For over 160 years Punch was the doyen of English comic periodicals. Founded in 1861 by the engraver Ebenezer Landells (1808-1860) and writer Henry Mayhew (1812-1887), its moral commentary and robust humour presided over the arts, politics, and current affairs. Within two decades Punch had firmly established itself amongst an overwhelmingly upper middle-class readership. Initially subtitled "The London Charivari" after the satirical French paper Charivari, its early political outlook was unquestionably radical. Against the backdrop of Chartism and revolutionary unrest in continental Europe, Punch stood as a satirical refuge against privilege and pomp. Despite its relative success, Punch's financial future remained uncertain until its acquisition by Bradbury and Evans (later Bradbury and Agnew) in 1842.
During the second half of the nineteenth century Punch was challenged by a burgeoning group of rival publications - led by the Liberal leaning Fun and its Conservative rival Judy. But the strength of Punch's cartoons helped sustain its popularity. Whilst William Thackeray (1811-1863) and editor Mark Lemon (1809-1870) penned memorable contributions, it was the astute visual satire of John Leech and John Tenniel that increasingly predominated. Leech, the first humorous illustrator to have the term 'cartoon' applied to his work, was revered for his unsympathetic comic images of the lower sections of Victorian society. Amongst the cartoonists represented here, Tenniel, who replaced Leech as the Punch's chief political cartoonist in 1864, was perhaps best known for his symbolic portrayals of Britannia and the British Lion. The gradual reforming of its content coincided with a shift in Punch's political tone. As the century unfolded Punch moved ever closer to the political establishment. By the 1860s radical outrage had given way to a moderate respectability, in tune with social aspirations of the rising middle class. Increasingly, it became viewed as the "house journal of the political world" - epitomised by Shirley Brook's (1816-1874) pioneer sketch column, 'The essence of parliament' - launched in 1855 (R.G.G. Price, A History of Punch (London, 1957), p. 68). Under the editorship of Tom Taylor (1817-1880) and Francis Burnand (1836-1917), Punch became milder and less inclined to attack the government in support of the underdog. Hostile criticism was sacrificed in favour of an animated commentary less likely to upset the status quo. Burnard and Taylor can be credited with recruiting some of publication's most memorable contributors, including the writers Henry Lucy (1843-1924) and A. A. Milne (1882-1956). Of their artists George Du Maurier (1834-1896) and Phil May (1864-1903) stood supreme between them paving the way for the modern political cartoon. Du Maurier's work focused on the vulgar pretensions of the social ladder especially the "nouveau riche" such as the Pre-Raphaelites, whilst May was noted for capturing the dynamism of the 1890s.
It was ability of Punch to tap the spirit of the age that fed its success. By the turn of the century Punch had become a national institution - assimilated amongst the ministers and royalty it looked to ridicule. The weekly political cartoon attempted to reflect the mood of the nation. Anti-semitism was rarely slow to emerge in Victorian England, and cartoons played a graphic role in the continuation of anti-Semitic stereotyping. What were taken to be Disraeli's typically Jewish features became a standard point of identification for cartoonists to exaggerate and caricature. His ethnicity was frequently depicted as un-English and non-Christian - at best 'oriental' (Anthony S. Wohl, ' "Ben JuJu": Representations of Disraeli's Jewishness in the Victorian Political Cartoon' in Jewish History, 10, 2, Fall 1996). Whilst its rivals tied their colours firmly to a party mask, Punch took pride in its political elasticity. During the 1850s Palmerstonian Whig-ism replaced radicalism as Punch's preferred political orientation. Disraeli remained a target, not only as a fair-weather traitor of radicalism, but a devious political outsider - viewed like Louis Napoleon as a threat to the stability of the political landscape. The coming of the modern party-political system - defined by Disraeli's Reform Bill of 1867 - meant Westminster was less suited to satirical attacks of personality. It was no longer the sole preserve of grand old men. Whilst the political persuasions around the 'Punch table' varied, the periodical veered towards the Liberal-Unionism of its co-proprietor's - the Agnew family. Taylor's reign as editor in the late 1870s coincided with Disraeli's final ministry. His rapid ascension atop the greasy pole hastened a greater respect for Disraeli's achievements and standing. Punch became less inclined, than say Fun, to feed the more boorish ethical stereotypes of the Premier. As this section of the exhibition shows, the distrust of old remained albeit in increasing subtle manifestations. This did not stop Punch rejoicing "the downfall of beaconsfieldism" at the landslide election defeat of 1880 (after which Gladstone proclaimed, "The downfall of Beaconsfieldism is like the vanishing of some vast magnificent castle in an Italian romance." cited Blake, Disraeli (London, 1966), p. 712).