Doyle was a social satirist whose picture books provide a genteel commentary on the trivialities of middle-class life. His prime technique is the mock-heroic: taking the battle scenes of Horace Vernet (1783-1863) as a model, he shows 'modern' life in the form of a teeming series of crowds, social events in which the people are ordinary rather than heroic, small-minded rather than noble.

Three satirical illustrations by Richard Doyle. Left: A Railway Station . . . Showynge ye Travellers Refreshyng Themselvess from Manners and Customs of Ye Englyshe. Middle: A Science and Art Conversazione. Right: The Foreign Tour of Brown, Jones and Robinson. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

His earliest work in this field is Manners and Customs of Ye Englyshe (1849), which was serialized in Punch and issued, with a text by Perceval Leigh, as a separate publication. In part a pastiche of Pepys's diary, Doyle's book is a series of frenetic cartoons in which he mocks the bourgeoisie at play. His specific target is the 'cultural guide-book', a genre epitomized by William Lane's Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1846) and Charles Acland's Manners and Customs of India (1847). These journalistic works provided the genteel readership with populist accounts of how others lived, but Doyle undermines their seriousness by appropriating the title Manners and Customs and applying it not to foreigners, but to the British themselves. His subject is the very reverse of the exotic otherness that writers found in their investigations of the unfamiliar. In place of mysterious 'customs', he finds only the Lilliputian interplay of tiny figures engaged in leisure activities, playing cricket, promenading, smoking at the club or disporting themselves during the season. The satire is arch rather than acerbic, but Doyle cleverly points to the idea that all cultural activity (or 'manner') is a matter of ritual — of activity which in itself has no inherent significance and is only propelled by the power of tradition (or 'custom').

Altogether more biting isBird's Eye Views of Society (The Cornhill Magazine 1863-4, and as a separate publication, 1864). This follows a path parallel to Manners and Customs but the vision, as Engen (132-5) and others have observed, has hardened into grotesquerie. Individual types are shown as caricatures, and the crowds, although still engaged in social events, have become claustrophobic and overpowering. Taking the inspiration from battle-scenes to its natural conclusion, Doyle shows society as a battle, a seething fight to survive, in which individuals are 'smothered' (Engen, p.115). Published shortly after The Origin of Species (1859), it is tempting to view Bird's Eye Views as a satirist's treatment of the Darwinian struggle for survival. Spencer's phrase, 'the survival of the fittest' was not published until his Principles of Biology appeared in 1864, but Doyle's ghastly melee of bloated figures and flailing arms seems like a populist (and prescient) view of social Darwinism. This darker, satirical vision is characteristic of his work in the sixties, and belies the idea that he was merely a jovial entertainer.

Social satire was only part of Doyle's interest, however. Much of his art is parody: visual design which mocks the conventions of popular or controversial forms. His approach is focused on painting as much as on graphic design.

One of his main targets is the taste for archaism in painting. This tendency was exemplified by the Germanic paintings in the Westminster Hall Competitions and by the early works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Both are mocked with sly humour. In Selections from the Rejected Cartoons (1848) he travesties the paintings of artists such as Watts, Tenniel and Armitage, which were shown at several of the Westminster exhibtions. Critics of the time routinely vilified these works for their angularity of figure drawing and use of 'incorrect' perspective, and in his cartoons Doyle greatly exaggerates the perceived effect. His figures are absurdly extended; placed like cut-outs on a flat ground, they gesture wildly, with ludicrous expressions on their faces. This is the very nemesis of the Nazarene influence, a version of archaic 'truthfulness' that reduces the 'archaic' style to a series of childish scrawls. Dickens provided an acerbic attack on what he saw as pointless anachronism in his 'Old Lamps for New Ones' in Household Words (1850), and Doyle provides a parallel formulation. He similarly ridicules the Pre-Raphaelites, notably in his mock-medieval designs for Thackeray's Rebecca and Rowena (1850). In this work the Pre-Raphaelite emulation of a 'purer' art is roundly travestied: scale is arbitrary applied, figures gesticulate or grimace at each other, and the overall effect is one of toy-shop absurdity.

Left: Decorative initial [Richard Easy and his Employer] from The Scouring of the White Horse.

Right two: Decorative initial and title page from Ruskin's The king of the Golden River. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Another target was German illustration. Retzsch's outline style is ridiculed in Manners and Customs and throughout the pages of Punch . Such works satirize the taste for outline books, but Doyle's central concern is the British appropriation of the Germanic style. He targets Selous and other practitioners in the heroic mode, undermining works such as Selous's The Pilgrim's Progress (1844) by offering his own, absurdist versions of the outline. Doyle is equally impatient with the Germanic rusticity of Maclise, Franklin, Herbert and others who imitated the strap-work of Rethel and Neurether. In Moore's Melodies (1845) Maclise adopts a rustic style, a combination of strap-work and bowers, and this is parodied by Doyle in books such as The King of the Golden River (1851). Doyle deliberately takes 'woody' lettering to a ludicrous extreme, showing it as a mass of sprigs and twigs in the title-page to Punch, The Scouring of the White Horse (1859), The Adventures of a Watch (1864), and elsewhere. The grand pretentions of the Germanic school are thus exposed to the process of comic burlesque. What seemed like a British version of a foreign style, the avant garde of the time, is re-figured, in Doyle's hand, as a piece of absurd ostentation.

References and Works Consulted

Cooke, Simon. 'A Forgotten Illustration by Richard Doyle.'Studies in Illustration , 26 (Spring 2004): 32-34.

Cooke, Simon. 'Notable Books: Richard Doyle's In Fairyland' .The Private Library , Fifth Series, 8:4 (Winter 2005): 153-171.

Engen, Rodney. Richard Doyle .Stroud: The Catalpa Press, 1983.

Hambourg, Daria. Richard Doyle . London: Art & Technics, 1948.

Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painting . London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1978.

Muir, Percy. Victorian Illustrated Books .London: Batsford, 1971; revised ed., 1985.

The Brothers Dalziel, A Record of Work, 1840-1890 .Foreword by Graham Reynolds. 1901; reprinted London: Batsford, 1978.


Victorian Web Victorian Illustration Richard Doyle

Last modified 5 November 2009