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Pierce Egan’s ‘Life In London’

April 14, 2016
by the gentle author

This frontispiece was intended to illustrate the varieties of ‘Life in London,’ from the king on his throne at the top of the column to the lowest members of society at the base. At the centre are the protagonists of the tale, Tom, Jerry & Logic, three men about town. Authored by Pierce Egan, their adventures proved best sellers in serial form and were collected into a book in 1820, remaining in print for the rest of the century, spawning no less than five stage versions, and delineating a social landscape that was to prove the territory for both the fictions of Charles Dickens and the commentaries of Henry Mayhew.

Accounts of the urban poor and of life in the East of London are scarce before the nineteenth century, and what makes “Life in London” unique is that it portrays and contrasts the society of the rich and the poor in the metropolis at this time. And, although fictional in form, there is enough detail throughout to encourage the belief that this is an authentic social picture.

The characters of Tom, Jerry & Logic were loosely based upon the brothers who collaborated upon the illustrations, Isaac Richard & George Cruickshank, and the writer Pierce Egan, all relishing this opportunity to dramatise their own escapades for popular effect. Isaac Richard  & George’s father had enjoyed a successful career as a political cartoonist in the seventeen-nineties and it was his sons’ work upon “Life in London” that brought the family name back into prominence in the nineteenth century, leading to George Cruikshank’s long term collaboration with Charles Dickens.

Jerry Hawthorn comes up from the country to enjoy a career of pleasure and fashion with Corinthian Tom, yet as well as savouring the conventional masquerades, exhibitions and society events, they visit boxing matches, cockpits, prisons and bars where the poor entertain themselves, with the intention to “see a ‘bit of life.” It is when they grow weary of fashionable society, that the idea arises to see a “bit of Life” at the East End of the Town.” And at “All Max,” an East End boozer, they discover a diverse crowd, or as Egan describes it, “every cove that put in an appearance was quite welcome, colour or country considered no obstacle… The group was motley indeed – Lascars, blacks, jack-tars, coal-heavers, dustmen, women of colour, old and young, and a sprinkling of the remnants of once fine girls, and all jigging together.” In the Cruikshanks’ picture, Logic has Black Sall on one knee and Flashy Nance upon the other while Jerry pours gin into the fiddler and Tom carouses with Mrs Mace, the hostess, all revealing an unexpectedly casual multiracial society in which those of different social classes can apparently mix with ease.

Situated somewhere between the romps of Fielding, Smollet and Sterne and prefiguring Dickens’ catalogue of comic grotesques in “Pickwick Papers,” the humour of “Life in London,” spoke vividly to its time, yet appears merely curious two centuries later. By the end of the nineteenth century, the comedy had gone out of date, as Thackeray admitted even as he confessed a lingering affection for the work. “As to the literary contents of the book, they have passed clean away…” he wrote, reserving his enthusiasm for the illustrations by the Cruikshank brothers – which you see below – declaring,“But the pictures! Oh! The pictures are noble still!”

Lowest life in London – Tom, Jerry & Logic amongst the unsophisticated sons & daughters of nature in the East.

The Royal Exchange – Tom pointing out to Jerry a few of the primest features of life in London.

A Whistling Shop – Tom & Jerry visiting Logic “on board the fleet.”

Tom, Jerry & Logic “tasting” wine in the wood at the London Dock.

White Horse Cellar, Picadilly – Tom & Logic bidding Jerry “Good bye.”

Jerry “beat to a standstill” Dr Please’ems’ prescription.

Tom & Jerry “masquerading it” among the cadgers in the back slums.

“A shilling well laid out” – Tom & Jerry at the exhibition of pictures at the Royal Academy.

Tom, Jerry & Logic backing Tommy, the ‘sweep at the Royal Cockpit.

Tom, Jerry & Logic in characters at the Grand Carnival.

Symptoms of the finish of “some sorts of life” – Tom, Jerry & Logic in the Press Yard at Newgate.

Life in London – Peep ‘o day boys, a street row. the author losing his “reader.” Tom & Jerry showing fight and Logic floored.

The “ne plus ultra” of Life in London – Kate, Sue, Tom, Jerry & Logic viewing the throne room at Carlton Palace.

Tom & Jerry catching Kate & Sue on the sly, having their fortunes told.

Jerry’s admiration of Tom in an “assault” with Mr O’Shannessy at the rooms in St James’ St.

Tom introducing Jerry & Logic to the champion of England.

The art of self-defence – Tom & Jerry receiving instruction from Mr Jackson.

Tom & Jerry larking at a masquerade supper at the Opera House.

Tom & Jerry in trouble after a spree.

Jerry in training for a “swell.”

Tom & Jerry taking blue ruin after the spell is broke up.

Images courtesy © Bishopsgate Insitute

You may like to look at these other sets of pictures by George Cruikshank

Joseph Grimaldi, Clown

Jack Sheppard, Thief, Highwayman & Escapologist

The Bloody Romance of the Tower

Henry Mayhew’s Punch & Judy Man

4 Responses leave one →
  1. April 14, 2016

    In the picture of ‘Jerry beat to a standstill’ it looks as though the flirtatious maid on the far right might be wielding a bedstaff, presumably to beat his mattress into a more comfortable state after he’s tossed and turned it into lumps. The bedstaff served two purposes, one as a rail to hold the mattress in, and two, being detachable, to beat a feather or flock filled mattress to get the lumps out of it, leading to the phrase ‘in the twinkling of a bedstaff’ or ‘in the twinking of a bedpost’ meaning ‘momentarily’. Turning and beating a sick man’s mattress in the brief time he is out of bed would have been imperative for his comfort, but I love the way there seems to be an unspoken suggestion from Logic that he could think of a way of beating the bed with the maid.

  2. April 14, 2016

    Superb illustrations the best I have seen, does show the costume of the period. John

  3. pauline taylor permalink
    April 14, 2016

    Nobody, but nobody could beat Cruikshank at this sort of illustration, the more you look at them the more you see, brilliant. Thank you GA.

    Thanks to Sarah too for the information about the bedstaff and the mattress, fascinating.

  4. Peter Holford permalink
    April 14, 2016

    The pictures easily stand on their own without the accompanying text which is a tribute to the vibrancy and imagination of the Cruikshanks’ work. It sounds as though Egan’s account might be interesting – time to search it out.

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