Art and Satire: Pictorial Humour in 18th Century Britain

Dr David Oldfield

If you have ever enjoyed a political cartoon, then you owe a debt of pleasure to the British artists who popularized the genre in the 18th century. Their wit could be as biting and as outrageous as any modern cartoonist. Foreign visitors were astonished by the freedom enjoyed by artists to criticize those in power. Within yards of the King’s palace, ‘a manufactory was working the press night and day, in throwing off libels against himself – his family and ministers’, who ‘saw themselves publicly pilloried in the window of a satirist on the spot which they frequently passed twenty times in their morning walk … and every copper-scratcher does the like with impunity’. Royalty and politicians were not the only ones to fall victim to the pictorial scandal mongers. Anyone with social pretensions risked having their egos pricked by the artist’s quill.

During the course, we will focus on the three most famous satirists of the period: William Hogarth, James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. Hogarth was instrumental in transforming pictorial satire into a popular medium. Before Hogarth, morality tales in art usually dealt with themes taken from classical literature or the Bible. By turning the focus on the morality of his contemporaries, Hogarth opened up a whole new world for pictorial comment. Series like ‘The Rake’s Progress’, ‘Marriage a la Mode’ and ‘The Election’ were seen by contemporaries as pictorial novels where the plot was as entertaining as the imagery used to tell the story. Hogarth’s successors, Rowlandson and Gillray, were equal to him as draughtsmen but were more inclined to caricature. Their social commentaries could range from the ridicule of social behaviour to sophisticated allegories on the political issue of the day. The intention of all three was to make us laugh, smile and think. Our classroom discussions of the art, the message and the humour of their works will be supplemented by visits to collections and museums in Cambridge and London.

This course is aimed at: Students from any discipline with an interest in 18th century pictorial humour.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: None

Transferable skills: Academic writing, visual and critical analysis.

Pre-Arrival Reading

Strongly recommended, but not mandatory.

  • David Bindman, Hogarth and His Times, 1997
  • Diana Donald, The Age of Caricature – Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III, 1996



  • 1 Final Exam: 40%
  • 1 Final Essay: 45%
  • 1 Mid-term exam: 15%


Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)