ennett enjoyed a brief period of fame and popularity, although the exact nature of his achievement is surprisingly difficult to characterise. One area of contention is the formal quality of his work. Though commended for his industry, some critics remarked on his lack of technical ability: Henry Vizetelly, his employer at The Illustrated London News, described him as a ‘poor draughtsman’ (p.389); and others were scathing of an artist whose self-taught style was at odds with the academic manner of contemporaries such as Sandys and Pinwell. Compared with the high seriousness of the Sixties School Bennett’s work can seem quaint or ‘somewhat forced’ (‘The Fables’, p. 35), an old-fashioned comedic language that recalls the forties rather than the middle of the period.
Yet formal considerations tell us only a little of his qualities. Though he does produce some outstanding designs that contradict the idea that he suffered from deficiencies in style, his art is perhaps best understood as work of the mind, a type of design that draws its principle strength from its expression of clever, idiosyncratic ideas. Like other artists whose technical abilities were limited, Bennett stresses the conceptual rather than the formal, and this emphasis was recognised by many if not all contemporaries as more than a compensation for any technical shortcomings. The Dalziels comment on his work’s ‘individual stamp’, which was ‘independent in manner and full of deep thought’ (p.330), the products of a quirky auteur who signed his drawings with a monogram showing an owl holding a ‘B’ in its mouth; and even Vizetelly, dismissive in other ways, is willing to recognise his ‘highly original … fancy’ (p.389). This ‘fancy’, the product of ‘deep thought’, operates in several domains.
Left to right: (a) Mr Wind. (b) Mr Wind Deflated. (c) The Merry Soap-Boiler. (d) Pure and Sure. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
Bennett’s talent partly lies in his capacity to give memorable forms to the characters he illustrates. These often display a Dickensian fascination with physical oddity. Paul de Mussett’s Mr Wind is ingeniously figured, as it were, in full blow (Mr Wind and Madam Rain (p.49), and again when he is ‘seen to totter’, deflated like a gigantic balloon (p.100). Unsettling portraits likewise appear in his work for W.H. Wills’s Poets’ Wit and Humour, and in his illustrations for Quarles’ Emblems. Veering between the comical and the ugly, these images are types of grotesquerie in the manner described by Ruskin in ‘Grotesque Renaissance’ (p.151) as both ‘fearful’ and ‘ludicrous’. This formulation always invites a complex response, expanding the meanings of the original text.
Bennett is also an accomplished social commentator, offering many strange and diverse insights into the condition of England, and of humanity in general. His satirical models are partly derived from the situational comedies of Richard Doyle in works such as The Foreign Tour of Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson (1854), and by George Cruikshank’s many social travesties of the 1830s and 40s; however, Bennett is generally a far harsher critic than either of his peers. His particular strategy is to use juveniles as a didactic vehicle for the expression of adult concerns. These books were largely written and illustrated by the artist, so allowing him to create complex dual texts in which the illustrations and letterpress are positioned in a series of complex interactions.
Three of bennett's illustrations of Aesop’s Fables — left to right: (a) The Hare and the Tortoise. (b) The Wolf and the Lamb. (c) The Ape and Her Two Young Ones [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
One of the most interesting of these is his version of Aesop’s Fables, a rare book in which he extends and re-orientates the original text while using the illustrations to comment upon social and moral issues that are both generalized and topical. Visualising Aesop’s anthropomorphism to pointed effect, he dresses his animals in mid-Victorian clothes, deploying them as a device to point to the gross inequalities and social vices of his time. In The Hare and the Tortoise, the Tortoise is a well-dressed bourgeois who steps on the destitute hare; in this version, the chelonian has inherited wealth while the Hare, his hat filled with scrolls labelled ‘invention’ and ‘plan’, is one of the new business class whose native talents are quashed (literally squashed) by privilege. In The Wolf and the Lamb, on the other hand, the Lamb is a respectable gentleman going about his profession, while the Wolf is a blackguard in the manner of Bill Sikes, a cudgel behind his back. In these hand-coloured engravings Bennett consistently articulates this sharp critique of ‘class and power’ (Corrigan, p.3), even though the book was intended for the nursery; the children could enjoy it as an amusing montage of funny (if disconcerting) animals in human dress, while the parents are addressed in the manner of an allegorical satire. Bennett’s anthropomorphic imagery similarly features in The Faithless Parrot, The Frog who would a Wooing Go and The Nine Lives of a Cat. In these publications, as in Aesop’s Fables, the animals act as proxies revealing the absurdities of social etiquette and the vices of vanity and pride: a moral zoo designed to expose unpalatable truths in the form of amusing caricatures and absurdist situations.
Bennett’s drollery has a distinct flavour, but his deployment of animal-types was part of a wider tradition There are a series of linkages between his satirical menageries and those of Ernest Griset, Harrison Weir, John Tenniel and George Cruikshank. Inspired, in every case, by J.J. Grandvilles’s anthropomorphic satires of contemporary Parisian life, especially Vie Privée et Publiques des Animaux (1842), Bennett and his contemporaries also drew on the pseudo-scientific literature which allegedly made connections between human and animal faces. He probably read James Redfield’s Comparative Physiognomy; or, the Resemblances between Men and Animals, which was first published in 1852, and was unquestionably familiar with this school of cod anthropology.
