Cruikshank Collection of Drawings and Prints

in the Princeton University Library

          Few artists have made such a profound impression on the popular imagination as the illustrator and caricaturist George Cruikshank.  Born in 1792, Cruikshank learned the rudiments of printmaking from his father Isaac Cruikshank, designing song heads, lottery puffs, and satirical prints in the styleof Rowlandson and Gillray.  His etched, hand-colored caricatures amused,astounded, and scandalized an increasingly prosperous and educated public, well informed about current events and eager to expand its role in political affairs. The Princeton University Library has more than six hundred of his prints, ridiculing the extravagant foibles of High Society, the imperial pretensions of Napoleon, the dissipated conduct of the Regent, and the petty intrigues of Cabinet officials.  He also earned a few shillings on the side by sketching designs to be cut in wood for book illustrations and pictorial broadsheets.  The Radical publisher William Hone commissioned him to provide the satirical woodcuts for The Political House that Jack Built (1819), a pamphlet attacking government corruption with such caustic wit and sheer bravado that it went through forty editions in six months.  However, Cruikshank is probably best known for his etched illustrations in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, (1838), the first English edition of Grimms’ fairy tales (1823-6), and the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott (1836-8). With a nervous line, perfect for the etching medium, he excelled in depicting fantastic creatures, grotesque characters, frenzied action, outlandish costumes, and scurrilous scenes in the urban underworld. Although this style went out of fashion in the 1840s, Cruikshank still kept in the public eye with his illustrations for temperance tracts, historical works, and an English edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).  He was ardent social reformer throughout his life, passionately denouncing the evils of drink, slavery, cruelty to animals, and arbitrary power.  In his last years, he experimented with oil painting, though without any great success.  He died in 1878, one of England’s best known and most prolific artists, thought to have designed as many as twelve thousand printed images in books, magazines, pamphlets, prints and printed ephemera.
          Cruikshank’s work was avidly collected even in his own day. Chronically short of ready cash, but fully aware of his rising reputation, he often pulled proof impressions of his more ambitious prints on large paper or India paper for sale to connoisseurs.  A vast quantity of his correspondence survives, perhaps as many as 8,500 letters in American and British repositories.  His widow bequeathed more than a thousand drawings to the British Museum. Many libraries in America have impressive Cruikshank collections, but it could be said that the Princeton University Library has the most comprehensive holdings of books, manuscripts, artwork, and correspondence.  Princeton entered the field in 1913, when the investment banker Richard Waln Meirs, Class of 1888, donated his personal collection to the Library, which has made several major acquisitions since then, most recently three original drawings for illustrations in William Harrison Ainsworth’s Tower of London (1840) bound with forty-one India proofs before letters.  Robert L. Patten spent several summers working in the Princeton archive preparing his monumental two-volume biography, George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art (1992-6).  Also, in 1974 Patten edited a special issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle presenting a ‘revaluation’ of Cruikshank with essays by the novelist John Fowles, the collector Richard Vogler, the Hogarth specialist Ronald Paulson, and other scholars.  Much of the commentary in this web site is based on Patten’s biography, the Chronicle essays, and the bibliographical information in Albert M. Cohn’s George Cruikshank: A Catalogue Raisonné (London, 1924).  For an account of Cruikshank’s achievements from the viewpoint of a modern master of pictorial satire, see our Comic Art at Princeton University website, curated by the New Yorker cartoonist, Henry Martin, Class of 1948.
          In 1991 the Library completed a finding aid of the Cruikshank Collection, listing the contents of 35 boxes of loose manuscripts as well as short-titles of bound manuscripts (described more fully in the Library’s MASC database).  Most of the prints and all of the drawings are listed in the VISUALS database.  This web site includes a catalogue of the drawings and an interactive exhibition of prints and drawings.
         This web site includes a catalogue of the drawings and an interactive exhibition of prints and drawings.
          This web site was designed by Mura Craiutu, Special Collections Assistant in the Visual Materials Division, as part of an independent study project in the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at Rutgers University.  Kirk Alexander, Manager of the Multimedia Engineering Computing Atelier, created the Almagest networked database used here for comparing images and organizing cataloging records. Inquiries or suggestions are welcome and can be addressed to rbsc@princeton.edu.