“Do you ever peak at a picture shop?” an anonymous contributor to The Weekly Dispatch newspaper asked its readers in January 1828. “Do you ever make one of the unprofitable customers at the outside of the print sellers in the Haymarket, Piccadilly and Brydges-street? Do you ever frequent Theatrical Houses? If you do, the facetious Joe Lisle cannot be unknown to you. Are you partial to punsters? If so, my present hero will find favour in your eyes.” The collection of barroom anecdotes and tall-tales contained within the article constitutes the only surviving account of the life of Joseph Lisle, a comedian, actor and artist who enjoyed a moderately successful career as a caricaturist in London during the 1820s and 30s. 
The earliest surviving examples of prints carrying both Lisle’s name and a date of publication were issued in March 1827, but he may have been working as an artist of a professional or semi-professional basis for months or even years before that. Indeed, Lisle’s biographer states that he began producing caricatures in 1820 after being fired from his job for attending a Radical political rally. While there are aspects of this story that I find difficult to believe, it’s entirely possible that Lisle’s career extended over a much longer period than is implied by the dating on his prints.  Printshops of the period often relied on amateur artists to keep them supplied with ideas for new caricatures and Lisle could have entered the trade via this route, providing sketches that were then engraved by others and published without his contribution being acknowledged. C.J. Grant – a near contemporary of Lisle’s – seems to have started his artistic career in a similar fashion, providing drawings for the caricaturist William Heath to pass off as his own work. 
If Lisle’s artistic career did begin in 1820 then his early work has either been lost or is yet to be identified. It is not until the late 1820s that prints bearing his name began to appear in the windows of several London printsellers, with Thomas McLean, G.S. Tregear and George Hunt being amongst his most noteworthy patrons. His caricatures usually dealt in pun-based humour and were chiefly rendered in etching and aquatint. George Hunt, who was an engraver as well as a printseller, helped Lisle to realise several of his designs on copper, although intriguingly did not publish all of the plates he etched. Typical examples of his work include The Man of Taste (c.1828 – 1830), which shows a man asking a butcher to cut him some boiled beef with “a Ham’y Knife to give it a Relish.” And Cheap Music (1820 – 1828), in which the owner of a music shop advises a frugal customer that the only “cheap fiddles” to be had in the area are the phoney elixirs sold by the quack doctor next door. His most substantial endeavour in the field of pun-prints was Joe Lisle’s Play Upon Words, a series of 40 engravings published in a collected edition by Thomas McLean in January 1828. Muggy Weather, the first plate in the series, sets the tone for what follows, showing group of labourers downing large mugs of beer to refresh themselves on a warm day. The humour my be decidedly old old fashioned by our standards but it undoubtedly appealed to his contemporaries, as another notice from The Weekly Dispatch makes clear:
[Mr W. Spooner of Regent Street has just published] several laughable and good-humoured satires on the prevailing follies of the day, in the execution of which our old acquaintance, the facetious Joe Lisle has displayed his usual keen perceptions of the ridiculous. Mr Lisle is certainly one of the cleverest caricaturists of the day. In the present sketches of the aquatic dangers, sporting blunders, and march of intellect pretensions of the Cockneys, are admirably hit off. Most of the figures are full of character, and the situations are irresistibly ludicrous 
Lisle was seemingly less preoccupied with overt forms of political or social satire, although his few forays into this field are worthy of consideration. The World. When a man is down – keep him down (1830) for example, offers a bleak view of the hardships of contemporary life and hints at Lisle’s Radical sympathies. The pro-Radical journal Figaro in London also recommended one of his political prints to its readers:
A clever caricature we have lately seen, executed by a Mr Joseph Lisle… represents two dustmen talking politics, and one, enquiring of the other, “I say, Bill, if the King vos to go into Vitecross-street, could he pay off the National Debt by taking the benefit of the Insolvent Act?” This is certainly a funny notion, but, nevertheless a decidedly wholesome one, for why should not William the Fourth rub off an unpleasant score by a six week residence in limbo. 
This association with the Radical movement seems to have flourished during the 1830s and may have led to commissions to produce prints. Lisle’s signature appears on the final plate of The Political Drama, a series of political satires published by the Radical printer George Drake between 1833 and 1836. C.J. Grant was primarily responsible for creating the series but abandoned it after the publication of its 130th number. A lull of several weeks followed before Lisle’s own attempt at Radical political satire was published as The Political Drama No. 131. The Modern Guy Fawkes; Or, the New Bronze Horse. However, the experiment evidently proved to be a failure as publication of the series ceased thereafter.  This print appears to be the last surviving caricature Lisle published and if his artistic career continued beyond 1836 then all evidence of this seems to have been lost. In seeking to explain why Lisle’s involvement in the production of humorous prints may have come to an end, we must now turn our attention to what is known about the other aspects of his life.
