… which is the rarest Cruikshank of them all? Well, according to noted twentieth-century Cruikshank biographer Albert M. Cohn, it’s this one:
The Wits Magazine and Attic Miscellany was a humorous compendium of jokes, limericks and anecdotes, issued in two volumes of ten editions by the publisher Thomas Tegg in 1818. Each edition carried an engraved frontispiece and an octavo-sized caricature plate with hand-colouring, illustrating one of the jokes in the text. Thomas Rowlandson provided twenty-four of these images and the remaining sixteen were supplied by Cruikshank. Both the text and the accompanying prints focus on subjects which were the stock-in-trade of the Georgian humourist and the magazine abounds with accounts of philandering husbands, scolding wives, drunken parsons, gullible bumpkins, as well as plenty of jokes at the expense of foreigners and the Irish.
“The Cheap Beating”, a short anecdote about a fight between an Irish lawyer and his tailor, is typical of the sort of thing on offer. After an argument over an unpaid bill, the tailor angrily tells his erstwhile customer that he will give him 5 shillings if he dares try and land a single blow upon him. The lawyer promptly responds by punching the man to the ground five times in a row, upon which the bloodied tailor beats a hasty retreat and reports the incident to a magistrate. When the case goes to court the barrister pleads not guilty on the grounds that the man had paid him to administer the beating. “‘True Mr Shannon’, said the judge; ‘but you were only fee’d to give him one blow; you exceeded your instructions by beating him so desperately’. ‘Why, upon my soul my lord’, replied the barrister, ‘I thought it a hard case to charge a poor client five shillings for only one blow, so I gave him thirty or forty more for nothing'”. The accompanying plate by Cruikshank, which appeared in the second edition of the first volume, duly shows the doughty lawyer administering to his terrified ‘client’.
Albert M. Cohn, who published what is still thought of as one of the most comprehensive catalogues of Cruikshank’s works in 1924, judged a complete edition of The Wits Magazine… to be “perhaps the rarest item in a Cruikshank collection”, noting that only one such copy was known to be in existence. This was the copy that had formally belonged to the wealthy young bibliophile Harry Elkins Widener, which was subsequently bequeathed to the Harvard University Library following his death aboard the Titanic in 1912. Other copies have come out of the woodwork since but this remains an incredibly rare volume with a market value of several thousand pounds.
Ironically, the scarcity of surviving copies suggests that The Wits Magazine was a commercial failure in its day. Few contemporaries evidently considered the magazine worth collecting and it is likely that no more than a few hundred editions were ever published. The possible reason for this failure becomes apparent when one considers that the entire magazine consisted of rehashed material from earlier publications. Most of the plates by Rowlandson and their accompanying text was lifted from Tegg’s Prime Jest Book (1812), while the remainder of the magazine’s content was taken from The Spirit of English Wit (1812) and The Spirit of Irish Wit (1812). Such behaviour was absolutely typical of Tegg, whose ruthless business practices were to earn him the enmity of a large part of London’s publishing community. In this case thought it appears as though even Tegg was unable to convince his customers to part with their money in exchange for a compendium of second-hand material. Consequently The Wits Magazine can now be considered as being one of the most valuable caricature-illustrated pamphlets of the period.