by Suejette Black and Katelyn Liu
George Cruikshank, 1792-1878, British. "Virgo- Unmatched Enjoyment". Etching. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The William A. Whitaker Collection, 70.31.36
Cruikshank was a well-known British caricaturist and book illustrator. His caricatures were often of British social life or politics and he was one of the most famous satirists of his time. His other notable works include illustrations for Charles Dickens and illustrating the first English translation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
In this small print of “Unmatched Enjoyment,” a close inspection reveals a playful depiction of ladies enjoying an afternoon tea surrounded by several pets, including cats and birds, but mostly dogs. The British take on tea is shown by the accompaniment of sugar cubes and scones. Reflective of the title of piece, it seems to be expressing the love the British have for their afternoon tea hour and is complemented by the pleased faces of the ladies in the etching.
Keeping in mind Cruikshank’s style of satire, however, one might look more closely at the the piece and find a different interpretation, other than just the pleasure of tea. In the cartoon, the butler says, “Bless these young ladies! how happy they they all do seem to be! Bless their little hearts.” It is clear that the ladies in the print, though, are not young, in fact, they seem to be a variety of middle-aged women.
During Cruikshank’s career, afternoon tea was a relatively new concept, only coming about in the 1840s to be accessible for the working-class of England. It is possible he is making a commentary on these elderly women in England thinking too highly of themselves and the excessive lifestyle these women lead. They seem to transform the simple act of drinking tea into a sort of party.
Perhaps Cruikshank may be commenting on the trendiness of afternoon tea culture, highlighting how even middle-aged, middle-class women are quick to jump on board with whatever passing fad happens to infiltrate the upper echelons of English social spheres. The superfluous attendance of all their dogs indicates the intentionality invested in maintaining a facade of interesting and extravagant social lives.