British Caricature and Queer Fashioning (1750-1900)

On 16 January 2017, Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality (BiGS), hosted a public lecture by Professor Dominic Janes on British Caricature and Queer Fashioning 1750-1900. Here, Kathryn Hallam-Howard, a History of Art student at Birkbeck reflects on the event.

One of the great things about Birkbeck is the sheer diversity of the modules on offer and the way they often link into different fields of study. This year a new module entitled Satire, Caricature, Cartoon: From Punch to Charlie Hebdo was offered by the School of Arts to BA History of Art  students. Dr Kasia Murawska-Muthesius teaches this course and she along with myself and my fellow students attended a presentation by Professor Dominic Janes of Keele University about his research project on ‘queer fashioning through caricature’.

The event was organised  by the BiGS and supported by the Raphael Samuel History Centre and our aim, as art historians, was to better understand how caricature influences gender and sexuality studies and to add a new dimension to our seminar discussions. Interestingly, Dominic explained how he came to use caricature, which is often ignored as primary source material, to analyse the representation of the male homosexual in Victorian society. At that time, male same sex acts were criminalised, which creates an obvious gap in research material, as same sex desire was either not written about or was so encoded that it was only intelligible to those ‘in the know’. Caricature was seemingly free of those inhibitions and proved a rich vein to draw upon. Several cartoons demonstrated that there was a thriving Georgian and later Victorian tradition of representing the male homosexual as an effete character with an etiolated body and limp wrist action. This is pic-2typical of caricature’s reliance upon the “grotesque” to deliver its critique. It regularly takes identifiable mannerisms and physical features and distorts or exaggerates them. Usually the subject of the satirical attack is immediately identifiable. We recognize a cartoon of Donald Trump because cartoonists lampoon his bouffant hair and we know who he is because he is the man of the moment and caricature is, above all, topical.

However, the portrayal of homosexuals in Georgian and Victorian cartoons is interesting because they rely upon the viewer recognizing the tropes rather than the individual. The fact that we do not know the identity of the caricaturist’s target becomes irrelevant because we recognize the stereotype and are therefore ‘in the know’. Caricature often uses excessive size as metaphor for over-indulgence in food, wine and sex and therefore associates gluttony with sin. Dominic used Max Beerbohm’s caricature of Oscar Wilde to demonstrate this admirably. Wilde’s body is barely visible, yet his corpulence is immediately identifiable. Width is created through the distance between his shoulder and the hand holding his cane and his jowly face proclaims a healthy appetite. The flouncy hair and limp wrist trigger the notion of effeminacy and same sex desire. You can view the cartoon here.

Ernst Gombrich explored the notion of caricature as a tool of instruction or as a sermon, which acts as an instant visual reminder and reinforces an acceptable moral code. If we agree that Beerbohm’s cartoon of Wilde contains a moral message, then it is making a strong moral statement that same sex desire is unacceptable in Victorian society. Another clear example, presented by Dominic, was The Coming and Going of the Dandy, which was published in the Daily Mirror in 1906. William Kerridge Haselden depicts England’s stalwart John Bull first encountering and then forcibly ejecting the Dandy and it is accompanied by a clearly homophobic caption. A copy of the cartoon can be found in The University of Kent’s, British Cartoon Archive.

During what was a really interesting event, Dominic covered many other issues and I have given but a flavour of them in this piece. However, you can listen to a podcast of the entire lecture and I highly recommend the following publications:

Dominic Janes, Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Dominic Janes, Oscar Wilde Prefigured: Queer Fashioning and British Caricature, 1750-1900, Chicago University Press, 2016; the publisher’s website gives a general topic of the book and the Table of Contents.

Kathryn Hallam-Howard is a third year History of Art student at Birkbeck and also works a Blue Badge tourist guide in London, specializing in tours of galleries and museums for the English and German markets. She can be contacted at


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