About PUNCH magazine cartoons
Punch, magazine of humour and satire, ran from 1841-2002. A very British institution renowned internationally for its wit and irreverence, it introduced the term ' Cartoon ' as we know it today and published the works of great comic writers and poets such as W.M. Thackeray, Mayhew, P.G. Wodehouse, Sir John Betjeman, Alan Coren and Miles Kington amongst others. Its political and social cartoons swayed governments, capturing life in detail from the 19th and 20th centuries. The finest cartoonists appeared in Punch- legends like Tenniel, Du Maurier, Shepard, Pont, Illingworth, Fougasse, R.S. Sherriffs, Trog and Searle.
Have a Question? Click to see our FAQs
This wonderful archive is available for reproduction via download or personal gifts as art quality prints. All Punch cartoons are digitised to the highest standards, keyworded for precise searches, and provided at high resolution for unsurpassed reproduction. See our Galleries for more.
History of Punch
The first edition of Punch was published on July 17th, 1841. Its founders, wood engraver Ebenezer Landells and writer Henry Mayhew, got the idea for the magazine from a satirical French paper, Le Charivari (the first issue was subtitled, "The London Charivari").
Landells insisted that Punch should be less bitter than other British comic publications and of a higher literary standard. The name was hit upon at an early meeting – someone remarked that the magazine should be like a good Punch mixture – nothing without Lemon (referring to Mark Lemon, the magazine’s first editor), whereupon Mayhew shouted “ A capital idea! Let us call the paper Punch!”
The magazine was set up with capital of £25… and the future soon looked bleak. The circulation refused to rise, money ran short and it began to look as if Lemon would have the same success with Punch as he did with his previous enterprise, a pub which went bankrupt.
But then he had the bright idea of publishing a big annual issue called the Almanack which sold an astonishing 90,000 copies and Punch was on the map. In the medium term, however, it continued to struggle for survival until it was taken over by the printing firm of Bradbury and Evans (which became Bradbury and Agnew in 1872).
The magazine then entered its golden age and enjoyed great success for decades. When a magazine becomes identified with a period it very often fails to survive it. The readers of the Strand Magazine in Edwardian days, or of Life between the wars or of Picture Post just after, would have been unable to imagine those household names ever vanishing, yet vanish they did.
So what was the secret of Punch's survival?
More than anything, it was its ability to find the wavelength of an age. Even in Victorian days Punch did not stand still. In its early years, the years of the Chartists and the unrest that swept through Europe in 1848, it was radical. The most famous example of this was Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt", moving people's consciences over sweated labour. But by the 1860's it had become milder, less inclined to attack the Establishment or support the underdog, and this too was in tune with the rising middle class and the feeling that the British Empire had come to stay.
A succession of superb artists on Punch ensured that the manner in which it played safe was brilliant. The drawings of Leech, Keene, du Maurier, Tenniel and many only slightly lesser men may not have prompted any revolutions or moves to man the barricades, but they still represent the most authentic and memorable picture of Victorian England that we have left.
It was, however, the only one of the breed that continued to flourish for another hundred years, almost as if it was a national institution that could not be allowed to die. This status as a part of British history is a source both of great pride and huge annoyance to Punch, a millstone as well as a medal.
Each time Punch has made a significant advance in tune with the times - when Malcolm Muggeridge introduced a more acid note, when Bernard Hollowood finally abandoned the old cover, when William Davis engineered such coups as a full-scale parody of Playboy - critics grumbled that this isn't how a national institution should behave.
What they forget is that Punch only survived and flourished by changing its reality as well as its image. The magazine was bought from Bradbury and Agnew in 1969 by United Newspapers (only the second time it had changed hands).
A promotional booklet in 1974 was full of confidence for the future: "It has found new security within a large organisation and an added confidence to combat the gloom of the 1970's with cheerfulness, humour and even optimism." By the late Eighties, however, circulation had dropped to an alarmingly low level and three editors in three years failed to arrest the decline. Punch was eventually closed by United in 1992 and it looked like the end for a title which had become loved around the world.
