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The Man who Hated Caricature

Cartoon historian Mark Bryant examines the origins of caricature itself, and the ambivalent attitude to it of the man whose name has become synonymous with the emergence of the art in Britain.

In Britain we like to think that William Hogarth was the father of caricature and cartoons. His 1763 grotesque portrait of John Wilkes is seen as a classic of its kind, and his series of ‘modern moral subjects’ lampooning the follies and vice of his age – beginning with ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ more than thirty years earlier – are frequently claimed to be the first modern caricatures and the prototypes for the modern strip cartoon. However, ironically, Hogarth himself would have hated the description of his work as ‘caricature’.

So incensed was he with the new fashion for caricature in eighteenth-century England that in 1743 he produced a drawing attacking the art form and promoting instead what he described as the far superior study of ‘character’. And the day before he died he was working on another engraving to support this view.

Like cartoons, the art of caricature – in which a person’s features are exaggerated for comic or satirical effect – has a long history, stretching back to ancient Egyptian inscriptions, paintings on Greek vases, Roman columns, medieval burlesques, the grotesque heads of Leonardo, and Reformation woodcuts attacking the papacy produced by Lucas Cranach and others.

However, portrait caricature in the form that we recognize today derives originally from sixteenth-century Italy – the word ‘caricature’ comes from the Italian word meaning ‘to exaggerate’ – and its modern founder is the painter Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) of Bologna. In defence of the art form he went so far as to say:

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