Dispatches from the Archive
The family unit went to Los Angeles late last month and I spent a few days in the Huntington Research Library. For any of you British and American historians out there who look at the past 1000 years of history, you should check out the Huntington. Their manuscript and rare books collection is impressive, to say the least.
My work looks at eighteenth to nineteenth century caricature and race. For my first chapter, I discuss the link between physiognomy, race, and politics and how political life was racialized as a result of questions about continuing the slave trade, the influx of black poor into London, and the Haitian Revolution. Diana Donald, author of the fantastically comprehensive 1996 monograph The Age of Caricature, discusses the role of physiognomy, the classification of a person’s bodily and facial features, gestures, and expressions as a means to measure their personality traits and moral fortitude, on early “how-to” guides to caricature. I wanted to see these guides for myself and much to my surprise, the first guide, *An Historical Sketch of the Art of Caricaturing with Graphic Illustrations” (1813) by James Peller Malcolm, opens with a discussion of race, inheritance, and the sublime beauty of Quakers.
For Malcolm, graphic caricature was a truth-seeking exercise. That the most beautiful features demonstrate suppressed feelings and that women, in particular, should “not mix in the usual amusements of the world [so as not to be] liable to those accidents which would cause caricatured lineaments in their offspring.” (emphasis added) This quote made me stop in my tracks. Malcolm’s caricature is about decorum and the dangers of a kind of moral miscegenation as a result of “mixing” emotion with decorum. He goes on to warn parents that “frequent and excessive laughter must contribute to derange the features” so they should be wary of producing in their children an exaggeration of their own worst, but suppressed attributes.
What led to this tweet exchange was Malcolm’s discussion of the “savage caricaturist.” He described “savage” peoples from the South Seas who can only create grotesque caricature art because they are, “caricatures in nature.” Their artwork is a result of their own “disordered imagination” and the British caricature artist can learn from this innate savagery. He goes on to talk about the “despised and offensive hottentot” and how even if she had the “favoured proportions” of the European, her complexion lends her to be a naturally occurring caricature.
I still haven’t generated the link to the slave trade precisely, but I feel so close to a breakthrough that it’s probably staring me right in the face.