Salvation came in the form of Harrods proprietor, Mohamed Al Fayed who relaunched the magazine with a party at Harrods in September 1996. The magazine soon positioned itself as a thorn in the side of the Establishment, with a series of exposes. These included Murdoch by his butler, the most intimate look yet at the world's leading media mogul, and The Mandelson Files, a mouldbreaking investigation into Peter Mandelson, then the most feared member of the New Labour government.
Sadly, the magazine closed again in 2002 but left a legacy of over 160 years of humour and wit unsurpassed in publishing history.
"My God, you've had trouble with vandals"
THE FOUNDERS of Punch certainly knew how to have a good time. They ate agreeable meals, drank tolerable wine, smoked good cigars, and chuckled at their own amusing jokes. And, during the idle moments in between, they published a magazine.
It is not surprising, then, that the main staff meeting of the week took place over dinner. What is surprising is that the tradition they established lasted for nearly 150 years.
The dinners were first held in a pub on Ludgate Hill run by the publisher's brother-in-law. Or if not there, anywhere that could stand the noise. Nobody can remember when the Punch Table made its first appearance, but it was probably around 1855, by which time the dinners were held at the office.
When Punch moved to a new building in 1865, the tradition was so well established that the magazine was given its own banqueting hall. It had quickly become the custom to discuss the contents of the week's main political cartoon when the meal was over. As the brandy was passed around and the cigars were lit up, the editor would call 'Gentlemen, the cartoon!' One of the writers would then suggest what a wheeze it would be to draw Disraeli in the style of a sphinx, or Gladstone a lion fighting the Russian bear, and the unfortunate artist would have the do the best job he could.
To modern eyes, many early captions were a little less than economical. Some looked as if they had been cobbled together by a drunken committee. Now you know the truth. They probably had. It quickly became clear that creative minds were often not at their best at the end of an enjoyable meal, and table members wisely decided to consider the weekly cartoon before lunch, a tradition which continued until 1969, when William Davis became editor and decided that he did not want part of his magazine edited at the meal table.
The content of modern cartoons is, for the most part, left entirely to cartoonists. The lunch became an opportunity for the staff and regular contributors to meet outside guests - writers, artists, politicians, business people, showbiz celebrities, even the occasional member of the Royal family. One lunch featured Norman - now Lord - Tebbit, the reigning Miss World, the writer of Blackadder, and the managing director of Woolworths. Uri Geller has bent Punch cutlery, and Lord George Brown has stomped off in a huff at being called 'not a genuine Socialist'.
The editor would normally give a short speech to open the meal and introduce the guests in turn. Norman Tebbit was introduced as 'the person least likely to be served in a Chinese takeaway.' Margaret Thatcher, incidentally, was not merely the first woman Prime Minister. She was the first woman to attend a Punch Lunch, apart from the Women's Lunch a couple of years earlier. She was a guest in 1975, breaking a male-only tradition of more than 130 years.
In the beginning, staff of long standing were invited to become members of the Table. It was probably after a good deal of brandy and port that some bright spark decided that Table members should carve their initials in the table itself. It became a tradition for editors and proprietors to carve their initials: editors at one end, proprietors at the other.
Selected guests were also invited. These guests ranged from William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, to the Duchess of York, author of Budgie the Helicopter. Sir John Tenniel, Sir John Betjeman, Anthony Powell, James Thurber, A A Milne, Basil Boothroyd, have all carved. The Duke of Edinburgh carved a Greek 'Phi' in the table.
Prince Charles's 'C' surrounds a finely-carved set of Prince of Wales feathers. The tradition is lost on some, though. The Prince of Wales's detective was not impressed when he was first shown the table. 'My God,' he said, 'you've certainly had trouble with vandals, haven't you?'
"Gentlemen, the Cartoon" (For many years the Editor’s cry after Punch lunches)
“There aren’t many boasts that one can make in the reasonable confidence that they happen to be true, but this is one: when it comes to the art of the cartoon, no magazine in the world has a finer record than Punch. Fans of the New Yorker may carp, but the fact remains that Punch has published work by a unique array of artists and illustrators; from John Tenniel and E H Shepard, respectively the original illustrators of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh, both of them long-serving Punch men, to artists such as H M Bateman, Fougasse and Trog, all of whose comic touch was underpinned by a sureness of line that many a supposedly serious artist would envy and few could emulate.”