This pursuit of an underlying reality, the project of every satirist, is further developed in Shadows. Presented as a mock magic lantern show and playing with the idea of phantasmagoria, the book grapples with the notion of appearance and illusion, probing this concept in a visual conceit of elegant simplicity. Each sitter’s inner character is revealed in the shape of his or her shadows, which are associated with a moral or set of moral characteristics. This sometimes draws on anthropomorphism as well, presenting a series of reprobates whose essential nature is projected behind them in the form of animal simulacra. The glutton’s vice is projected in the silhouette of the ‘greedy pig’; the vain old women is just a shadow of the self-regarding parrot; the vacuous young woman is shadowed by ‘a little duck’; and the sexual predator, glass in hand, is shown as ‘a crocodile’ projecting a dark and menacing shape, jaws ready to gobble up his victims, onto the wall behind him. Others are vegetables or objects.
Three of bennett's illustrations of Shadows — left to right: (a) A Greedy Pig. (b) A Parrot. (c) A Pump [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
The prim and joyless woman in the pictorial title-page casts the shadow of a gigantic mushroom; the complacent and lonely bachelor is revealed as a fool, his night-cap forming the dark outline of a jester’s hat; while a clergyman is just ‘a pump’, exposing his significance as someone who ‘pumps’ (or extorts) money from his congregation. The concept, in other words, is a complex process in which one set of signs – the characters’ appearance – is countermanded by another, apparently random one, which is nevertheless presented as the truth. Appearance, the solid matter of Bennett’s humour, is undermined by the associations of a shape, reminding us that what we see in the form of flesh and blood is not necessarily the reality of a person’s character. It is also an amusing play on the notion of ‘light’ and ‘enlightenment’, showing how on this occasion it is the darkness, the space that is not illuminated, that may give us the most faithful representation of personality. This is an engaging joke to match the age-old and childish trick of making shapes on a wall; but it also has profound implications, suggesting inner truths might only be glimpsed, at moments of insight, in forms as ephemeral and vague as shadows.
The notion of unstable identities is continued in Bennett’s cartoons satirising Darwin’s evolutionary theory. In Shadows the truth is revealed in the transient movement of light, but in his Darwinian travesties he shows, to ironic effect, how a person’s real nature can be traced over a vast space of time in which flesh itself is mutable and inconstant. The reasoning, needless to say, is mocking and absurdist; Darwin argues for the endless improvement of the species, while Bennett shows how fools evolve from a long line of animals whose behaviours inform their latest descendant’s moral nature.
Bennett focuses this theme in a series of caricatures published in Vizetelly’s Illustrated Times in 1863, and reprinted, using the title of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, in Character Sketches (1872). These cartoons mock evolutionary theory in the form of pseudo-scientific illustrations which trace the development of species in a series of ludicrous transitions. A snail – in comic allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ – is ultimately transformed to a snail-like boy going reluctantly to school; a glutton evolves from a pig; and a drunkard, ‘As thirsty as a fish’, is indeed fish-like, descended from a number of fishes. Man evolves from creatures, but the message comically denies the idea of evolution as such: the fish might change its form, but in the end is still a fish, drinking alcohol instead of water; the snail becomes a boy, but its sluggish nature finds expression in the slothful scholar. The humans resemble the creatures from which they supposedly evolved, and act like them too. The circularity of the argument is confirmed by the fact that the figures in the foreground – evolution’s latest result – are placed within a spiral of changing forms which lead back to where they started, a formulation in precise contradiction of Darwin’s notion of advancement.
Always amusing, Bennett’s version of the ascent of man is nevertheless unsettling. On the one hand, it satirises the idea of evolution in the form of grotesque distortions as an animal turns into a person, suggesting, through ridiculous exaggeration, that such radical change is so extreme as to be unlikely; on the other, it pursues the moral implications of Darwin’s arguments. The surreal tone invites the reader/viewer to mock Darwin’s claims in a joyful series of comical scenes; but Bennett’s designs could be interpreted as pessimistic and misanthropic. He may have entered the evolutionary debate through the medium of satire and pastiche, but his images also read as expressions of mid-Victorian anxiety and are part of the critical discourse surrounding Darwin’s claims. For sure, no drunkard ever evolved from a fish, but the mere notion that evolution might be both absurd and true is a challenging possibility. Bennett suggests that moral traits are simply the expression of an underlying nature, inherited from the instinct of creatures further back in the evolutionary chain; and that humanity’s passions are simply those of the beasts, programmed in the form of a fixed behaviour passed forward through time. His emphasis on circularity also prefigures the late Victorian debate on degeneracy and reversion to the base instincts which may be embodied, according to this line of reason, in our evolutionary history.
Bennett is at his most challenging when he is at his funniest, and the book’s oscillation between uncertainty and laughter may reflect his own, personal understandings of the impact Darwinism would have. As he sarcastically notes in the reprinted preface to Character Sketches, which is directed at Darwin, ‘How charmingly you managed to enjoy a life or ceaseless research, without making a single enemy or raising a single doubt’. In these terms, Darwin is cast as an amoral fool who places a dangerous idea but takes no responsibility for it: another figure to cast a shadow (perhaps an gibbering ape?) behind him. However, Bennett’s focus on the metaphorical implications of shadows and mutable forms is only part of his approach. Having suggested the uncertainties of appearances, he paradoxically explores another element in which the emphasis is not on flux but on fixedness. This takes the form of his interest in emblems and emblem books.
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Last modified 28 March 2014