Eye Spy on you

Vanity Fair cartoons of eminent Victorians.

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Some of our most interesting prints were once given away in a magazine. Today they comprise an important social history resource for the nineteenth century, illustrating spectacles and other visual devices in use by some of the most significant people of the day.

Vanity Fair was a Victorian magazine, founded in 1868 and aimed at the middle and upper sections of society. From the very beginning its illustrations included a distinctive satirical portraiture of a type which was new to English journalism. These portraits were designed to be collectible and many households or clubs enjoyed gathering their own gallery of the most distinguished politicians, clergymen and lawyers of the day. The artists became well-known by their pseudonyms such as 'Spy' and indeed their works are often known by the shorthand label 'Spy cartoons'. The caricatures were reproduced by the relatively new colour printing process of chromolithography.

Many of the Vanity Fair portraits include spectacles, monocles or pince-nez, often with a neck cord attached. In some cases the depiction is indistinct; the artist, usually working in watercolour, was interested only in providing an impression of the device. In other portraits however, the optical device is very clearly shown or else exaggerated such that it becomes a defining motif for the person concerned. An example would be the huge monocle filling the socket of Mr Maguire, the campaigner for Irish Home Rule.

The portraits are a useful source for studying the spectacle fashions of the second half of the nineteenth century and the Edwardian period. The manner in which a frame is worn, held or suspended is often clearly shown. This may be from a cord, or a coat button. The spectacles may be flourished in the hand or parked out of the way on the forehead. In one instance, the son of the novelist Charles Dickens is illustrated actually cleaning his spectacle lenses with a cloth.

Sir George Airy

Sir George Biddell Airy
by Carlo Pellegrini, 1875

Educated Victorian readers held contemporary scientists in a level of esteem that would be unfamiliar today. In consequence, certain distinguished names in the fields of optics and ophthalmology are to be found amongst the Vanity Fair portraits. These include Mr Frank Crisp, the well-known collector of microscopes, Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal - and reputedly the first to use a cylindrical lens for his own correction, Sir William Crookes the Chemist (a former Superintendent of the Radcliffe Observatory) and R. Brudenell Carter who found fame through his operations on corneal staphyloma.

There are so many relevant Vanity Fair portraits (the BOA Museum has 68 for example) that a comprehensive listing would seem superfluous. Below is attached a list of some of the best that an enthusiast might consider including in his collection. It should be noted that many of these prints are available quite cheaply as modern reproductions.

Wearing Spectacles

    ‘Astronomy’, Sir George Airy, by APE, 1875
    ‘A Literary Oculist’, R. Brudenell Carter FRCS, by STUFF, 1892 (two pairs)
    ‘China in London’, Chang Ta-Jen, by SPY, 1903
    ‘The Novelist who Invented Sensation’, Wilkie Collins, by Adriano Cecioni, 1872
    Mandell Creighton, by F. T. D., 1897 (K-bridge)
    ‘Ubi Crookes Ibi Lux’, Sir William Crookes, by SPY, 1903 (half eye)
    ‘Men of the Day’, Rev John Cumming, unsigned, 1872
    ‘Swansea’, Sir John Talbot Dillwyn-Llewellyn Bart, by SPY, 1900 (long sides)
    ‘Bells’, Lord Grimthorpe, by SPY, 1889 (perched on forehead)
    ‘Brighton’, Sir William Tindal Robertson Knight MD, FRCP, MP, by SPY, 1889 (tinted lenses)
    Li, Viceroy of China, by GUTH, 1896 (one side apparently missing)
    ‘Judges’, Sir Robert Lush, by SPY, 1873
    ‘From the Army to The Church’, Dr David MacLagan, Archbishop of York, by SPY, 1891
    George du Maurier, by SPY, 1896
    ‘He Endowed Persia with a National Debt’, The Shah of Persia, by SPY, 1873 (X bridge)
    ‘Statesmen of Today – A Radical Leader’, unsigned, 1872
    Edward O’Connor Terry, by SPY, not dated (telescopic bridge)
    ‘Faute-de-mieux Premier’, M. Louis Adolphe Thiers, unsigned, 1872 (large eyes)
    'Men of The Day, Anthony Trollope’, by SPY, 1873 (X bridge)

Wearing Pince-Nez or Nose spectacles

    Sir Edward Ebenezer Kay, by SPY, 1888
    Sir William Robert Grove, by SPY, 1887
    Albert Auguste Gabriel Hanotaux, by GUTH, 1896
    James Johnstone, by APE, 1874
    Alfred Chichele Plowden, by SPY, 1901

Holding Pince-Nez or Nose spectacles

William Forster MP

Statesmen of Today
William Forster MP
by Carlo Pellegrini

     Sir John Aird, 1st Bt, by SPY, 1891
    ‘The Salvation Army’, General William Booth, by SPY, 1882  (dangling from coat button)
    ‘A Liberal Whip’, Charles Cecil Cotes MP, by SPY, 1883
    Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, by SPY, 1897 (cleaning lenses)
    ‘Statesmen of Today’, William Edward Forster, by APE, 1869
    Sir John Murray, by SPY, date unknown
    Alfred Chichele Plowden, by SPY, 1908

Wearing a monocle

    Alexander J. Beresford-Hope MP, by APE, 1870
    ‘A Home Ruler’, Mr Maguire, unsigned, 1872 (very large)
    Philippe, 9th Duke d’Orleans, by GUTH, 1890
    ‘Le Prince du Chic’, Le Prince de Sagan, by GUTH, 1895
    Percy Scawen Wyndham, by SPY, 1880

Other optical devices

    George Payne, by APE, 1875 – (binoculars)
    Frank Crisp, by SPY, 1890 – (microscope)


The College of Optometrists Museum Guide to the pseudonyms of Vanity Fair cartoonists:

Ao = L’Estrange. Floruit 1903-7. 
APE = Carlo Pellegrini (1839-1889). Born Capua. Came to England 1864. Adopted name ‘APE’ from 1869.
F. C. G. = Sir Francis Carruthers Gould (1844-1925).
F. T. D. = F. T. Dalton. Floruit 1890.
GUTH = Jean Baptiste Guth. Floruit 1883-1921.
Hay = Floruit 1888-1893.
Lib = Liberio Prosperi. Floruit 1886-1903.
PAL = Jean de Paleogu. Born 1855.
SPY = Sir Leslie Ward (1851-1922). Adopted name ‘SPY’ from 1873, working 36 years for Vanity Fair. Knighted 1918.
STUFF = Possibly H. C. Sepping Wright (i.e. his name becomes the ‘wright stuff’). Floruit 1894-1900.
T = Theobald Chartran (1849-1907).
 w.a.g. = A. G. Witherby. Floruit 1894-1901.