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Punch's Depictions of Queen Victoria

As John Plunkett makes clear in Queen Victoria : First Media Monarch, Victoria placed much emphasis on disseminating a carefully constructed public image of herself. However, this went beyond official photographs and portraits, as in some ways, ‘a mutually beneficial relationship grew up between the monarchy and the press’ (Plunkett 200). This was partly because ‘Even in his most democratic days Punch never caricatured the Sovereign. The portraits of the Queen are always pleasant, even flattering’ (Graves 186). However, Punch also acted as ‘the mirror’ of ‘enlightened middle-class opinion’ (Graves 169), frequently changing its opinion to suit the mood of the times. This will be argued in relation to specific cartoons of Victoria.

Punch-Victoria-1

Firstly, Punch was quick to point up Victoria’s frequent visits around the country for publicity. Plunkett comments that ‘A wryly amused Punch noted Victoria’s propensity for visitations by publishing, in two separate articles, a list of the prospective marine excursions and distinguished visitors over the next five years’ (Plunkett 41). One such cartoon depicts the royal family’s visit to the opening of the Great Exhibition. It is entitled “HER MAJESTY, as She Appeared on the FIRST of MAY, Surrounded by “ Horrible Conspirators and Assassins” ” (1851) (Punch 196). With this, Punch is being deeply ironic, as the Queen is clearly surrounded by loyal supporters.

Women’s opinion of the queen is presented as particularly high in this illustration, as they dominate the foreground, with all of their eyes fixed politely on Victoria and her family. This emphasises her position as feminine role model to those in middle class attire. Men are present in the background, however, and are applauding by waving their top hats in the air. This adoring crowd stretches back to a balcony in the near distance. Victoria herself, is indeed depicted favourably. Her features are pleasing, her stance is dignified. As in the official portraits, her dress-cut also emphasises her female figure. Victoria is drawn with more precision than anyone in the picture and she is also almost centred in the frame, denoting her importance in the scene. A final mark of respect is seen in the presence of Mr Punch himself, bowing with closed eyes. As Graves says, ‘Punch was always ready to speak disrespectfully of a dictator. Constitutional monarchy he could respect and even admire’, which is apparent here. (Graves 170).

Punch-Victoria-2

Secondly, Punch happily passed judgement on current events. However, this often tactfully avoided implicating the Queen in any wrongdoing. As Plunkett argues, ‘Much of Victoria’s attraction’ relied upon ‘her femininity’ which allowed her to appear ‘politically innocent’ (Plunkett 20). This can be seen in the cartoon, “The Queen visiting the Imbeciles of the Crimea” (1855). As Dr Marjorie Bloy comments, ‘The occasion of the Queen visiting the wounded who had just returned from the Crimea was taken by Punch magazine as an opportunity to draw attention to the failures of the Commissariat, the Medical department and, indeed, all the departments connected with the Crimean War.’ (Bloy 1).This cartoon is indeed intriguing in its differentiated presentation of the Queen and the event.

The departments are heavily satirized, most obviously in their title ‘imbeciles’, suggesting their lack of intelligence. Physically they are not even presented as people, but instead, inanimate puppets, spliced together in a haphazard fashion. This is clearly Punch’s view of British soldiers’ disastrous management and conditions. The label on the Medical Department puppet says ‘When taken, ought to be well shaken’, implying its severe incompetence and its need to be ‘shaken’ into effective action. Its position on crutches also symbolises the state of injury and sickness so many soldiers were left in and dying from. The figure labelled ‘Routine’ is presented in an equally derogatory way. The uniform represents an army leader, but its ‘pig’s head’ may represent pig-headed stubbornness on the part of those imparting disastrous orders. This leader also appears well-fed, which contrasts with the ‘Commissariat’ figure that contains shelves emptied of food and only possessing coffee.

Punch-Victoria-3

Although Punch seems to be overturning, the jingoistic ‘military similes and models’ that ‘were much in vogue’ at the time, the Queen herself is not satirized (Morris 404) . She instead appears genuinely concerned and remains dignified in clothing and expression. This is seen in a similar vein when Punch, more than once, depicted the Queen’s relations with Benjamin Disraeli. The final cartoon I have chosen to elaborate on is labelled “New Crowns for Old Ones!”, which visualises Victoria eventually allowing Disraeli to crown her Empress of India in 1876. However, it also draws strongly on Arabian Nights. As Stoker says ‘Some of Tenniel's … stereotyped Arabs … seem to come straight out of the popular Nights pantomimes, and their interchangeability with Jews is borne out in the portrayal of Disraeli as a pantomime magician’. He continues that ‘he bears a strong resemblance in profile and pose to Tenniel's Alnaschar, from his hunched-up shoulders right down to the positioning of his feet, while Victoria is, ironically, quite the opposite of the deceitful lady’ (Stoker 3).

Again, the monarch receives the preferential treatment. The Prime Minister is reduced to a prejudiced stereotype, presented at once as; foreign, untrustworthy and caricatured. Victoria, by contrast, is depicted with seriousness. She appears sombre, regal and in a similar stance and costume to those of her royal portraits. This reflects the fact that ‘the chief ground of the unpopularity of the Court was that it gave an unfair preference to everything foreign … Satiric reference to the royal patronage of foreigners began in Punch’s first volume’ (Graves 166). Although Disraeli was to an extent seeking the Queen’s favour, any additional reference to his actual foreign policy is ignored. Punch is therefore happy to retain a bias that was alive in public opinion. It was, similarly, much more critical of Prince Albert and his German connection than it ever was of the English Queen.

This essay has shown that Punch was at times fiercely satirical of contemporary British events and figures. However, when presenting the generally popular Queen in particular, its illustrators were well-aware of their boundaries.

Sources

Bloy, Marjorie Dr. “British Foreign Policy 1815-65.” A Web of English History. Last Modified 19 April, 2007. 12 May 2008. http://www.historyhome.co.uk/forpol/crimea/imbecile.htm

Graves, Charles, L. Mr Punch’s history of modern England. London; New York (etc.) : Cassell and Company Ltd. 1921-22.

Morris, James. Pax Britannia : The Climax of an Empire. Middlesex, Penguin : 1987.

Plunkett, John. Queen Victoria : First Media Monarch. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2003.

Punch or The London Charivari. London : Punch Publications Limited, 1851.

Stoker, Gill. ‘The Arabian Nights’. The Tenniel Site. 12 May 2008. http://discuss2.open.ac.uk/~gill_stoker/nights.htm

 

This page was written by Anna Marshall


 

This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.

Email Dr Litvack with your comments: L.Litvack at qub.ac.uk