George Murgatroyd Woodward was born in the parish of St Giles-in-the Fields in the spring of 1766. His father William was a successful surveyor who kept his offices in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. William regularly travelled throughout the country mapping the estates of great landowners and it was during one of these trips that he came to the attention of the second Earl of Stanhope. The Earl was so impressed with William’s work that he offered to make him his land agent, a post which effectively made the surveyor responsible for the day-to-day running of the Earl’s huge estate. The position came with a grace-and-favour home in Derbyshire and from 1775 until his death in 1817, William would reside in the village of Stanton-by-Dale. The family also retained a London residence, at No. 28 Carey Street in Holborn, for the purposes of allowing young George to complete his education in more civilised surroundings.
George’s teenage years were spent assisting his father in the management of the Stanhope family’s estates in Derbyshire, Buckinghamshire and Devon. It was a job he undertook competently but with little real enthusiasm, for George had discovered that he had a talent for making people laugh and harboured dreams that he might return to London and live on his wit. Perhaps against his better judgement, William was persuaded to allow his son to return to the great metropolis at the age of 18 and pursue a career in comedy. Bolstered by an allowance of £50 a year from his father, George immediately set about publishing his own caricatures from the house on Carey Street. These early prints led to commissions from two of the city’s leading satirical print-publishers, William Holland and Samuel Fores, both of whom were constantly on the lookout for artists capable of supplying them with ideas for fresh designs.
Woodward was an adequate artist but lacked the technical knowledge required to transfer his ideas onto copper plates for printing. However, his designs were evidently good enough to warrant the additional cost associated with pairing him up with a professional engraver and during the course of his career he would collaborate with the likes of Thomas Rowlandson, Isaac Cruikshank and Richard Newton. He also wrote well and contributed humorous poems, stories and essays to the magazines and journals of the day. In 1796 he brought the two strands of his career together in what became his most famous work – Eccentric Excursions, or Literary and Pictorial Sketches of the Countenance, Character and Country, in Different Parts of England and South Wales, which consisted of a series of humorous anecdotes decorated with a hundred engraved plates by Isaac Cruikshank.
Woodward pursued a successful career as a humorist for a period of around twenty years – the extent of his achievements being measured by the fact that he was one of the few caricaturists of the period whose name carried sufficient cache to make it worthy of mention in publisher’s advertisements . But he derived little material benefit from the success, squandering what money he made on an ever increasing appetite for drink and louche sociability. By the mid-1800s he was effectively homeless, lodging in a room above the Southampton Arms in Chancery Lane when he had money and dossing down in the taproom of his favourite watering hole – The Brown Bear in Bow Street – when he did not. His health inevitably deteriorated and by the winter of 1809 he was suffering from dropsy. An obituary published in the Gentleman’s Magazine describes how he met his end:
He went to the Brown Bear public-house in Bow-street, in a coach, very unwell; and though he had no money, Mr Hazard the landlord, very humanely took him in, and paid the coachman, although he had no knowledge of him, except occasionally sleeping there. He also procured a doctor to attend him, and rendered him every possible assistance; but he survived only a short time, and died of dropsy. Mr Hazard had the corpse decently buried at his own expense .
However, it’s possible that even this tragic version of events was heavily sanitised in order to spare the blushes of his family. According to the socialite Henry Angelo, who was an acquaintance of Woodward’s, the caricaturist had been carousing in The Brown Bear – as was his habit – when he had died suddenly “with a glass of brandy in his hand.”
William Woodward may well have gone to his grave ruing the day he agreed to allow George to go gallivanting back to London. His son’s debts would haunt the family for years to come,consuming almost the entirety of his father’s estate when the old man eventually died in 1817 .
G.M. Woodward’s story came to mind recently when I noticed that one of his original drawings was coming up for sale at auction. The image is a proof version of the sixth number of a series of twelve caricatures which were published under the collective title of Symptoms of the Shop by S.W. Fores in 1801. The prints themselves are quite rare, with The Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University being the only institution fortunate enough to have acquired a full set of coloured impressions, so its a real treat to see that at least one of the original sketches has also survived. Woodward presumably submitted his design to Fores and it was either the printseller himself or Francis Sansom – the engraver assigned to work with Woodward on the series – who was responsible for making a number of changes to the text in brown ink. These amendments highlight that satirical print-making was often (perhaps usually) a collective endeavour and that publishers (for a suspect the corrections were the work of Fores hand) exercised a degree of creative control that is frequently under-appreciated by those of us with an interest in these prints.
- For examples see The Star, 12th December 1801, 23rd September 1808, & 1st March 1809. With the exception of Gillray and Rowlandson, who appear to have succeeded in establishing themselves as artistic personalities in their own right, there are comparatively few examples of contemporary advertisements that identify the artist of a particular caricature. Even caricaturists whose names are now regarded as being synonymous with the ‘Golden Age of British Caricature’ – such as Isaac Cruikshank and Charles Williams – are rarely named in publishers advertisements. This is presumably due to the fact that caricatures were not regarded as serious art worthy of acknowledgement. It may also reflect a desire by printsellers to ensure that customer loyalty was built around their shop, rather than a particular artist who might easily take his talents elsewhere.
2. Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1st series 79, (December, 1809), p.1175.
3. H. Angelo, Reminiscences…, vol. 1, (London, 1827), p.432. Angelo was a close friend of Thomas Rowlandson who frequently collaborated with Woodward on caricatures.
4. M. Payne & J. Payne, Regarding Thomas Rowlandson 1757 – 1827, (London, 2010), pp. 213-214, 280.