Some years ago, the BBC produced a 90-minute documentary on the parallel lives and careers of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone titled Gladstone and Disraeli: Clash of the Titans. (You can watch it on YouTube, irritatingly divided into six 15-minute segments with the first here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4CHsWMV3Es)
When it comes to 19th-century British politics, the title is apt.
The two men dominated London’s political scene for more than 40 years, and they were bitter rivals. It’s fair to say that they hated each other, so much so that when Disraeli died, Gladstone would not attend his memorial service.
It occurred to me as I was watching it that while the two men had distinct physical appearances, Disraeli’s was by far the more unusual and interesting. Just as Disraeli and Gladstone were making politics into something modern, so too were caricaturists evolving the modern forms that we see today. And Disraeli, inadvertently, was a big part of that evolution.
Disraeli’s face had sharp, easily distinguishable features. His hair fell from the sides of his head in ringlets. He often had a droll, sleepy-eyed countenance. While others of his age sported beards or sideburns, Disraeli usually had only a whisp of whiskers on his upper and lower lips.
One artist in particular, Carlo Pelligrini, made a name for himself by drawing Disraeli for Vanity Fair, the British society publication. Pelligrini drew a caricature of Disraeli that appeared on an 1869 cover of the magazine as the first full-color lithograph the magazine presented. It was immensely popular, and that issue of the magazine sold out immediately.
Pelligrini contributed caricatures to Vanity Fair for 20 years and became one of its most important and popular artists.
Pelligrini was an odd character himself, openly homosexual when that was a dangerous admission according to British law. He signed his work APE, and that is how he is known. He was full of eccentricities, such as sleeping with a cigar in his mouth. He tried to establish himself as a portrait painter on the order of John Singer Sargent, whom he knew fairly well, but he was never as successful as he wished to be.
He died in 1889, two months short of his 50th birthday. Today, original prints of his work are highly valued by collectors. The National Portrait Gallery has an extensive online collection of his work, which is a lot of fun to look at.
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