Cruikshank & Töpffer : Man on the Roof !

by thierry smolderen © 2004

A few years ago, I noticed a similarity between one of Cruikshank's best known illustrations ("The Last Chance", the penultimate etching he did for Oliver Twist), and a quasi-identical scene in Töpffer's Mr. Vieux Bois picture story.

The two compositions were so close that it wasn't hard to believe one of the illustrations influenced the other.

"The Last Chance", by George Cruikshank,
(Oliver Twist, 1838)

Mr. Vieux Bois, by Töpffer (third version , 1839)

The similarity in design was matched by the dates of publication. Cruikshank's etching was first published late in 1838, roughly the same period as Töpffer's album. However, the issue of precedence was entangled in Mr. Vieux Bois' famously difficult printing history.

Mr. Vieux Bois was originally drawn in 1827 for the pleasure of Töpffer's entourage.

This first version of the roof scene, however, lacks the elements of the composition which make the later version so arresting : the beginning of a vertical plunge at the left of the picture, which exerts a gravitational pull on the hero (and is spatially reinforced by the buildings in the distant background) ; the combined tensive forces suggested by the rope and the high chimney ; the slope of the roof with its jutting angular corner...

Lacking these elements, the first version alone wasn't sufficient proof of the precedence of Töpffer's design.

The last of the Oliver Twist etchings were first published late in 1838, while the first published version of Mr. Vieux Bois (completely redrawn by Töpffer from his 1827 sketchbook) was published in Geneva and Paris in 1837.

The problem is that this 1837 Vieux Bois album is scarce - so scarce that consultation was not an option for this researcher.

The original version of the scene (1827)
And to make matters worse, the Töpffer picture that lead initially to this comparison was actually drawn for the later, extended, version of Mr. Vieux Bois , published in April 1839 - i.e. only a few months AFTER the very first publication of the Oliver Twist etching ! (1)
From these elements only, it was hard to determine who had influenced whom.


The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, Wilson and Company, 1842.
One of the bootlegs editions copying the elusive 1837 version of Mr.Vieux Bois. (3)

Fortunately, so to speak, the 1837 Vieux Bois was the source for two pirate editions that Aubert published in Paris in 1839 - one of these imitations being (most probably) the source for the Tilt and Bogue adaptation in English, in 1841, under the name of The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck - and whose cover, incidentally, is attributed to George Cruikshank's brother, Robert. (2)

Because these bootleg editions are unquestionably based on the 1837 version of Mr. Vieux Bois, the matter of precedence can be firmly established.

Judging from the 1839 copies of the 1837 Vieux Bois edition (left), it is now clear that Töpffer can take precedence.

Töpffer was the original author for the man on the roof composition, that George Cruikshank must have copied from the original Freydig edition of 1837.

The obvious question is, why should a man of Cruikshank's stature and talent lower himself to copy an unknown and clearly lesser Swiss artist for this most important collaboration with Dickens ?

Dickens correspondence sheds some light on this mystery. From his exchange with his illustrator it is known that : "Cruikshank was very late with the illustrations for the third volume of Oliver Twist. [ which goes some way in explaining the borrowing of some ideas ] When the volume finally emerged from the press, Dickens was out of town. Consequently he saw a majority of the third-volume plates only upon his return (8 November 1838)." (4)

Some of the plates that Dickens only discovered in print were problematic - the relationship between author and illustrator was not easy. However, "The Last Chance" was not one of those that Dickens asked Cruikshank to change in the middle of printing the book. Still, the scene on the roof had been subjected to some discussion by both men :

"After Dickens had written the text for this illustration, he wrote to Cruikshank 'that the scene of Sikes' escape will not do for illustration. It is so very complicated, with such a multitude of figures, such violent action and torch-light to boot, that a small plate could not take in the slightest idea of it'. Notwithstanding this comment, the artist was able to catch in roughly a four-by-five etching a great deal of the atmosphere surrounding Sikes' escape. Although the crowd below is not shown, its presence and mood are sensed and the dynamics of the scene felt because of the window watchers and the expression on Sikes' face. The theme of hanging is dramatically foreshadowed in this scene as are the themes of confinement and suffocation in the next." (5)

From these elements one can easily reconstruct the process that probably allowed Cruikshank to answer Dickens' challenge about this "impossible" image : a lot of illustrators (and comic strip artists) would find their best design by remembering some visual ideas, seen elsewhere, that could be readily adapted to provide a clever visual solution to the problem at hand. Töpffer's picture offered the hard-pressed Cruikshank a nearly perfect serendipitous "hit".

