Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Early Chartist cartoon found in US Library of Congress

Richard Doyle was one of the best known illustrators of the Victorian era. He drew the front cover of the first ever edition of Punch, designing a masthead for it that lasted more than a century.

But in 1839 at the age of 14 the young cartoonist turned his hand to some political satire, with a pen and ink sketch showing giant-sized Metropolitan Police officers using force to break up a Chartist gathering at the Bull Ring in Birmingham as the authorities cracked down on political dissent.

Richard Doyle's Chartist cartoon: as reported
by Roehampton University
The illustration can be seen here.

It was never published – not least because newspapers of the period lacked the technology to carry pictures of this sort. For more than a century, it lay gathering dust and forgotten in a sketchbook that at some point made its way to the United States.

But Doyle’s ground-breaking illustration – what was probably the first ever attempt to make a visual representation of a Chartist demonstration – has now been rediscovered and rescued from obscurity by Professor Ian Haywood of Roehampton University.

Professor Haywood, who  is researching previously unknown images of Chartism with the Chartist historian Stephen Roberts, came across the sketchpad in the US Library of Congress.

This image depicts in caricature form police brutality against peaceful, unarmed protestors in July 1839: the police and the authorities are depicted as giants wading into to the demonstration, kicking, scattering and grabbing Chartists by the handful. It is one of dozens of images in the sketchbook depicting open-air political meetings which suggests Doyle had a strong interest in contemporary events.

Professor Haywood says: "If Doyle's image had been published it would have been the first visual representation of a Chartist demonstration and a significant blow for Prime Minister Lord Melbourne's attempts to break up the movement. Doyle was a precocious talent and this could have made his name several years before he joined the staff of Punch and worked for Dickens.

"From a historical perspective, this image is immensely valuable as it fills a gap in our knowledge of how ordinary people perceived the 'threat' of Chartism and also the vindictiveness of the state. It also confirms the dramatic significance of this event, the first major Chartist riot, which hardened resolve on both sides."

The hope is that in due course the illustration will appear in a completely new version of the book Images of Chartism which Stephen Roberts co-authored with the late Dorothy Thomson back in 1998.

I understand from Stephen Roberts that he and Ian Haywood are still working on the project, and the book has yet to find a publisher, so it is unlikely to appear any time soon. However, I am sure I am not alone in eagerly anticipating its eventual appearance.

In the mean time, do take a look at the wealth of material on Stephen Roberts’ Chartism and the Chartists website.

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