David Thomas - Editor 1989-1992
How a sketchy idea of humour took off
It was Punch which invented the cartoon as we know it today. One momentous day, very early in its life, Punch made a grim joke which accidentally changed the English language by giving a new meaning to an old word. The butt of the joke was an exhibition intended to help in the selection of new paintings and murals for the Houses of Parliament, then being rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1834. Artists made their submissions in the form of cartoons – the original meaning of the word was a preliminary drawing for a work of art; a painting, a fresco, a tapestry.
At the time, the most important part of the magazine was a full-page satirical drawing, known as The Big Cut, entitled 'Mr Punch’s Pencillings'. But in July 1843, The Big Cut was replaced for a week by the magazine’s own entry for the Parliamentary exhibition.
In a series of drawings which it ironically titled “cartoons”, Punch contrasted the sumptuousness of the Parliamentary plans with the miserable poverty of the starving population. With heavy sarcasm, Punch declared that the government had “determined that as they cannot afford to give hungry nakedness the substance which it covets, at least it shall have the shadow. The poor ask for bread, and the philanthropy of the State accords – an exhibition”.
The artist John Leech’s full-page wood engraving of ragged paupers puzzling at a gallery of opulently-framed portraits was titled “Cartoon, No.1: Substance and Shadow”. And it parodied beautifully the designs submitted to the 1843 competition to decorate Westminster.
As a result the word “cartoon” stuck and became associated with pictorial satire and eventually with any humorous drawing. In the years that followed Leech’s famous engraving, both political and comic cartoons flourished in Punch, developed in general by separate groups of artists.
The Victorian Age
(1841 - 1900)
The first edition of Punch appeared four years after Queen Victoria came to the throne, and in the middle of what passed in those days for election fever. Its humour was robust. ‘Why is Punch like the current government?’ boasted the magazine’s advertisements. ‘Because it will be out soon.’ Early Punch illustration was restricted by technical problems of producing the magazine – artists drew straight on to a wooden block which was then carved by an engraver. The artist depended on the skill of the engraver. Perhaps because of this, the most successful artists – Leech, Doyle and Keene – were those who had trained as engravers and understood their techniques .
Voice of the Establishment
(1900 – 1953)
At the turn of the century, Punch had already become a national institution and the writers and artists were household names. Readers would crowd outside the offices before the weekly lunches to see their favourite contributors.
Artistically, the detailed cross-hatching of cartoonists such as du Maurier had given way to the freer line epitomised by the work of Phil May, whose work brought Punch into the modern age.
Throughout the first half of the century, Punch was the voice of the British establishment; the first two editors of the century were knighted. Its jokes poked fun at the upper middle classes, but rarely would the victims have been wounded. During both world wars, Punch rose to the occasion, raising morale and being rewarded with large circulation increases.
Simpler styles of drawing found their way into Punch in the 30s and 40s. Social comment was still a major subject for cartoonists like one of the first female contributors, Antonia Yeoman (Anton). Post-war austerity, rationing and shortages were the overwhelming subject, in the spare shorthand of Fougasse or in an early drawing by William Scully.
Mr Punch Joins the Satire Set
Malcolm Muggeridge was appointed editor in 1953 and immediately set about giving Punch a sharper topical edge, dropping the traditional cover in 1956. Colour became more important, and the best graphic artists of the age – Hoffnung, Brockbank, Quentin Blake, Hewison, and the influential French artist Andre Francois – competed to be published. Ronald Searle’s work brought a more savage edge to Punch illustration, and by the early Sixties at the height of the satire boom, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman were emerging as bold new talents.
The Modern Age
Many talented cartoonists contributed over this period and favourites like Honeysett, Lowry and Mike Williams came into their own. Under Alan Coren’s editorship, the gag reigned supreme, with subjects seedy and surreal. David Thomas reintroduced a more topical feel to the cartoons often arriving at Punch by fax in response to current events. The offbeat humour of Steve Appleby and Steve Way was complemented by David Hughes’s ruthless colour caricatures. More recently under James Steen and Richard Brass the striking characters of Peter King (PAK), Andy McKay (NAF), Paul Wood have taken a leading role in modern cartoon art, and continued the great legacy of the Punch Cartoon.
