Drawn to satire – An Irishman’s Diary on artist John Doyle

The political caricatures of John Doyle, who died 150 years ago on January 2nd, "constitute a remarkable record of public events between 1829 and 1851 and were immensely popular", according to Henry Boylan's Dictionary of Irish Biography.

He is regarded as the founder of the school of British cartoon satirists, the most prominent of whom were John Leech, John Tenniel and his son Richard Doyle, who created the style made famous by Punch magazine.

He was born in Dublin in 1797, the son of a silk mercer whose family, which was Catholic, was of Norman descent, had once owned estates in Laois and Offaly but had been dispossessed. He entered the Dublin Society drawing school at an early age and won a medal in 1805. Later he was a pupil of Gaspare Gabrielli, an Italian painter of landscapes and seascapes who worked in Dublin for many years, and of John Comerford, painter of miniature portraits.

Early valuable commissions were an equestrian portrait of the Marquess of Sligo and also a portrait of Earl Talbot, the lord lieutenant, but "a branch of art in which he excelled", according to Strickland's Dictionary of Irish Artists (1913), was painting horses. In all, he exhibited 19 portraits of horses between 1815 and 1821 at the exhibitions in the Dublin Society in Hawkins Street.


He moved to London with his wife, Marianna Conan, where he struggled to establish himself as a painter of portraits in oil and miniature. In 1822, he produced six prints entitled The Life of a Racehorse. His painting Turning out the Stag, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1825, gained him some recognition but two years later he found his true métier.

He had been producing political caricatures for some time using the new medium of lithography (of which London became a centre in the late 1820s). Showing some of his drawings to Thomas McLean, the London print-seller, he was persuaded to publish them. They sold very well and it was decided to continue them, thus beginning the series known as “the HB caricatures”, which ran for some 22 years.

Doyle signed the caricatures HB to conceal his identity; the signature was formed from his initials JD, one above the other. The caricatures were published three or four at a time, at irregular intervals, and featured the main political events and politicians of the time. The events and people “were treated without the exaggeration and coarseness of the caricatures of Gillray, and drawn with a humour never descending to vulgarity”, according to Strickland.

James Gillray, known as “the father of the political cartoon” produced caricatures that could be vicious and scatological, mainly between 1790 and 1810. By contrast, “the likenesses [in Doyle’s] were faithfully preserved – they were indeed hardly caricatures at all but characteristic portraits of all who figured prominently in political life and public events”, Strickland wrote.

"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 HB," the entry for Doyle in the Dictionary of National Biography asserted.

He produced a number of caricatures involving Daniel O'Connell; he was sympathetic to O'Connell's fight for Catholic rights but not to his Repeal campaign. One cartoon, Daniel in the Lions' Den, has O'Connell in a subterranean den surrounded by politicians with recognisable faces but lions' bodies. Another, Angling Extraordinary, has O'Connell as a large fish that a number of worried-looking politicians in a boat are trying to reel in. Probably the best known is The Lion and the Mouse, where O'Connell is the lion trapped in a net and the mouse nibbling at the net is Lord John Russell, the Whig leader who persuaded the House of Lords to free O'Connell, imprisoned in 1844 for "conspiracy" for trying to repeal the Act of Union.

By 1840, Doyle could afford a fashionable house in Hyde Park and moved in the same social circles as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Lord Macaulay and Thomas Moore. The HB series of lithographs totalled 917 by the time they came to an end in 1851; 610 or the original drawings in pen and pencil and a few in chalk are in the British Museum.

He had seven children and four of his sons inherited his artistic talents: James was an illustrator; Richard was a painter, illustrator and cartoonist; Henry became director of the National Gallery of Ireland; Charles was also a painter and the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the novelist and creator of Sherlock Homes.