Comic Art and Caricatures in our Collections

In today’s post our Senior Librarian for Special Collections, Rhian Isaac, explores the connection between comic books and some of the library’s prints, books and periodicals from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

This weekend is the annual Thought Bubble Comic Convention, a two day celebration of comics, their creators and their fans.

We have an amazing collection of contemporary comics to borrow at our libraries, but we also hold more historic items that can be regarded as the precursors to the comic books we read today.


Caricatures and cartoons have a long history. According to Britannica, the word caricature derives from the Italian verb caricare meaning “to load,” or ‘exaggerate’ and seems to have been used first in Diverse Figure (1646) by Annibale Carracci one of the great Italian masters.

Bookseller in ‘Diverse Figure’ (1646)

The word caricature is first recorded in England in 1748, which coincides with William Hogarth’s painting of the anti-French satire ‘O the Roast Beef of Old England’ which includes caricatures of a French monk and French soldiers.

Image from Wikipedia

Hogarth has been described as the grandfather of the political cartoon and he used sequential art to tell stories in pieces such as ‘A Harlot’s Progress’.  Hogarth influenced many other artists. We can see this in the work of John Collier, also known as Timothy Bobbin, who published his Human Passions Delineated in 1773, in which he refers to himself as the ‘Lancashire Hogarth’.

Image from John Collier’s ‘Human Passions Delineated’ (1773)

Cartoons and Comic Artists

Cartooning has its roots in caricature and has been popular in Britain and America since the 1800s. Cartoons were often satirical or political and printed in newspapers or periodicals.

The two most celebrated comic artists of the era were Robert Seymour and George Cruikshank. Seymour was a satirical cartoonist who specialised in sporting subjects. He was the first illustrator of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers producing seven plates before his suicide in 1836. We have a box full of loose individual prints of Sketches by Seymour which were originally published between 1834 and 1836 and sold for 3 pence each, by Richard Carlile. Carlile retained the copyright and the images were later published in bound volumes. Our copies are dated from around 1835 to 1850.

George Cruikshank was a caricaturist who began his career with satirical political cartoons and then later illustrated books, famously creating the images for Dicken’s Oliver Twist. Twist was first published in Bentley’s Miscellany which can be found in our collections. Cruikshank also published his own books including the Comic Almanack and the very charming concertina Comic Alphabet that consists of twenty four images.

‘A Comic Alphabet’ (1837)

Illustrated Periodicals

There were many illustrated humorous periodicals produced in the 19th century. These included Figaro in London, a comic paper that began in 1831 and was mostly illustrated by Robert Seymour. It is now mainly remembered today as a forerunner to the more successful Punch.

The first edition of Punch Magazine was printed in 1841 with the aim of combining humour and political content. The magazine boasted a star-studded list of illustrators and cartoonists that helped create the entertaining and informative content it became famous for. The satirical drawings were called ‘Punch’s Pencillings’ but in 1843 John Leech titled his engraving ‘Cartoon No. 1 – Substance and Shadow’ in response to an upcoming exhibition at the Palace of Westminster. Punch said that the government had “determined that as they cannot afford to give hungry nakedness the substance which it covets, at least it shall have the shadow. The poor ask for bread, and the philanthropy of the State accords — an exhibition”. From that issue onwards Punch’s central illustration was known as the cartoon and the name then became associated with satirical images and comic illustrations more generally.

Cartoon No. 1 – Substance and Shadow

There were also a few female contributors to Punch who are not as well-known as some of their male counterparts, such as Georgina Bowers and Helen Coode. Bowers contributed many illustrations between 1866 and 1876, drawing nearly all the hunting scenes that featured in the magazine.

Another illustrated comic paper in our collections is Lika Joko: Harry Furniss’s illustrated Weekly. Harry Furniss was a popular artist who launched Lika Joka after he left Punch. During the late Victorian period Japan had a significant influence on British art, and this can be seen in the pun of the magazine’s title, the typography, and the kimono that Furniss depicts himself wearing. This cultural appropriation is quite jarring for modern readers but the magazine shows the craze for Japanese design that occurred once Japan resumed trading with Western countries in the 1850s.

Finally, we have Funny folks: the Comic Companion to the Newspaper which was launched in 1874 and has been described as the first comic. It was a weekly penny publication that contained half pictures and half text and ran for twenty years, until it could not compete any more with the various halfpenny comics launch by its competitors.

Funny Folks (1880)

This is only a very small selection of comic art and caricature books that can be found in Leeds Libraries’ special collections. Please get in touch with us if you would like to find out more or see some of these items in person. You can click on the links within the post to go to our online catalogue. And if you are heading to Thought Bubble we hope you have a wonderful time!

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