Introduction: Life and Work

Ernest Henry Griset was born in Boulogne on 24 August 1843 and died in London in 1907, having moved to England when he was a child. His parents emigrated during the revolution of 1848, and, despite maintaining contacts with France, Griset always regarded himself as British rather than French. His training, unsurprisingly, was a mixture of Continental and home-spun traditions. He studied under the Belgian artist Louis Gallait and was otherwise self-trained, although his work reflects the influence of a number of contemporaries.

Griset was an animal-artist, dividing this interest into two distinct strands. Some of his activity took the form of closely observed paintings. These were based on studies from the life which he conducted in London Zoo, where Walter Crane regularly saw him at work (p.59). Harrison Weir and J.W. Wolf might also have been seen in the Zoo as they copied from nature, and Griset was one of several practitioners who benefitted from this vast visual resource, which was essentially the animal artists’ equivalent of the classicists’ Elgin Marbles. Griset’s paintings are informed with the naturalists’ understanding of anatomy in the manner of Edwin Landseer, but his greatest talent was in the domain of imaginative reconstruction and fancy. He produced a bizarre series of nineteen watercolours for the ethnographer Sir John Lubbock; these show scenes of prehistoric people in conflict with mammoths and other extinct creatures (Bromley Museums, London), painted as if they were simple transcripts of fact.

However, his speciality was humorous and satirical designs for the printed page in which the animals act, as in the art of Weir, as surrogates for human behaviour. His focus is well explained in a review for James’s Greenwood’s The Purgatory of Peter the Cruel (1867). According to the anonymous critic in Notes and Queries, Griset’s illustrations are:

Full of excellent fooling, but not without a moral [and informed] with that power of investing all animals, birds, insects, etc., with human attributes that give such force and effect to all his grotesques [1867, p.452].

This subject sustained him through a long and varied career, although Griset was active in a crowded market and published his work, like so many of his contemporaries, with no security beyond the sale of his last design. Purely a jobbing artist, his images appeared in Punch, where he briefly succeeded Charles Bennett, another practitioner of the anthropomorphic; in Fun;in the pages of the short-lived Broadway; and in diverse books for adult and juvenile audiences, including an edition of Robinson Cruscoe [1875]. His finest publications were Griset’s Grotesques (1867) with poems written up by Thomas Hood to match the illustrations, and an edition of Aesop’s Fables [1869], which went through many editions. The images in these and all his publications were drawn on wood, many of them engraved by the Dalziel Brothers. The Dalziels provide a vivid portrait of Griset and his art during his most productive period:

There was a distinct cleverness about the quaint grotesque drawings of Ernest Griset … His drawings were first exhibited in the window of a book shop close to Leicester Square, where they attracted considerable attention … They were generally in pen and ink, lightly tinted with delicate colour … Griset was, and is, a hard and rapid worker …[pp.313–314].

Industriousness was a quality valued by the Evangelical Brothers and they promoted Griset, as they encouraged the similarly hard-grafting A. W. Bayes, wherever they could. Griset enjoyed considerable success under their auspices, and reviews of his work were invariably complimentary, describing him as ‘the English Doré’ (‘Advertisement’, Notes & Queries, 1866, unnumbered page) and as a champion of the strange and surprising. Writing in 1895, M. H. Spielmann notes his ‘remarkable invention and ingenuity’ (p.538), although his reputation declined in the twentieth century; his standing was partially restored by Lionel Lambourne’s monograph of 1979.

Humour and the grotesque: two key books

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Left: Natural History. Right: The Fashions. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Griset’s two outstanding books, Aesop’s Fables and Griset’s Grotesques, were among the most significant hits of their time. Both were Christmas books and were designed to entertain the middle-class family over the holiday period; as one reviewer observed of the Grotesques in terms that also apply to the Fables, his images abound in ‘very excellent foolery … calculated to add to the enjoyment of many a fireside’ (Notes and Queries, 1866, p.426). In this sense his works were part of a long-standing tradition. Picture-books for Christmas combining droll illustrations and humorous letterpress were well-established by the 1840s, and Griset’s contributions recall the arch mockery of George Cruikshank’s Table Book (1845) and Richard Doyle’s The Foreign Tour of Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson (1855). The link to Cruikshank is an important one, and reminds us of the fact that Griset was more English than French.

