Biography

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John Doyle (1797-1868)

This article was written by Walter Armstrong and was published in 1901


John DoyleJohn Doyle 1797-1868, painter and caricaturist, was born in Dublin in 1797. He studied drawing under an Italian landscape-painter named Gabrielli, and in the Royal Dublin Society's schools. He was also a pupil of the miniature painter Comerford. In 1821 he came to London; but, although he occasionally exhibited at the Royal Academy, his success as a portrait-painter was not commensurate with his deserts. He subsequently turned his attention to lithography; and, having in 1827-8 produced some portraits from memory in this way with great success, was gradually led to begin the series known popularly as the caricatures of H.B. (a signature contrived by the junction of two J's and two D's. These came out in batches of four or five at a time, at irregular intervals, but during the session usually once a month, and for many years were complimented by a semi-leading article in the ‘Times’ explaining their meaning. The utmost pains were taken to preserve a strict incognito, and with such success that almost to the last the identity of the author was unknown.

From 1829 to 1851, when the last of them appeared, their popularity continued; and the presentments of Wellington and Cumberland, Russell and Brougham, Disraeli, O'Connell, Eldon, Palmerston, Melbourne — ‘all the men of note who took part in political affairs from before the passing of the Catholic Relief Bill until after the repeal of the Corn Law,’ with many others, became familiar through Doyle's excellent likenesses and gently satiric pencil. In its absence of animosity and exaggeration, his work was far removed from the style of Rowlandson and Gillray, and steadfast, even in its greatest severities, to the standard of good taste. ‘You never hear any laughing at H.B.,’ wrote Thackeray in 1840, ‘his pictures are a great deal too genteel for that — polite points of wit, which strike one as exceedingly clever and pretty, and cause one to smile in a quiet, gentlemanlike kind of way.’ Other contemporaries strike a more enthusiastic note. Macaulay, writing to his sister in 1831, describes the delight he had derived from ‘the caricatures of that remarkably able artist who calls himself H.B.’ Wordsworth and Haydon were also warm in commendation of his work. ‘He has,’ says the latter, ‘an instinct for expression and power of drawing, without academical cant, I never saw before’ (Journal, 29 Oct. 1831). Prince Metternich possessed his entire collection, and regarded them as most valuable records. Wilkie, Rogers, and Moore also thought very highly of them.

It is certain that during their epoch Doyle's designs led English satiric art into a path of reticence and good breeding which it had never trodden before; and for English graphic political history between 1830 and 1845 one must go chiefly to the drawings of ‘H.B.’ His plates reach 917 in number; and of these, either in the form of original designs, rough sketches, or transfers for the stone, there are more than six hundred examples in the print room of the British Museum. In the National Gallery of Ireland there is a portrait of Christopher Moore by Doyle. It has not hitherto been stated that Doyle was the author of the original drawing for the large engraving by Walker and Reynolds of ‘The Reform Bill receiving the King's Assent by Royal Commission,’ 1836, the fact being kept strictly secret, lest it should disclose the origin of the ‘H.B.’ series. In 1822 he also published six plates, entitled ‘The Life of a Race Horse.’

Doyle died on 2 January 1868, aged 70, having for some seventeen years retired from the field of his pictorial successes.


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