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Henry Bunbury, the Suffolk caricaturist with a wonderful eye for ordinary English life

PUBLISHED: 15:49 11 March 2013 | UPDATED: 15:49 11 March 2013

Curator Sophie Woods with the Shakespeare playbook illiustrated by Henry Bunbury.

Curator Sophie Woods with the Shakespeare playbook illiustrated by Henry Bunbury.

Archant

What do the cartoons of Carl Giles and the great satirists like Thomas Rowlandson have in common? Apart from being illustrations, not a lot, you may presume. But, in fact, they share a similar inspiration - a need to use art to comment on society and then spread the message in print.

The late 18th and early 19th century was a time when cartoons and satire flourished. The Regency was a period of great change – a period of great social and political upheaval, engineered and fuelled by the development of the printing press.

It was the time of the satirist, which went hand-in-hand with the revolution that was happening in Parliament.

For the first time ever, the votes of the (albeit limited) electorate were being sought. Great speeches were made on the hustings, politicians like Charles Fox and William Pitt The Younger became public figures, and the activities of the gentry – people like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – became the subject of gossip and speculation.

This mix of society and politics provided rich material for the satirists who were thriving in an era when more people could read and the industrial revolution had allowed the printing press to produce cheaper books, newspapers and pamphlets.

It was an age when Britain was starting to establish its place in the world, the empire was starting to grow, trade flourished and Britain found itself increasingly wealthy.

The arts, fashion and architecture became the defining characteristics of the era. Science and engineering also leapt on apace, but the arts drew attention to itself.

Theatre thrived. Playwrights like Richard Sheridan held a mirror up to society with his sharp-edged comedies like The Rivals and School For Scandal.

David Garrick was the great actor of his day. As the industrial revolution drew people out of the countryside and into the towns and cities, theatre became an increasingly popular past-time, particularly with the burgeoning middle-classes.

Theatres like the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal sprang up all over the country and allowed the people a voice – it allowed them to laugh at their so-called betters.

The visual arts also liked the ability to bite the hand that fed it. While fine art in the hands of John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough continued to push boundaries in terms of style and technique, it was all very respectable. Constable captured the best of Britain’s landscapes while Gainsborough immortalised the people who owned the land.

During the Georgian and Regency years another type of highly skilled artist began to emerge – the cartoonist. He worked with pen and ink and sometimes with watercolours.

His work was disseminated mostly as prints or in pamphlets. Like Sheridan, he too held up a mirror to society and what it reflected. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty. Artists like William Hogarth produced prints entitled Beer Street and Gin Lane, along with the famous pairing of A Harlot’s Progress followed by The Rake’s Progress. These became hugely popular and influential commentaries on the ills of society.

Other illustrators, like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank, picked up Hogarth’s baton after his death and turned it into a legitimate art form.

The illustrations looked at how society was changing, how Britain was finding its place in the world, and lampooned how the rich grew fat, lazy and corrupt on the back of Britain’s new-found wealth.

Whereas Hogarth’s work frequently adopted a moralising tone, Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, the younger generation, were sharper and more satirical – more critical.

They took the view that with privilege came responsibility and all too often Britain’s ruling classes were abdicating their responsibilities. Interestingly, Suffolk had its own accomplished satirist, Henry William Bunbury, a good friend to Rowlandson and co, and someone who has dropped out of the spotlight unlike his more famous friends.

Bunbury was the second son of Sir William Bunbury, 5th baronet of Mildenhall, and lived at Barton Hall in Great Barton.

Unlike his friends, Bunbury did not go in for political satire and saved his perceptive observations for social commentary and a great series of Shakespeare illustrations.

Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury has, over the last 20-30 years, amassed one of the finest collections of Bunbury’s work and it is currently on display. It reveals one of Suffolk’s finest draughtsmen.

The exhibition has been pulled together by curator Sophie Woods. She explained that although Bunbury was educated at Westminster School and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, his artistic skills were probably self-taught.

Although Rowlandson and Gillray are better known today, it is believed that Bunbury had a huge influence on these great names.

It is known that Rowlandson was inspired to take up cartooning by Bunbury and Gillray engraved some of Bunbury’s drawings.

“It was a small world and they were obviously a great support to one another.”

But, unlike his friends, Bunbury managed to straddle both worlds – he was a satirist and a member of the aristocracy. Whereas his contemporaries delighted in firing political barbs, Bunbury was more of a humourist.

He lampooned the powder-puffery of the elite with a series of Barber Shop prints, he cast a jaundiced eye over the feasting by the well-to-do, and gently mocked their obsession with riding (Hints to Bad Horsemen) in the guise of Geoffrey Gambado, for whom he even conjured up an imaginary self-portrait. His cruellest caricatures were reserved for the French – who are portrayed as weasel-faced revolutionaries who have a fondness for wearing over-sized wooden shoes.

In 1769, aged 19, Bunbury went on the expected grand tour of France and Italy and his experiences there shaped his view of the world.

Sophie said: “He seems to have been obsessed with dogs. These pictures dealing with foreign subjects are characterised by lots of dogs seemingly running riot.

“Although his portrayal of fat John Bull is not particularly gracious, his caricatures of foreigners, and the French in particular, expose the stereotypical attitudes of the period.”

It has to be pointed out that the war with Napoleon was on-going at this time and Bunbury was equerry to the Duke of York and colonel of the West Suffolk Militia.

Although, he appeared to have a dim view of foreigners, Bunbury was, it seems, a cultured man with a wide circle of friends.

Sophie Woods said: “It would appear that he had an easy, gentle sense of humour. People like Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith were good friends.

“But another friend, David Garrick, reveals Bunbury’s other passion – the theatre. He loved theatre, he was a keen amateur actor himself, and it is believed that Catherine, Bunbury’s wife, may have been the model for Comedy in Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy.”

Bunbury produced several large-scale illustrations for various Shakespeare plays which were then incorporated in a giant bound volume.

Not only does the Gainsborough’s House exhibition have several of the prints on view, it also has a copy of one of the outsized collections of Shakespeare which Bunbury worked on.

Another indication of his standing is the fact that the Duke of York probably commissioned his Shakespeare work. Also, gifted artists like Rowlandson and Gillray, and expert engravers like William Dickinson, were happy to produce etchings for him.

“It’s a startling collection of work, covering a wide range of subjects,” said Sophie. “It’s also a rare opportunity to put a series like The Five Senses up on the wall together, or show off the really long works like A Long Minuet Dance At Bath. Works like that are difficult to display in the main house because the walls aren’t long enough.

“We hope the people of Suffolk will rediscover this wonderful illustrator: this caricaturist who was an excellent artist, an exceptional talent, and had a wonderful eye not only for humour but also for observing ordinary English life and attitudes at an important time in our history.”

Life and Laughter in the 18th Century: Henry William Bunbury continues until March 16.

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