Guest post by RM Healey – The bizarre death of a young caricaturist

As always, it’s lovely to be able to welcome back to All Things Georgian, a now regular guest, Mr R M Healey who is going to share with us the bizarre death of  young caricaturist.

On 21st February (another source gives 21st May) 1828 those attending to the business of buying or hiring horses and carriages at the London Horse and Carriage Repository off the Gray’s Inn Lane (later renamed Gray’s Inn Road), just opposite the present King’s Cross station, must have been startled to hear the sound of a crash of broken glass and a terrible scream of pain. Those who rushed to the scene were met with a horrific sight. Lying on the pavement was a young man covered with blood who had seemingly fallen from a great height through glass, some of which was sticking out of his head and body.

As astonished spectators gathered around the unconscious figure two questions must have arisen. Who was he and how did he end up on the pavement in that terrible state.

Discovering how the accident had happened was easy enough, as people rushed down the stairs from the upper stories of the building. A man had somehow managed to step onto a skylight window and had fallen straight through the glass down onto the ground some forty feet below.

London Horse repository

He had been alone, so there was no-one there who knew who he was. But even if someone in the Repository had known him, he was so disfigured by the numerous cuts to his face that it would have been impossible to identify him.

Then, less than a year before the Metropolitan Police Act was passed someone present performed a very obvious act. He rifled through the dead man’s clothes, found a card case and took out a card. The man lying motionless before them was the celebrated young caricaturist and book illustrator Theodore Lane, who it turned out was just 27 years old.

British Museum

Some standing around the body may have seen the young artist eight years earlier as he carried out his apprenticeship at the premises of J. C. Barrow at Weston Place, no more than a stone’s throw away from the Repository.

Had they been the sort of person who had delighted in Pierce Egan’s  Life in London, that best-selling adventure of Corinthian Tom and  Jerry among the flesh pots of the metropolis, which had appeared in 1821, they could have noticed that a similar work, The Life of an Actor, had had some success the following year.

The man who had provided the six plates for this had been Theodore Lane. Had they cast their mind back a few months earlier they may have noticed that some of the anonymous anti-Queen Caroline caricatures that had issued from the print shop of Humphrey in 1820/1 were similar in style to those of Lane. In fact, Dorothy Richardson, an authority on British caricature, firmly attributes them to the artist.

Theodore Lane snuff box

Theodore Lane was born in Isleworth, Middlesex in 1800, the son of a poor drawing-master from Worcester. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to John Barrow, an artist and colourer of prints. Alongside his work as a book illustrator Lane exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819, 1820 and 1826) as a watercolourist and miniaturist, but in 1825 took up oil painting. Following his modest success with The Life of an Actor the young Lane had met with Egan with a view to a collaboration. Thus, it was, that Life of an Actor, Peregrine Proteus, including 27 colour plates and many woodcuts, had been published in 1825. Two year later Lane illustrated Egan’s Anecdotes of the Turf ; and also, one of Lane’s best humorous full size plates appeared from the print shop of the well known George Hunt in Covent Garden. This shows a dandy emerging from his coach his face splattered with mud thrown by a young imp who had aimed it at his friend standing close by. ‘A Shilling Fare to a Christmas Dinner ‘must have appeared in the shop window some time in December 1827 in time for the Christmas trade.

British Museum

This was probably the last of Lane’s comic prints to appear. As a young artist whose stock in the public mind was rapidly rising, he had doubtless enjoyed a happy Christmas with his wife and three children in the country.

A new year brought the prospect of fresh commissions –and so as Lane waited at the newly opened London Horse and Carriage Repository for a friend to join him for a coach trip to see his family — he was doubtless in good spirits.

No-one could have imagined that he could have been as careless as to step onto a skylight. But this is what happened. The press described the disaster as an accident. It is certainly possible that Lane could have been drinking at the time. A more bizarre explanation is that he may have been pushed by someone who disliked his anti-Caroline caricatures, which were quite savage. He had shown himself to be a supporter of the King by dedicating some of his plates  to him. But in an age when perhaps only the faces of the most prominent public figures were publicly known, it seems unlikely that a stranger could have recognised such a young and comparatively unknown artist as Lane. It seems much more probable that the artist had indeed died as a result of a freak accident.

Lane was buried in the nearby Old St Pancras churchyard. His heartbroken family were partially provided for when one of Lane’s most famous paintings (‘The Enthusiast,’ aka ‘The Gouty Angler’) was engraved and later bought for the nation.

Lane, Theodore; Enthusiast (‘The Gouty Angler’); Tate

The Royal Academy also opened a subscription for his widow. As for the scene of his death, the London Horse and Carriage Repository seems to have been jinxed. It closed not long afterwards and reopened as the Royal London Bazaar—a rather up-market exhibition space for novelty attractions. In 1834- 5 this became for a brief period the first permanent exhibition of Madame Tussauds waxworks; by then it was also the site of Robert Owen’s Equitable Labour Exchange.

Notes:

Pierce Egan’s The Show Folks (1831) contains a memoir of Lane.

Dorothy Richardson’s English Political Caricature (1959) is also useful on the anti-Caroline caricatures.

Simon Houfe’s Dictionary of  British Book Illustrators (1998) has a useful catalogue.

Advertisement

2 thoughts on “Guest post by RM Healey – The bizarre death of a young caricaturist

  1. mistyfan

    Poor bloke. His life cut short in such a horrible fall when he was showing promise and beginning to make his mark. It may have been an accident, but it does sound like a pretty odd sort of accident.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.