Joseph Lisle was born in 1798. Very little is known about his background but aspects of his later history point to the likelihood of a family that belonged to the middling classes of society and adhered to the Methodist faith. Lisle’s education extended well into his teenage years and would therefore have been considered above average by the standards of the day. However, his school days were characterised by truancy, misbehaviour and “a propensity for punning and caricaturing”  that chiefly manifested itself in the form of mockery and insolent retorts directed towards his teachers. Growing tired of the beatings the inevitably resulted from these encounters, Lisle left school at the age of 14 and proceeded to drift through a long series of short-lived apprenticeships. Amongst other things, he worked as a legal clerk, a linen draper, a watchmaker and a wood-engraver, before his despairing family prevailed on an uncle with a naval connection to secure him a midshipman’s berth and packed him off to sea. Lisle would later claim that he served aboard the ship that carried Napoleon Bonaparte off into exile – another story that perhaps needs to be treated with some scepticism – but otherwise seems to have been no more successful at holding down a job at sea than he was on land. By 1819 he had discharged himself from the Royal Navy on the grounds of poor eyesight – asserting that “it would not do to go to sea with spectacles” and returned home. 
Lisle threw himself into theatrical circles on returning to London, directing and starring in a romantic melodrama that received encouraging reviews in the press.  A short stint as a travelling actor followed and this may have also been when he began to monetize his artist talents, as his biographer notes that he supplemented his meagre income by offering his services as a miniaturist in the towns and cities through which he travelled. Over the course of the next few years, Lisle worked as an actor, writer, director and set designer, for London’s unlicensed theatres, specialising in comedy, melodrama and other forms of popular entertainment. By 1822, he was sufficiently well embedded in theatrical circles to co-found the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a drinking club for actors and those with a professional connection to the stage. The Order prospered as a fraternal society and remains in existence today, securing Lisle a modest but enduring place in posterity. 
By 1839, Lisle had risen to manage the Queen’s Theatre in Charlotte Street near Tottenham Court Road.  This was one of London’s most successful unlicensed theatres and would go on to become a noted venue for music hall performances later in the nineteenth-century. This perhaps provides us with the most credible explanation as to why Lisle’s name began to disappear from prints from the mid-1830s onwards – his career as an artist was simply eclipsed by his on-going involvement in the theatre. His move into management also suggests that Lisle’s public profile had declined by the late 1830s and that his name was no longer the draw it had been a decade earlier.
Accounts of Lisle’s behaviour leave one with a decidedly mixed impression of the man. The fact he founded a successful fraternal society suggests a love of socialising and this is corroborated by a contemporary reference to him being “one of the merriest men in existence.”  However, even these favourable accounts hint at a quarrelsome nature and Lisle was described as “eccentric” by more than one acquaintance.  This eccentricity seems to have manifested itself in a love of rather vicious practical jokes. In 1822, following a quarrel about Lisle’s failure to repay a loan, the caricaturist challenged one of his acquaintances to a duel. A set of pistols was produced and the two men turned and fired on one another, whereupon Lisle dropped to the floor covered in blood, moaning that he was a dead man. His terrified opponent, believing he had just committed murder, was then induced to flee by Lisle’s friends, but not before leaving his watch and wallet to pay for the victim’s funeral. Of course the entire scenario was a set-up: Lisle had loaded the guns with powder but no bullets and produced the ‘wound’ by means of a hidden sponge soaked in bull’s blood. Lisle and his companions then spent the rest of the evening carousing at their victim’s expense. On another less celebrated occasion, Lisle convinced a dim-witted milkman to purchase expired theatre tickets from him and would have gone through with the con where it not for the merciful intervention of his own friends. 
Physically, he was a rather unimpressive specimen. His biographer quipped that he’d “never saw any one so thin to be alive”  and poor eyesight seems to have resulted in a lifelong dependence on glasses. His likeness is captured in a self-portrait entitled A Designing Character that Lisle probably published sometime during the late 1820s when he was at the height of his fame. The image shows Lisle in the stereotypical guise of a poor artist in his garret. It probably contains and element of affectation and may have been intended to serve as an advertisement for his more serious artistic side. There is evidence that Lisle may have attempted to broaden his artistic work to include more serious subjects such as portraiture and sporting subjects around this time, but none of these prints appear to have survived. 
