The Context of the Cut

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n important weapon in Punch’s satirical arsenal was the weekly full-page cartoon, known by contributors as the ‘big cut’. Some of the most powerful designs appeared in this format, which was used to focus the magazine’s topical commentaries: ranging between the bitter-sweet imagery of John Leech and the suave ironies of George Du Maurier, it merged observational humour with social analysis and shock effects. Targets included politicians, politics, royalty, contemporary taste and manners, the workings of capital, foreign policy and every issue of interest to the bourgeois audience; as Mark Lemon explains, the intention was always didactic, combining ‘rude and boisterous mirth’ with ‘instruction’ (Spielmann, 2). Establishing a template that was imitated by contemporary magazines such as Fun and exploited by every subsequent magazine of its kind, Punch was at the forefront of graphic satire, a status it maintained for the entire Victorian period.

Some of its ‘big cuts’ had considerable impact at the time of publication and continue to resonate today. Leech’s coruscating satire of the greed of capital during the ‘Hungry Forties’ is especially hard-hitting, a focus exemplified by Substance and Shadow.

Two cartoons on the gap between the rich and poor. Left: Robert Jacob Hamerton's Capital and Labour. Right: John Leech's Substance and Shadow. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

These cartoons reveal in the starkest terms imaginable the brutality of the Victorian class-system, providing a visual equivalent to the revelatory texts of the ‘condition of England’ novels exemplified by Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848). Leech’s designs projected the social radicalism of Punch in the forties and contributed to its readers’ understanding of the sufferings of the poor in a period of wrenching inequality and cruelty; like Dickens’s texts of the period, they were part of a growing demand for state intervention.

These brutal cuts set out to affront, to prick the conscience. In the cuts by Richard Doyle, on the other hand, the satire veers from whimsy to dream-like juxtapositions. Never concerned with social injustice at home, Doyle’s targets varied between satirical attacks on art, foreign affairs and developments in science. InThe Great Sea Serpent of 1848, he reflects on the overthrow of European rulers in the year of revolutions. The imagery of this cut also appears in his almanac design of 1849.

Doyle and the Sea-Serpent: a Contextual Reading

The Great Sea Serpent (Punch 15, 1848, 195–196) is a dramatic double-spread showing a huge snake-like monster with a basilisk’s stare looking down at a boat occupied by Europe’s deposed rulers. Large coils appear in the turbulent waters of political unrest and the sun is sinking on the horizon, the symbol of decline and change. The old and the new, revolution and traditional rule, are squarely opposed, and the difference between them is underscored by labels: the serpent has ‘Liberty’ inscribed on her French revolutionary cap and the foundering boat is named ‘L’ancien regime’. On the face of it, the message is unambiguous, but a contextual reading uncovers a greater resonance and implication than one might expect.

The cut openly mocks the deposed rulers, who are shown with journalistic exactitude. Topicality without particularization is a blunt instrument, and Doyle ensures that his satire is as focused as possible by presenting his characters as a veritable identity-parade of public figures. Louise-Philippe of France is placed to the right, while Ferdinand I of Austria is shown to the centre-fight, his crown slipping off his head; Ludwig I of Bavaria, his trade-mark moustache twitching with terror, occupies the centre while other rulers, among them Ferdinand V of Hungary and Charles II of Parma, complete the group. The fate of these figures had been widely reported in the British press, and Doyle presents them as a familiar cast, well-known faces that had featured in The Illustrated London News and elsewhere/

The implication of the rulers’ downfall is further projected by allusion, drawing on the audience’s familiarity with Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the Revolution (1830; Louvre, Paris). The monster’s face is a version of the Liberty’s portrait in Delacroix’s oil, a connection that links the uprisings across Europe to the prototype created by the French Revolution. History, Doyle insists, is just a matter of repetition: in the French upheaval the aristocrats were rounded up and ignobly sent to their death in a cart, and here we have a huddle of rulers confined and jostled not by a hostile mob but by each other and the movement of the choppy waves. Cast adrift, with no land in sight and with no-one at the helm, these directionless ex-leaders are almost as hopeless as those going to the block. This message was legible to the contemporary audience as a topical hit on the cataclysmic machinations of European politics which, it was feared, might spark a revolution in the United Kingdom.

The sea serpent was another hot issue. Doyle’s image appeared at a time when a number of such creatures were (allegedly) being sighted. The existence of unknown and monstrous fauna became an obsession on both sides of the Atlantic, with popular magazines carrying speculative essays on the creatures’ identity. The mysterious animal of Maine was the subject of fascination and so, more directly, was the sea-monster viewed in the South Atlantic from the deck of the British vessel, HMS Daedalus. This famous encounter was reported in The Illustrated London News in the last week of October 1848 (264), and formed the inspiration for Doyle’s unlikely serpent, which appeared a few weeks later.

Left: The celebrated sea-serpent of 1848, as viewed from the deck of “The Daedalus”. Right: The Great Serpent of 1848. Richard Doyle. Source: Punch. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Doyle’s depiction of the imaginary creature was a clever satirical strategy, conflating the travails of European politics with the more sensational appeal of what an unidentified reptile roaming the high seas. The humour is generated in the mismatch between the astonished faces of establishment figures and the weirdness of the sea-snake. But the incongruity had an important point as well. Revolution is personified as a monster about to replace the old guard – gobbling up the ex-rulers, just as reform is used to remove outmoded systems. It seems, in short, that Doyle’s cut endorses of the magazine’s radical politics


However, the fact that it is a monster complicates the issue. Doyle shows the rulers about to be consumed by a primeval creature, a creature of the imagination, therein implying that the disorder created by the fallen leaders will be replaced by another sort of disorder. The cartoon seems to suggest the application of just deserves, but the associations enshrined in the body of the monster are equally negative, handing tradition and the semblance of authority to the machinations of the unknown. The Great Serpent seems like an assertion of the need to sweep away the old, but Doyle’s cartoon might also be understood as an ambiguous piece of polemic. Which would you prefer, Doyle asks his audience: the drifting rulers – with their grotesque misapplication of power? Or the mindlessness of revolution? The fact that the serpent is identified as a symbol of the French Revolution further implies that change might be even worse than maintaining the status quo. Rodney Engen suggests that Doyle was a ‘staunch royalist’ (50), and The Great Sea-Serpent of 1848 can be read as a condemnation of revolutionary change rather than an attack on traditional rule.