1. I have some bound volumes of Punch. Are they worth very much? Bound volumes of Punch are not particularly rare and sell for between £10 - £30 depending on condition and quality.
2. When was Punch first published? 17th July, 1841 at a price of 3d; remaining the same price for an amazing 76 years, until 14th March 1917 when it was increased to 6d.
3. I think I have a copy of Punch’s first issue. Are they very rare? First issues are quite rare; you may have a copy of a facsimile of Punch’s first issue. Facsimile editions were printed on its 125th anniversary in 1966 and on its 150th anniversary in 1991.
4. What were the other publication dates of Punch? It began publication on 17th July 1841 and ceased on 8th April 1992. It relaunched on 6th September 1996 and ceased again on 28th May 2002.
5. How many different cover designs did Punch have? The original cover by A. S. Henning lasted a few months until December 1841. The next 4 designs were by ‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) - Jan 1842; William Harvey - Jul 1842; Sir John Gilbert - Jan 1843; Kenny Meadows - Jul 1843. Richard Doyle designed 2 versions in Jan 1844 and Jan 1849. The final version was unchanged for 107 years (apart from the occasional issue) until different full colour covers were introduced permanently on 10th October 1956- that issue was designed by Norman Thelwell.
6. Who were the editors of Punch?
Mark Lemon 1841-1870
Shirley Brooks 1870-1874
Tom Taylor 1874-1880
Francis Burnand 1880-1906
Owen Seaman 1906-1932
E. V. Knox 1932-1949
C. K. Bird 1949-1952
Malcolm Muggeridge 1952-1957
Bernard Hollowood 1958-1968
William Davis 1969-1977
Alan Coren 1978-1987
David Taylor 01/1988-09/1988
Russell Davies 10/1988-02/1989 (Acting Editor)
David Thomas 03/1989-04/1992
Peter McKay 1996-02/1997
Stewart Steven 03/1997-04/1997 (Acting Editor)
Paul Spike 05/1997-08/1997
James Steen 09/1997-11/2000
Richard Brass 11/2000-06/2001 (Acting Editor)
Richard Brass 06/2001-05/2002
7. What was the circulation of Punch over the years? Accurate figures are difficult to find until ABC figures in 1948. These have been taken from a number of sources and records in the Punch Archives.
pr = print run
1841 (17th July) 10,000 pr Two print runs of 5,000 were made as demand was so great.
1841 (Sept) 6,000
1905 (Nov) 61,000 pr
1906 (Nov) c.80,000 pr (after advertising campaign)
1908 (Jan) 79,500
1908 (July) 79,750
1912 (Dec 31) 103,000
1913 (1st wk) 103,250
1913 (end Nov) 120,500
1913 (final wk) 119,000
1914 (Dec 31) 144,000
1915 (Jan 01) 150,000
1931 Jul-Dec 133,154 (Weekly av. 132,253)
1931 Oct-Dec 131,283
1943 104,153 (letter 17.08.1944)
1944 Jan-Jun 129,195
1944 100,000 (paper shortages: Time)
1947 184,000 (Time)
1948 (Jan-Jun) 175,950 ABC
1952 136,537 (Time)
1958 (Jan-Jun) 113,039 ABC
1968 (Jan-Jun) 116,086 ABC
1978 (Jan-Jun) 85,176 ABC
1988 (Jan-Jun) 60,658 ABC
1990 (Jan-Jun) 32,297 ABC
* Figures from Altick, R.: Punch: The Lively Youth of a British Institution, Ohio State State University Press, Columbus, 1997
The Victorianist An excellent resource for all things Victorian: "The People, Places, Events and Customs" featuring a detailed concise history of Punch.
Animator Uli Meyer's brilliant work on Ronald Searle's "St. Trinian's" with Ronald's approval can be seen in the clip below. Uli Meyer's website.