Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/Shirley Brooks
The editorship of 'Punch' necessarily confers upon its holder a prominent position among men of letters; but the present occupant of the editorial chair was an eminent man of letters, as well as a tried and valued collaborateur on the staff of the comic paper, before he filled the difficult position of its literary chief. When Mark Lemon died in 1870, a few weeks before his friend Charles Dickens was taken from us, everybody felt, as was said of Garrick, and also of Lever, that his loss was the removal of a light the extinction of which eclipsed the gaiety of nations. It is often unknown to the world by whom a popular paper is edited, but Mark Lemon's name was familiar in their mouths as a household word—to quote the now hackneyed line of the poet, of whose Falstaff the first editor of 'Punch' was so excellent a representative. The name of Mark Lemon was known all over the English-speaking world, and everywhere 'Punch' connoted Lemon. The two ideas were inseparable from the term. But when the first grief at the loss of the genial and witty humorist had had time to lose some of its poignancy, all who wished well to the satirical journal—in other words, all the world—were rejoiced to hear that the choice of his successor had fallen on Shirley Brooks: like the original projector of 'Punch,' himself a novelist, humorist, playwright,—and to employ a phrase in use in the cricket-field—'good all-round' man of letters.
The promise implied in his selection has been well borne out, and 'Punch' has rarely—take it one month with another—been more amusing and clever, or more brightly lighted with honest yet kindly satire, than it has been since Shirley Brooks has driven the team of artists and men of letters that make up the staff of the English 'Charivari.'The subject of our notice was born in 1815, and after his education—as far as youthful studies are concerned—was completed, he turned his
attention to the law, and passed with great success the examinations of the Incorporated Law Society. But, like Dickens and Disraeli, the natural bent of his genius impelled him towards the culture of the Muses, and he forsook law for literature.
He was for some years associated with the 'Morning Chronicle;' and, as the representative of that paper, travelled over Russia, Syria, and Egypt, being charged with an inquiry into the state of the labouring classes in those countries.
As a dramatist, the editor of 'Punch' has produced works of sterling merit. 'The Creole, or Love's Fetter,' was first produced at the Lyceum in April 1847, in which Mr. and Mrs. Keeley, Frank Matthews, and Leigh Murray sustained the principal characters. The next year saw, at the same theatre, a capital one-act comedy, 'Anything for a Change,' in which Harley and Charles Mathews appeared. Among his other dramatic works, we may mention 'The Daughter of the Stars,' brought out at the Strand. In 'Timour the Tartar' he had John Oxenford as joint author. 'The Guardian Angel,' at the Haymarket, Mr. and Mrs. Keeley appeared in; and 'The Lowther Arcade,' a very sprightly farce, with two pieces of greater labour, 'Honours and Tricks,' and 'Our New Governess,' must not be omitted from this list. Mr. Brooks was in his earlier days a contributor to many of the best periodicals; was a leader writer on the 'Illustrated London News,' and for some time editor of the 'Literary Gazette;' but it is as a novelist that his talents are best known and appreciated by the readers of 'Once a Week,' in which his best stories have appeared; and were it not that we propose to let him tell us the history of that famous satirical journal he now so worthily conducts, we should dwell at length on his novels. 'The Silver Cord,' which appeared in 'Once a Week,' 'Sooner or Later,' 'The Gordian Knot,' and his first story, 'Aspen Court,' complete the list of his longer works of fiction. Nothing would be more to our mind than to offer some criticism here upon the skill in the construction of plots, the sustained interest, the sparkling dialogue, and the touches of genius in exhibiting the inner working of the human heart, that his novels show; but instead we will give, in Mr. Shirley Brook's own words, the story of how 'Punch' was founded, and how it became the most successful of satirical and comic journals.
'Punch,' said its present editor, in a very charming and witty lecture he used to deliver on 'Modern Satire,' 'was founded July 17th, 1841, by two or three gentlemen—Henry Mayhew, the original projector, Mark Lemon, E. Landells, Sterling Coyne, and Henry Grattan. It was at first a joint speculation of authors, artists, and engravers; and I was only connected with it after it had been established, and others had borne the heat and burden of the day. The first and second numbers were brought out; but, in truth, it was a question whether the third would appear, for want of funds, for it was no secret that the projectors were none of them rich men. Indeed, I may say they were all poor men. Had it not been for the happy accident of Mr. Mark Lemon having a farce, "The Silver Thimble," accepted at one of the minor theatres, "Punch" would have been stopped. The silver thimble, however, was large enough to cover the acorn, which has since grown into an oak. At first, the paper was published by a person who was noted as being connected with some disreputable prints, and there was an ill-odour resulting from the connection hanging about "Punch." This was no fault of the projectors; and the moment they were aware of the fact, they took the paper to a respectable firm, who became the proprietors; and from that time the paper has increased largely from year to year in popularity and circulation. Perhaps a good reason why "Punch" has been successful lies in the fact that there has been no line, from the first to the last, which might not be read by a girl of eighteen. Had it been otherwise, I hope I should not have been in this hall to talk about it.'
