Monday, March 11, 2013

The Benny Hill (Or Soupy Sales) of 19th C. British Caricaturists

by Stephen J. Gertz

A Cutlass. (Cut-Lass).

In 1828, a tasty if somewhat groan-inducing gallimaufry of visual wordplay, corniness, and puns in aquatint caricature, Joe Lisle's Play Upon Words, was published by Thomas McLean, the renowned publisher of satirical prints. Very little is known about it. At its time of issue it may have been very popular; word-play, particularly punning, has a long tradition within English folk culture. Though often considered low humor it was a pleasure, innocent or guilty,  across social class. Fun with language is global; even Inuits enjoy its wit.

Taking a Galloway. (Girl away).
A Grenadier. (Granny-dear).

Little is known about Joseph Lisle (fl. 1828-1835), who, based upon a small collection of individual caricatures found in the British Museum, was a satirical designer and lithographer who specialized in visual wordplay and social satire. In addition to Thomas McLean, his work was published by George Hunt, Berthoud & Son, S. Gans, S.W. Fores, Frederick William Collard, Z.T. Purday, S. Maunders, Paine & Hopkins, and Gabriel Shire Tregear. He received notice in Figaro In London (1834, Vols 3-4, p. 139), the forerunner of Punch, for "a clever caricature" regarding the national debt.

In 1828, the same year that he published his Play Upon Words, Joe Lisle created an aquatint for a series, British Classics. The Spectator, published by Berthoud & Son and captioned Very Fond of Prints & a Drawing Master. Within, "A man in quasi-fashionable dress with spurred top-boots and knee-breeches gapes oafishly at a print-shop window, while a little boy, respectably dressed, takes a purse from his breeches-pocket, having already twitched a handkerchief from the coat-tail pocket which hangs inside out" (M. Dorothy George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum).

Unlike the aquatints in Play Upon Words, he signed it at lower left ("J. Lisle"). Very Fond of Prints and a Drawing Master shamelessly promotes Joe Lisle's Play Upon Words by featuring it in a double-spread in the center display window at far left.

 The "Drawing Master" of the caption is likely  self-referential. Circa 1830, he drew, etched and  stipple-engraved, and published A Designing Character, with what may be the only image of Lisle we have, a poverty-stricken starving artist.

M. Dorothy George, in the British Museum's Catalogue of British Political And Personal Satires (no. 16413), describes it as "seemingly a self-portrait, a youngish artist in a garret lit by a skylight. He sits in a massive arm-chair under a low slanting roof (right), leaning his head on his right hand, palette and brushes in the left hand. He is neatly dressed and looks with fixed but amiable melancholy through spectacles at the spectator. Easel and canvas are on the left. At his feet is an open portfolio; a tea-pot and bottle are on a rickety stool and on the floor is a frying-pan filled with small coals (sign of great poverty cf. BM Satires No. 14993). A bust on a bracket under the roof is the sole decoration."

A Pioneer. (A pie-on-here).

Here, then, is a collection by a journeyman satirical caricaturist who, if not a peer of his contemporaries Cruikshank, Seymour, Heath, Alken, and Woodward, left a notable mark, however small, in the field.

As to why so little is known and so little produced by Lisle, one can only speculate that he, clearly no stranger to melancholy, was, as so many journeyman artists and writers of his time, perhaps a little too familiar with the play upon livers by ardent spirits.

Misadvised. (Miss-advised).

Whatever the reason for his obscurity he fell through the cracks and Joe Lisle's  Play Upon Words escaped the notice of caricature and color-plate book bibliographers; it is an orphan not found in Abbey, Prideaux, or Tooley. Perhaps it wasn't popular, few copies were printed and fewer survived. Perhaps Lisle's humor was too obvious, the Benny Hill of British caricature, less clever than broad, relying on easy gags rather than sharp social observation, low-brow music hall comedy rather than sly wit. When you have to explain the puns in wink-wink nudge-nudge, Get it?  parenthetical asides you're in trouble.

Americans who were weaned on a certain classic children's show of the '50s through early 1960s will recognize Lisle as a forerunner to comedian Milton Supman (1926-2009), who, performing on U.S. television as Soupy Sales, captured the goofy, simple pleasures of sophomoric humor.

Muggy Weather

I know why there's a beer keg standing by
Muggy weather
Just can't get my poorself together
Without a pint or three.
(Apologies to Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler).

Joe Lisle's Play Upon Words is now an extremely rare volume: ABPC notes only one copy at auction since 1970 and OCLC/KVK record only four copies in institutional holdings worldwide.

[LISLE, Joseph]. Joe Lisle's Play Upon Words. London: Thomas McLean, 1828. Small oblong quarto (6 1/2 x 10 in; 166 x 253 mm). Forty hand-colored aquatint plates, watermarked 1825, with interleaves.

The Plates:
1.    An Action off Spit-Head
2.    Muggy Weather
3.    A Cutlass. (Cut-Lass)
4.    A Chaste Character. (Chased)
5.    An Ad-mired Character
6.    Lath
7.    Plaister
8.    A Coal Meter. (A Coal meet-Her)
9.    A Rain Bow. (Beau)
10.  An Officious Character. (O-Fish's)
11.  A Jewel. (A Jew-Ill.)
12.  A Sub-Lime Character
13.  A Stage Manager
14.  A Stable Character
15.  My Hog & I. (Mahogany)
16.  Elegant Extracts
17.  A very amusing Company. (Ham-using)
18.  Sootable (Suitable) Characters
19.  A Charger
20.  A Sophist-Ical Argument
21.  Taking a Galloway. (Girl Away)
22.  A Diving Belle
23.  The Dread-Nought taking A Smack
24.  Moore's (Blackamoors.) Loves of the Angels
25.  A Grenadier. (Granny-dear)
26.  A Pioneer. (A Pie-on-here)
27.  Misadvised. (Miss-advised)
28.  A Dutch Place. (Plaice)
29.  May we meet more numerous & never less respectable
30.  Metaphysics. (Met-he-Physics?)
31.  Coming off with a claw (├ęclat)
32.  A Common Sewer. (Sower)
33.  Empailed. (Him pailed)
34.  Mutual Civility
35.  An Armless (Harmless) Character
36.  Canon Law. (Cannon)
37.  (History) His-story
38.  The Infant in Arms
39.  A Man Milling her. (Milliner)
40.  Mistaken. (Miss-taken)

Images from Joe Lisle's Play Upon Words courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

Images of Very Fond of Prints and a Drawing Master and A Designing Master courtesy of the British Museum, with our thanks.

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