I recently finished reading ‘City of Laughter‘ by Vic Gatrell and what a treat it was. For anyone interested in satirical prints, this should be a mandatory text to learn how the originals – Gilray, Rowlandson and the Cruikshanks – got their messages to the masses in a time before Newsnight and Private Eye.
The book is a weighty one, although scattered with fascinating prints, but Gatrell actually writes like someone interested in the subject and not like an academic whose works are so often impenetrable to the wider audience. His approach is a logical one covering all aspects of the printing culture in eighteenth-century London from the rakes and Royals to the bawdy houses and down and outs. His conclusions are illuminating and his examinations of the artists themselves show a somewhat different attitude to satire and its subjects.
Granted, there are also multitudes of naked flesh and fart jokes but as Gatrell explains, these symbols tickled the eighteenth-century audience and they were much less prudish about sex than their Victorian successors and perhaps even modern day tastes.
Perhaps the most interesting sections of this work are those that explain the period of change that affected the print culture at the start of the Nineteenth Century. The artists’ ceased to portray so many mocking pictures of the Royal family either because of bribery or through fear of prosecution. The radical printers gradually fizzled away into compliant and more tasteful (or less shocking) portrayers of society.
Apart from some slight repetition among the chapters, there is little for me to criticize about this piece. A very enjoyable and often laugh out loud work that really shows the roots of modern day satire.