Speaking of the old contributors, the lecturer referred to Douglas Jerrold (born in London in 1803, died 8th of June 1857), whose writings under the signature of Q., the first of which appeared on the 13th September 1841, were very successful, and soon gained notoriety. The late Gilbert à'Beckett (born in London, 1810; died at Boulogne, 1856) was another valued contributor. The sketch of a London magistrate in 'Aspen Court' is a portrait of Mr. à'Beckett by the hand of his friend, Shirley Brooks. John Leech, who was born in London in 1816, was mentioned in appropriate terms of eulogy. 'The greatest compliment that could be paid to him was that of some young ladies who were too far from a town to procure the fashions early, so they dressed themselves after the style of his caricatures.' Albert Smith (1816-1860) was an able contributor. Thomas Hood ( -1845), whose various pen touched alike the springs of laughter and the sources of tears, was amongst those who wrote for 'Punch.' This is the story of the publication of the celebrated 'Song of the Shirt.' Hood sent it to Mark Lemon, for insertion in 'Punch,' with a note of apology. 'I sent it to a first-rate magazine, and they wrote back, "It is hardly the thing for genteel people." 'What say you?' said Shirley Brooks. The answer of his audience need hardly be told—how their applause recorded their appreciation of the writings of Thomas Hood.
Tom Taylor, born at Sunderland in 1817, was also a contributor. Perceval Leigh—whose name was not so well known, but 'Pips his Diary,' and 'Ye Manners and Customs of ye English in ye Nineteenth Century,' &c., were from his pen—Henry and Horace Mayhew, Laman Blanchard, Maguire, Thackeray, Tennyson, Trench, were also among the writers; and Doyle, who drew the design for the cover—which, by the bye, is not the original one in which Mr. 'Punch' first showed—and Kenny Meadows were among the illustrators. The names of those of the present time are too well known to need mention here.
Shirley Brooks said, 'The cartoons were settled at a dinner given once a week, at which the editor met the contributors and artists. These meetings were most pleasant, and the dinners remarkably good.'
He farther related some humorous anecdotes of the curious communications forwarded to the editor. 'Ladies sometimes sent accounts of the dresses, ribbons, and bonnets of other persons, with a request to "cut them up," the information being of so minute a character that it could only be written by one lady of another. Sometimes the editor was requested to write something stinging about persons who gave parties and did not pay their debts, laying special stress on those who crammed 120 guests into a room not capable of holding fifty.
'Some persons were patronising; and one gentleman sought to bribe, by stating he, if something he sent were inserted, would take twenty copies of "Punch." Sometimes artful advertisers sent communications deprecatory of themselves, hoping to get notoriety; but Mark Lemon was too old to be sold in that way'—as no doubt Shirley Brooks is.
'An hotel-keeper,' he added, 'who had lately opened a house in a watering-place, pleasantly situated, offered, if a cut of his premises were inserted, and a couple of letters were written and dated from his house, in the pages of "Punch," to let any two gentlemen connected with the office stay at his hotel free of charge for a month.' On one occasion, when the lecturer was in a railway carriage, the talk turned on 'Punch,' and a fellow passenger informed him in confidence that he had written a series of papers in the periodical of which Shirley Brooks himself was the author.
Our outline of the remarks the lecturer made on the history of 'Punch' is necessarily very imperfect. But the lecture on 'Satire' was altogether a very charming evening's entertainment. We wish the editor of 'Punch' would repeat it. We close this notice by quoting a few words from James Hannay's estimate of the satire of 'Punch:' 'The decorum which distinguishes; "Punch" from the best effusions of the class in the olden days belongs as much to the age as to the periodical. In the worst of times our facetious friend is innocent; and though our progenitors seem to have thought that all wit required great license, the student finds that they were often licentious and dull too, sacrificing decency, and getting nothing in exchange.'
Shirley Brooks, in accepting the duty of carrying out the traditional policy of the leading satirical journal on all social and political questions, in taking the chair so long and so well filled by one of the first promoters of the paper, and in essaying to maintain the prestige of the best journal of the kind in the world, took upon himself a grave responsibility. For 'Punch' belongs to the British nation. This step was taken two years ago. The result has proved how happy was the selection of a successor to him who had grown old with the paper, whose interests he watched so well—how capable and how gentle a follower has been found to hold the coachman's whip over the flyers that pull the 'Punch' coach.
Cursed be verse, how well soe'cr it flow,
That tends to make one honest man my foe.
Ten years ago, this couplet closed the lecturer's comments on the paper he now edits. The thoroughly English sentiment that inspires this homely rhyme is the yeast that leavens the fancy, wit, and satire which so often have lighted the pages of our Fleet-street friend. The name of Shirley Brooks is a guarantee of the maintenance of the old principles in the 'Punch' of the future.