome @ 2015 by The Public Review Project.
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