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Monday, July 06, 2009

Jemmy Catnach: proto-comic publisher

Yesterday's post on Aaargh! inspired a little bit of digging. In the Bumper Souvenir Brochure, actually a flimsy 12-pager printed by IPC Magazines for the Institute of Contemporary Arts, there's a brief piece by Denis Gifford in which he wrote "The first ever British comic—the number one of Number Ones—is still to be found. Perhaps it never will—for, like us all, the British comic is the product of evolution."

Gifford went on to nominate Jemmy Catnatch as the publisher of "what can be called the first British comic." This was Life in London; or, The Sprees of Tom and Jerry; attempted in cuts and verse, produced on 23 March 1822. The broadside ran to an astonishing 35 editions, although by the time Charles Hindley wrote his Life and Times of James Catnach in 1869, only a single copy was known to exist.

In July 1821, Pierce Egan published the first monthly part of Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis. These rambles were embellished "with Scenes from Real Life" designed and etched by I. R. and G. Cruikshank. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature notes that Egan wrote nothing as popular as this book. "Indeed, the taste for it amounted to a craze" George Cruickshank later admitted that he left the book two-thirds of the way through, declaring his doubts about the morality of Egan's work, and most of the illustrations were done by his brother Isaac Robert. "Be that as it may," continues the essay...
the success of the work was so great that the artists could not colour the engravings fast enough for the demand. It suited the taste of the time, when a “fast” life had become a sophisticated and conscious aim. Life in London is a guide to a fast life. Egan was a “sporting” man who did not sport. Except for a jejunely described run with hounds, a statement that Corinthian Tom had a set-to with John Jackson, the ex-champion pugilist of England, at his rooms in Bond street, and some praise from Tom’s friends for his “superior style” and “coolness and skill” in a fencing bout with O’shaunessy, there is not a word of true sport in the book. The remainder is mainly drinking, gambling, rioting, cock-fighting and other branches of debauchery, either practiced or contemplated by the friends. It is significant that, of the three adventurers, the name of Corinthian Tom appears in the largest type upon the title-page. Tom, indeed, is the hero of the tale. He is the ideal “man about town”; and, however lavishly the author may praise his elegance and accomplishment, he remains the type of the polished blackguard, unworthy to associate with his country cousin, Jerry Hawthorn, the cheery fool to whom he shows “the pleasures of the town,” and only a shade more intolerable than the bestial creature, Bob Logic, who is intended for a model of good-humour and wit. In his first chapter, or “invocation,” Egan appeals to Fielding, Goldsmith, Smollett and Sterne (“Come, then,” he characteristically writes, “thou shades of departed talent”). His book, with its leer and wink of knowing vice, its sickly affectation of warning young men from the haunts and pursuits that it lusciously describes, would have disgusted even Sterne in the moments when his physical weakness was most perverting his facile imagination. The candid rogues of great picaresque fiction would be ashamed to own Tom or Logic for their kin. Thackeray, indulging in sentimental reminiscences in days when “the literary contents of the book” had “passed sheer away” from his memory, declared that, in the days when the work appeared, we firmly believed the three heroes above named to be types of the most elegant, fashionable young fellows the town afforded, and thought their occupations and amusements were those of all highbred English gentlemen.
The hugely popular book was ripe for imitators. Almost immediately came Real Life in London; or, The Rambles and Adventures of Bob Tallyho, Esq., and his cousin, the Hon. Tom Dashall in sixpenny numbers; a stage play entitled Tom and Jerry followed in September; two more plays by Charles Dibden and W. T. Moncrieff (William Thomas Thomas) were in production by November, the latter boasting that the costumes and scenary were "superintended by Mr I. R. Cruickshank, from the drawing by himself and his brother, Mr George Cruickshank". Ten different productions were running successfully before Egan himself finally "got up" a performance at the Sadler's Wells in April 1822.

Pierce Egan became so aggrieved by the pirating and parodying of his work that he wrote The Finish to the Adventures of Tom, Jerry, and Logic, in their Pursuits through Life In and Out of London, with illustrations by Robert Cruikshank. Published in 1828, Egan stated that he believed no less than 65 publications, which he listed, derived from his work, adding: "We have been pirated, COPIED, traduced; but unfortunately, not ENRICHED by our indefatigable exertions; therefore NOTORIETY must satisfy us, instead of the smiles of FORTUNE."

It is not at all surprising that Jemmy Catnach, printer extraordinaire, was amongst Egan's "mob of literary pirates".

"It is significant," says The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, "that, within twelve hours of the appearance of Life in London, the title, the names and the story were seized upon by James Catnach, who put forth, from his printing-house in Monmouth court, Seven Dials, a twopenny broadside, entitled Life in London; or, the Sprees of Tom and Jerry; attempted in cuts and verse, with twelve plates very roughly imitated from the Cruikshanks’."

According to Hindley,
Catnach brought out a "whole sheet" of letter-press for street-sale, entitled "Life in London," with twelve woodcuts, which are reduced and very roughly executed copies of the centre figures of the original plates by the Brothers Cruickshank—but all in reverse. The letter-press matter consists of flash songs, and a poetical epitome of the plot and design of the original work of "Life in London." And taking it as it stands, and from where it emanated, rather a creditable performance, particularly when we take into consideration—as duly announced by the street-patterer, that it was "just printed and pub—lish—ed, all for the low charge of twopence."
It is worth remembering that the above pages, reproduced from Hindley's biography of Catnach, are laid out across 12 pages where the original was a single broadsheet of approximately 50 cm by 37½cm, in which form it may have resembled more of a comic strip, which it doesn't so much in the above version. According to Gifford, "Catnach's anonymous cartoonist/engraver ... established the physical form of the basic comic strip which, unlike American counterparts, tends to tell its tale by typeset captions placed beneath the frames. Perhaps these slabs of print helped lock the separate blocks into place, or was it simply cheaper and easier to cut small, individual blocks than fit them into the full-page frame? At any rate, the traditional British comic stuck to a folded broadsheet or tabloid size, with pages of print-captioned panels alternating with typeset stories for more than fifty years."

Should it be accepted that Catnach's Life in London is Britain's first comic as Gifford would have it (or, at the very least, a proto-comic), this would make Tom and Jerry the first regular (proto-)comic characters, as they featured in two sequels: Green in France; or, Tom and Jerry's Rambles Through Paris, on 26 December 1822, and The Charlies' Holiday; or, The Tears of London at the Funeral of Tom and Jerry, on 25 March 1823, forty-five years before Ally Sloper first sloped into the pages of Judy.