Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Looking Glass (1825 ~ 1839)

The front page of the first edition of the Glasgow Looking Glass, 1825

The 1820s and 1830s were a period of transition for London’s print trade and English caricature in general. The introduction of lithography allowed publishing houses to do away with the expensive and timely process of copper-plate engravings and produce scores of smaller cruder illustrations to feed the demand for visual images coming from the newly affluent middle and industrial working classes. The subject matter of caricature also had to change to meet the demands of a rapidly diversifying market and consequently socio-cultural or purely aesthetic subjects began to replace the purely political and personal satires of the high Georgian-era.

One sign of how caricature began to change was the emergence of ‘magazines’ which contained several smaller lithographed or woodblock engraved prints published across three or four pages or on one large sheet. Retail prices varied depending on whether the magazine was purchased plain or coloured and on the audience it was aimed at – Those produced by the more fashionable print shops of London’s West End could cost as much as six shillings whilst a cheaper magazine, such as C.J. Grant’s Everybody’s Album and Caricature Magazine, could be purchased uncoloured for sixpence.  

Given that the concept of the caricature magazine were rooted in the economics of thrift it is perhaps not too surprising that they originated in Scotland. In 1825 the English artist and caricaturist William Heath moved to Glasgow in order to execute a commission to paint a number of landscape scenes in oils and whilst there he sought to resume publishing caricatures, presumably as a means of generating some additional income. Heath must have realised pretty quickly that the market for prints in Glasgow was likely to be much smaller than that in the Capital and that it would not sustain the kind of elaborate copperplate designs he was used to producing for his wealthy London audiences. The solution was therefore to offer his Scottish customers more value for money – by providing them with several illustrations for a shilling instead of just one and presenting caricature in a format they would recognise by presenting it like a newspaper.

A self-portrait of the caricaturist William Heath taken from issue 14 of the Northern Looking Glass

The first fortnightly edition of Heath’s Glasgow Looking Glass appeared on 11th June 1825 and four more issues were produced under this title before the magazine was renamed the Northern Looking Glass in order to reflect the fact that it commented on events taking place across Scotland. The last edition of the magazine appeared on the 3rd April 1826, shortly before Heath left Glasgow and returned to London.

The Northern Looking Glass No.6. 1825. The magazine focused on Scottish news and social satire about life in Scotland during the mid-1820s. The sixth edition of the Northern Looking Glass featured a series of prints about the scourge of 'resurrection men' and the links between grave-robbing and Scotland's schools of medicine.

Heath reverted back to the production of traditional single-plate satirical prints upon his return to the Metropolis in 1826, however the publisher Thomas McLean appears to have encouraged him to revisit the magazine format in 1830 and the pair published the first issue of a new magazine, now simply called The Looking Glass, in April of that year. It seems fairly clear that McLean was probably the primary force behind the new magazine as William Heath abandoned the project after completing the seventh edition in July 1830. The historian Richard Pound has suggested that Heath and McLean may have squabbled over production techniques, with the canny publisher preferring the cheaper method of lithography and Heath preferring to stick to traditional methods of engraving. This is entirely possible, although a simpler explanation may simply be that by the middle of 1830 William Heath’s career as a satirist was nearing its creative and commercial peak and that he simply did not have the time or inclination to devote himself to producing a fortnightly caricature magazine.  
The first edition of The Looking Glass published in London, 1830

McLean immediately drafted in the up-and-coming artist Robert Seymour to replace Heath. Seymour, who is now best remembered for his illustrations in The Pickwick Papers, took over from issue 8 and worked with the periodical until his tragic death in April 1836. Seymour’s presence at the Looking Glass resulted for short time in the page being built up from a mass of small images, but it seems likely that McClean wanted to take the periodical in another direction closer to the old style of large satirical political images. He re-titled the magazine McLean’s Monthly Sheet of Caricatures or the Looking Glass, and may well have exercised closer control over Seymour’s choice of subjects, perhaps drawing in amateurs to suggest topics. Seymour worked on at the magazine until 1836, having left Figaro in London acrimoniously in 1834. He was replaced by Henry Heath, who showed much more interest in city life than in traditional political subjects.

A later edition of the magazine with illustrations by Robert Seymour

The Looking Glass was relatively long lived for such an expensive periodical was extremely influential in establishing seriality as the principle mode for the publication of caricature, far outselling its contemporary rivals like C.J. Grant’s Everybody’s Album and Bell’s Life in London, and making the case for the multi-image page as a proper medium for comic art.


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