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These whimsical portrait compositions portray members of various professions by literally assembling their bodies from tools of the trade as a visual pun. Madeley’s imaginative inventions seem like mechanical dolls, each allegorical person having limbs and bodies entirely made from implements, perhaps reflective of the Machine Age in which they were produced. Prints of witty and satirical caricatures, accompanied by humorous captions or verse, were part of British popular culture from at least the mid 18th century well into the 19th century.
These prints were likely intended for amusement, perhaps making a light social statement on how people become what they do for a living. Insofar as the compositions are made by cleverly assembling inanimate objects that resemble body parts or clothing, they often are referred to as being anthropomorphic. They also relate to physiognomy, the art of determining personal characteristics from the form or features of the body, which was a major preoccupation of Enlightenment art and thought of Great Britain and Continental Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The patriarch of the art of composing inanimate objects to form faces and bodies was the Italian Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527-93), who painted allegorical portraits made up of natural or manmade objects, in series representing the four seasons, the four elements, occupations such as gardener, etc. Nicolas Armessin, II, a French artist, in his series of engravings Costumes Grotesques (1695), apparently was the first to systematically portray various professions by assembling the bodies or costumes from the tools of the trade.
In 1828, similar tradesmen prints were published by W.B. Cooke, London, under the title Implemental Characters, For the Scrap-book and Album. The title suggests that such prints were issued to be put in scrapbooks, though of course they may also have been displayed in homes on the wall or left in book form. Implemental Characters was accompanied by sardonic verse by Thomas Hood (1799-1845), a renowned English poet who in the period developed the periodical The Comic Annual (1830-39 and 1842), suggesting that such prints were part of the culture of humorous entertainment of that period.
See other examples of physiognomies and occupational portraits in our online exhibition The Eccentric Mind.
G.E. Madeley was a British lithographer, active in the second quarter of the 19th century. He is listed in the offered series as printer or “lith.” both probably indicating that he was the lithographer. His address at the time was Wellington Street, Strand. Madeley is also listed as the printer (perhaps the lithograph artist) of a similar series of prints of trades people based on the compositions of G. Spratt, published by C. Tilt, Fleet Street, London, also in 1830, and yet another similar series published by Thomas Griffiths, 13 Wellington Street, Strand, in the same year. Perhaps Madeley’s prints were published in periodicals (like The Comic Annual), or issued in fascicles or separately issued like Cooke’s Implemental Characters. In addition to these works, Madeley also produced topographical prints and straightforward portraits of prominent people, some of which are in the collection of Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
Thomas McLean (act. c. 1816-1855) owned a printing firm publishing a range of works during the mid 19th century, including collections of humorous illustrations by Henry Alken, George Cruikshank and Edward Lear, as well as portraits and collections of landscape prints. Britain’s National Portrait Gallery has at least 140 portrait prints published by McLean.
“G.E. Madeley.” National Portrait Gallery. 21 April 2005. http://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/person.asp?LinkID=mp19776&role=art (21 April 2005).
“Thomas McLean.” National Portrait Gallery. 21 April 2005. http://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/person.asp?LinkID=mp62465&role=art (21 April 2005).