In practice, though, his art unites French and English influences. His depiction of comic ragamuffins in the Grotesques is strongly reminiscent of the scratchy street-urchins of Cruikshank, while also invoking the Punch cartoons of John Leech and the comic situations of Hablot Browne (Phiz) and Doyle. Though published in 1867, Griset’s comic-book seems of the forties and fifties, and is slightly at odds with the high seriousness of the sixties. Clearly, this was a vein of British humour that had currency into the middle period of the century, and Griset’s pictures of dynamic, elongated figures, with their ludicrous faces and dishevelled, pantomime clothes, still had a ready market among the bourgeois audiences of the time. The French influence was equally pronounced, however. Contemporaries noted the similarities between his art and Doré’s, and several of the plates in the Fables, notably Mercury and the Woodman, are dark and menacing in the style of the French master. Another key influence, and one often remarked, was the anthropomorphic cartoons of J. J. Grandville as they appear in Vie Privée et Publiques des Animaux (1842). Grandville’s bizarre satires of Parisian life find an echo in Griset’s use of animals to comment on human life, and there are many stylistic links between the two artists. Griset’s art was nevertheless an original one. Synthesising the influences of Grandville, Doré, Cruikshank, Leech and the others, he still manages to produce an imagery which is unmistakeably his own.

His scrawny birds, cunning foxes and knowing apes are among the most memorable of their type, combining a rapid drawing technique with a mastery of pose and facial expression; child-like in effect, they can seem guileless in the manner of Edward Lear’s Nonsense drawings (1846 and 1861), while still making a sharp satiric hit. Griset further achieves a sort of nightmarish intensity, juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar, the traditional with the modern, a spare sweeping line with broody chiaroscuro.

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Left: The Mountains in Labour. Right: Sky-scraper. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

In The Mountains in Labour (Fables) he shows a group of grotesques peering at the tiny figure of the mouse through the latest and most powerful telescopes. This distortion of figure and space is developed in numerous designs in which the characters look upwards at a vast height or stretch out to create a sort of ludicrous attenuation. In the case of Griset’s giraffes, for example, their necks seem to break out of the top margin, an idea embodied in the Grotesques in Skyscraper and Natural History. Always clever and entertaining , these illustrations were perfect fare for a family man to show to his children at the fireside, while relishing the humour for adults.

What Griset’s designs always have is vitality and directness. Walter Crane noted that his ‘animal studies were full of life and character’ and that the artist himself was ‘always vivacious and full of fun’ (p.59). This seems an accurate judgement.

Works Cited and Sources of Information

‘Advertisement’. Notes & Queries, 10, 3rd Series (254), November 10 1866: unnumbered page.

Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated by Ernest Griset. London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, n.d. [1869].

Brothers Dalziel, The. A Record of Work, 1840–1890. 1901; new ed. London: Batsford, 1978.

Crane, Walter. An Artist’s Reminiscences. New York: Macmillan, 1907.

Cruikshank, George. Table Book. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1845.

[Defoe, Daniel]. Life and Adventures of Robinson Cruscoe. Illustrated by Ernest Griset. London: Blackwood, n.d. [1875].

Doyle, Richard. The Foreign Tour of Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1855.

Grandville, J. J. Vie Privée et Publiques des Animaux. Paris: Hetzel, 1842.

Griset’s Grotesques’. Notes & Queries, 10, 3rd Series (256), November 24 1866:426.

Griset’s Grotesques; or, Jokes Drawn on Wood, with Rhymes by Tom Hood. London: George Routledge, 1867.

Griset’s Grotesques’. The Art Journal (1866):384.

Lambourne, Lionel. Ernest Griset: Fantasies of a Victorian Illustrator. London: Thames & Hudson, 1979.

Spielmann, M. H. The History of Punch. London: Cassell, 1895.

The Purgatory of Peter the Cruel’. Notes & Queries, 12, 3rd Series (309), November 30 1867:452.


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Last modified 24 September 2013