Illustrated songsheets such as this were a stock-in-trade of the printsellers of Georgian London. They were usually published in quarto or folio-sized editions which featured a single large image accompanied by words and music.
The Newcastle-born publisher Jeremy Catnach was perhaps the most prolific and most successful publisher of popular ballads. He set up shop in the salubrious slum of Seven Dials in 1813 and would go on to issue tens of thousands of copies of hundreds of different songsheets and other illustrated broadsides. Catnach typically employed both an engraver and professional writer to work on each piece, paying a shilling for the words and another for the image. For the writers this must have been relatively easy money, as Catnach rarely required his publications to carry original tunes and was usually happy for them to simply re-write the words to an existing song.
The sheer quantity of songsheets published in this period must have been staggering. By the middle of the nineteenth-century, established London publishing houses were boasting of back-catalogues consisting of tens, or even hundreds of thousands of printed ballads. One such account from 1861, indicates that a publisher could confidently expect to sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies of a successful songsheet.
The two examples shown here were both illustrated by George Cruikshank and amply demonstrate his ability in bringing the caricaturist’s art to bear on other mediums of commercial publishing. The first was issued by Richard Holmes Laurie, son of one half of the well-known City publishing firm of Laurie & Whittle, on August 1st 1821. The tortuously-worded song recounts the tale of a scruffy young man who steals clean clothes from a fellow guest at a weekend party to avoid having to go to the trouble of having his own clothes cleaned. Cruikshank shows the thief making off in a shirt several sizes to small for him, with a cunning and triumphant look on his face.
The second was published by Joseph Robins of Tooley Street in Southwark. The print itself is undated but a trimmed copy held in the British Museum has been annotated with the date 1812. This is certainly feasible, as Robin’s is known to have been active in the publishing trade since 1799. However, a publication date around 1820 seems more likely, as Cruikshank is not known to have produced any other items for Robin’s before then. The lyrics to the song tell the tale of a woman who falls from her bed in terror after mistaking her cat for a ghost one dark night. Jokes involving ghosts, or mundane items that could be mistaken for ghosts, had been a typical theme for caricaturists such as Thomas Rowlandson and Richard Newton during the late 1790s and early 1800s. It is quite possible that Cruikshank drew inspiration from some of the prints he had seen during his childhood to create this design. There are certainly similarities between this plate and the The Ghost or Poor Paddy and the Black Cat, published by Laurie & Whittle in 1801.