Joseph Lisle died in November 1839 and was buried at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel In the Parish of St James Clerkenwell, Spa Fields on 1st December.  The cause of death is unknown but it was obviously premature and an accident or sudden illness seem to be the most likely explanations. His career as a caricaturist was probably already over by the time of his death but his prints arguably represent a late-flourishing of the eighteenth-century traditions of humour that were rapidly dying out during the 1820s and 30s. His love of puns and aptitude for rendering them as a form of visual humour is perhaps his unique contribution to the genre and is a field of caricaturing in which he undoubtedly excelled. His name and legacy survive today almost solely thanks to his connection with the oddly-named Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a fitting epitaph for such an unusual character.
- The Weekly Dispatch, 13th January 1828, p. 6. The level of personal insight and entirely uncritical tone of this biography strongly suggests that it was written by a friend of Lisle’s or even by the caricaturist himself. We know that Lisle was hired to produce illustrations for the Dispatch on at least one occasion (see below) and the favourable reviews he received from the newspaper suggest a connection to the editor. The timing of this article’s appearance coincided with the publication of Joe Lisle’s Play Upon Words and it’s possible that it was intended to serve as an extended advertisement for his work. Some of the claims made in the article are demonstrably false. The first of these is the story about Lisle’s entry into the print-trade. The author claims that Lisle’s employer gave him the day-off to attend the State Opening of Parliament in 1820 and “cheer his Majesty.” But Lisle ignored this instruction and instead “went to Spitalfields to shout for Hunt.” This incident cannot have taken place as described, as neither George III or the Prince Regent attended the opening of Parliament in 1820 and Henry Hunt was still in jail following his arrest in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre the previous year. The second claim on which we may cast doubt relates to Lisle’s service with the Royal Navy. His biographer states that he “sailed under Captain Hamilton with Bonaparte to St Helena.” However, Captain Charles Ross commanded HMS Northumberland, the vessel that famously carried Napoleon off into exile. It seems unlikely that Lisle would mistake the name of his former commanding officer and this raises the possibility that the story was concocted to make his naval service appear more glamourous than was actually the case.
- M. Crowther, C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform, (Amazon, 2020), p. 8.
- The Weekly Dispatch, 18th August 1834, p. 6.
- Figaro in London, 30th August 1834, p. 2.
- An image and analysis of the print can be found in Crowther, Ibid.
- The Monk of Naples; Or St Marco’s Eve opened at the East London Theatre on 7th September 1819. The critic for The Morning Post thought that the “story borders rather upon the romantic, but upon the whole, the situations and stage effect were of a novel and pleasing description. The scenery, splendid and appropriate… met with its due share of applause; and the Overture, Vocal and Dramatic Music… was received with reiterated plaudits. The piece was announced for repetition amidst a tumult of approbation, which will ensure it a favourite with the visitors of the East. Morning Post, 7th September 1819.
- A reference to Lisle’s role in founding the Buffalos can be found in Egan, P., Pierce Egan’s Finish to the Adventures of Tom, Jerry and Logic, in their Pursuits Through Life in and Out of London, (London, 1830) p. 137. Information about the society can also be found at: https://www.raobgle.org.uk/
- London Dispatch, 18th August 1839, p.8.
- Egan uses the term in the work referenced above. It is also used in an article that appears in The Weekly Dispatch, 26th October 1828, p. 8. that refers to “Our eccentric, but highly talented friend Joe Lisle.”
- Lisle’s biographer mentions that he worked as a miniaturist while touring the country with a group of actors in 1820. His ability to capture accurate portrait likenesses was also recognised by the editor of The Weekly Dispatch, who sent Lisle up to Bury St Edmunds in August 1828 to capture the likeness of a notorious murderer executed there. The Weekly Dispatch, 17th August 1828, p.4. Portraits and sporting prints can also be seen amongst the caricatures by Lisle that are depicted in the window of the printshop that appears in The Spectator. Very Fond of Prints & a Drawing-Master (1828).
- Register of Burials At the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel In the Parish of St James Clerkenwell, Spa Fields, London From 1838 To 1849, RG4 / Piece 4367 / Folio 26. This was a Methodist chapel, hence the suggestion that Lisle’s family may have belonged to this faith.