by Michael Wynn Jones
G.P. Putnams, 1975
12″ x 9.5″ hardcover, 191 pages, indexed
I’ve had a hankering to read this book for a long time, but the price on the used market, usually around $50, held me back. It is, after all, pretty far afield from my area of greatest interest, so I wasn’t willing to shell out that kind of dough. But lately the price took a precipitous drop, as low as $10, on ABE so I finally bought one.
Jones does a fantastic job of giving us a concise yet full-bodied history of the American Revolution, telling the tale with the show-and-tell of contemporary cartoons. Particularly interesting is that much of the perspective comes from the British side. This is necessarily so because there were very few American period cartoons outside of the famous ones by Ben Franklin and Paul Revere. Being a Canadian who’s knowledge of the Revolution is a bit sketchy, I was surprised at the fact that the vast majority of the British public, and therefore the Brit cartoonists, were against the King’s war — not so much that they sided with the colonists but that they (correctly) predicted that the British economy would suffer greatly from the adventure.
As good as Jones’ text is, the reproduction quality of the cartoons is pretty awful. Given the age of the source material I suppose that’s not too surprising, but the often too-small reproduction certainly doesn’t help any. Much of the lettering on the cartoons (and there is a lot) is indecipherable, at least to my eyes. In some cases Jones recognizes this problem and tells us what it all says, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Generally his discussions of the cartoons seem to assume more legible reproduction than he actually got. The quality of the artwork itself ranges from absolutely gorgeous (Gillray and Rowlandson, for instance) to amateurish but dynamic scribbles.
If you’re looking for a coffee table art book you can give this a pass, but if you are interested in seeing the state of editorial cartooning during an exciting period in history I highly recommend the book despite the reproduction problems.