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Richard Scully, ‘The Epitheatrical Cartoonist’; or, Matthew Somerville Morgan and the World of Theatre, Art and Journalism in Victorian London’

2012 February 29

Richard Scully examines the close connections between the world of Victorian comic journalism and the theatre, taking Matthew Somerville Morgan (1837-1890) as a case-study. Morgan’s brilliant cartoons for Fun, Judy, and The Tomahawk (all competitors of Punch) owed much to his background as a scene-painter and designer of pantomime and melodrama. In fact, so bound up were his cartoons with theatrical modes of composition and subject-matter, that he can be described as an ‘epitheatrical’ cartoonist.

‘Epitheatrical’ is a recent coinage which describes activities and art forms that are necessarily dependent on the theatre, but not always directly concerned with it. As such, he was the most notable exemplar of a broader epitheatrical journalism that characterised the press and publishing of Victorian London. It’s no coincidence that when Morgan and his brother-in-law Harvey Orrin Smith posed for a portrait photograph by Horace Harral, the pair were clad in theatrical Spanish bullfighting attire – Morgan the cartoonist and Orrin Smith the printer were fresh from an amateur dramatic performance to raise money for the Royal Hospital for Incurables. The author of the plays and skits in which they performed were F. C. Burnand, the future editor of Punch; the playwright and editor of Fun, Henry Byron, was also involved; and the future editor of The Tomahawk, and another Punch contributor, Gilbert Arthur A’Beckett, was also in attendance.

Morgan’s work as a serious artist was also bound up with the theatre, and he was not above ‘burlesquing’ this in cartoon form to engage with broader contemporary debates on morality and entertainment. In the surviving cartoon version of a massive, 12 x 8 foot canvas, ‘“Propriety” Behind the Scenes!’ combines all the aspects of Morgan’s epitheatrical artistic world. Pantomime fairies mill about at Covent Garden, awaiting their curtain call, though their ‘shocking’ scanty attire – condemned by the Lord Chamberlain and others – is carefully covered up by high-necks and long trousers.

In Morgan’s life story and work, the links between the Victorian stage, gallery and press are plainly visible, and provide a fascinating impression of these vibrant, interlinked worlds.

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