We have our motive (the approaching deadline), but other circumstantial evidence regarding the "means" by which Töpffer's book might have arrived in the hands of the illustrator gives even more weight to this influence theory.

Cruikshank was a close friend of Thackeray's at the time - and we now have all the best reasons to think that Thackeray had been introduced to Töpffer's work in Goethe's circle in the Winter 1830-1831, in Weimar. (6)

In April 1839, Thackeray published an article recognizing the superior power of French illustration in the London Westminster Review : "Thackeray must have shown his article to his friend George, who had taught him etching, and on whom he wrote a highly laudatory article in the same magazine the following year", (7) writes David Kunzle. According to Kunzle, Thackeray is the person most likely to have introduced Cruikshank to Töpffer's work, sparking in him a "strike for independence" as auteur complet , soon after his row with Dickens.

What "The Last Chance" etching suggests is that Thackeray may have introduced Cruikshank to Töpffer's work a bit earlier - during the year 1838, while Cruikshank was working on Oliver Twist.

"Töpffer's caricature albums were sold in Paris by Philippon's publisher Aubert, whose shop is mentioned by Thackeray in his London and Westminster Review article. The first published work of Töpffer was the Histoire de Monsieur Jabot, followed two years later by the sorties of Monsieur Crépin and Monsieur Vieux-Bois. Various plagiarized versions of the latter, under the title Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, with English captions and no acknowledgement of origin or authorship, were launched by two different publishers in the United States, and in England by Cruikshank's own publisher Tilt and Bogue. The latter surely sold all the other Töpffer album as well, either in the original (the terse captions would have presented no problem to an Englishman with an elementary knowledge of French), or in English copies. Töpffer was also available, no doubt, at Aubert's authorized agent, Delaporte's in the Burlington Arcade." (8)

Without a written acknowledgement, by Cruikshank himself, that he had lifted the "roof" design from Mr. Vieux Bois, it is of course difficult to be 100% sure that this was precisely what happened. One cannot discard the possibility of a coincidence, or that both had been influenced by a third, similar picture.

With these provisions in mind, the case is rather convincing : we know from what was said above that Cruikshank was late in his work, that the subject presented him with a difficult problem of representation, and that his friend Thackeray, highly familiar with Töpffer's work (he discovered it first-hand, before it was published, in Goethe's circle in the Winter 1830 ), was working hard at the time to introduce his artist friends in London to continental works of caricature.

All in all, I think it is now much harder to believe that Cruikshank was NOT influenced by Töpffer's roof sequence, from the first Mr. Vieux Bois edition of 1837, than the contrary.


Many thanks to :

Leonardo De Sá for his comments and general assistance.
Gérald Gorridge, for his great Töpffer collection.
Alfredo Castelli and Robert Beerbohm, for their joint effort in publishing Obadiah Odlbuck.

The last volume of Oliver Twist was published in book form late in 1838, before the serial was completed in Bentley's Miscellany, in April 1839.

DE SÁ, L., Töpffer (a short and very helpful bibliographical synopsis).

WHEELER, D. , BEERBOHM, R.L., DE SÁ, L., "Töpffer in America" in Comic Art N°3, 2003.

CASTELLI, A. (ed.), Rodolphe Töpffer presents The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, (reprint of the 1842 american bootleg), Edizioni Napoli Comicon, 2003.

STONE, H., "Dickens, Cruikshank and Fairy Tales" in George Cruikhank, a reevaluation, PATTEN, R.L. ed., Princeton University Press, 1974.

VOGLER R. A., Graphic Works of George Cruikshank, Dover, 1979.

SMOLDEREN T., Töpffer/Thackeray, the Weimar Connection,, 2003.

KUNZLE, D., "Mr. Lambkin : Cruikshank's Strike for Independence" in George Cruikhank, a reevaluation, PATTEN, R.L. ed., Princeton University Press, 1974.