More nuanced and ambivalent than it seems, the cartoon was hugely popular. In Paris, Charivari plagiarised the design, reversing it and adding more detail, and in the United Kingdom it was issued in the form of a magic-lantern slide (Engen, 50). In an age when Britain itself was threatened by revolution, the image captured the febrile tenor of it time, depicting the weaknesses of a humiliated ruling class while also suggesting the political and social dangers that might ensure from violent change. Using humour for cathartic effect, the design was the means of confronting and releasing some of the anxieties of a middle-class audience. In the end, Doyle implies, only fools benefit: a world of wild speculation where reason is replaced by the absurdities of believing in monsters. Tellingly, his frontispiece for the collected version of Punch for 1848 shows Punch as a Roman emperor surrounded by the wrecked statuary of the deposed rulers: the obsolete governed by yet another fool.

The Sea-Serpent Returns

The sea-serpent re-emerged in Doyle’s Punch illustrations for 1849, appearing in the form of an elaborate border for ‘The Phrenological Almanack’. There is no relationship between the writing and the imagery, and the artist used the space as an opportunity to present another take on mysterious fauna. Once again, his drawings are both amusing and ironic, making the audience laugh while interrogating the controversial question of the serpent’s existence.

Arranged in four panels, Doyle’s cryptozoological imagery presents not one but a myriad of monsters. In the right hand panel the serpents’ huge length, as claimed by observers, is richly ridiculed in the form of a huge, emaciated snake menacing the crow’s nest; in the frieze below the ship has been sunk, with sailors riding to safety on a gigantic eel’s back; on the left, the rescued mariners are menaced by another reptile; and in the head-piece they are surrounded by numerous others with ludicrous comic expressions. Incongruous and strange, Doyle’s farcical humour is situation comedy is both absurd and involving, operating in a register between the urbane and the child-like.

The imagery also functions as pastiche, making fun of the emerging discourse of speculation which surrounded the sea-serpent phenomenon. Serious claims were made in a developing literature, and it was widely believed that sea-monsters were simply animals awaiting classification; the relatively new science of palaeontology directed the research, and although many scholars were dismissive of any such claims, other experts in the field were convinced of the krakens’ materiality. Doyle, however, shows all this to be nonsense, countermanding any attempt to position the alleged animals in the zoological record. In his cartoon the serpent is shown in several guises: eel-like, with a mane, dog-like, with wings, like a hippopotamus, or with a nose like a swordfish, sometimes like a dragon and sometimes a crocodile. Mocked by sailors thumbing their noses, the creatures seem to come in all shapes and sizes and that is exactly the point: witness accounts were rarely consistent and Doyle insists that having one mysterious serpent would be astonishing, but having a variety utterly improbable. His satire, in other words, is directed at the gullibility of observers as much as the unlikelihood of the dinosaurs’ existence. Anticipating the strange sculptures of the Dinosaur Court of Crystal Palace Park (1852–54), which were subsequently shown to be wildly inaccurate as representations of ancient animals, Doyle questions the scientific integrity of studies in evolution before the discipline was codified by Darwin (1859). In this cartoon, there is no doubt that the monsters are a product of the over-active imagination and a willingness to believe, or misidentification. Doyle’s silliness condemns all such ‘science’ to the status of pseudo- science, a sailor’s yarn akin to other myths and fairy-tales.

Doyle is particularly effective as a parodist of the most famous sighting of the age, when the crew of the Daedalus (1848) supposedly had an encounter with a huge, eel-like kraken. Captain M’Quhae, an experienced man of the sea, claimed it had passed so closely that he could see it as clearly as one of his men on deck. Doyle, however, was unimpressed, satirising the creature’s proximity in the bottom panel, which shows the sailors rather too close for comfort as they ride on the serpent’s back: no ambiguity there, the cartoon sarcastically argues. The parody is focused, moreover, by the exact replication of the animal illustrated by an anonymous artist in The Illustrated London News, a joke that must have been relished by Punch readers. Indeed, on this occasion the scepticism chimed with expert opinion. The existence of the Daedalus serpent was challenged in the Times by the palaeontologist Richard Owen, who thought M’Quhae had misidentified a whale; most modern historians believe this to be the case.

Left: Another view of the celebrated sea-serpent of 1848, as reported by sailors of “The Daedalus”. Illustrated London News. Right: The Phrenological Almanck. Proof engraving by Richard Doyle. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Doyle’s sea-serpents are thus figured as motifs of multiple significance, acting as ironic observations on the nature of revolution, as travesties of palaeontology, and as satires of naiveté. Embedded in broad, farcical humour which fuses caricature with situation comedy, the images are a penetrating commentary on the foolishness of a febrile decade that was poised between idealism and credulity, fantasy and hard political fact.

Works Cited and Consulted

’The Great Sea-Serpent.’The Illustrated London News. 28 October 1848: 264.

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

O’Neill, J.P. The Geat Sea-Serpent.New York: Paraview, 2003.

Oudemans, A. C. The Geat Sea-Serpent. Leiden: Brill, 1892.

Punch. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1848–49.

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

Created 27 November 2017