How Gilbert Became Bab (Part Two)

This post follows directly on from Part One:

We left our hero first using the artist’s pseudonym “Bab” in order to conceal from his employers, the Education Office, that he had drawn a cartoon criticising their policy. In March the following year a column appeared in Fun entitled “The Education Office, Again” which laid into them in even harsher terms:

“The Education Office, Again” from Fun, 15 March 1862

The only previous work about the Education Office that I can find in these early issues of Fun is Gilbert’s Bab cartoon and an article which accompanied it entitled “Lisping in Numbers” which was probably also by Gilbert. The word “again”, therefore, seems to be in reference to these. The “initial” to “The Education Office, Again” is unsigned, but the style is very like Gilbert’s; the probability is that it was by him, and the article too.

Throughout 1862 and the start of 1863 Gilbert used the WSG monogram to sign his drawings, or no signature at all. Here is the last instance of Gilbert using the monogram, dating from February 1863:

Fun, 28 February 1863

(By this time Gilbert had resigned from the Education Office and was pupil to a barrister – hence the greatly increased incidence of law-court cartoons in his output during this period.)

Well, the next change was that he turned to a plain “W.S.G.” signature, here seen in its first use:

Fun, 11 April 1863

From November 1863 onwards Gilbert’s identifiable contributions to Fun multiplied: he became a prolific, and very visible, presence on the paper, most obviously in his “Comic Physiognomist” and “Our Own Correspondent” columns.

However, at the start of 1865 something happened. Gilbert’s identifiable pieces trailed off. In May 1865 Fun changed editor, from the apparently rather lackadaisical H.J. Byron to the more professional Tom Hood, and the paper’s flagging fortunes revived.

It does not seem coincidental that during this same period (from April 1865 onwards) Gilbert contributed occasionally to Fun‘s senior rival, Punch. And it was here, as far as I have been able to see, that “Bab” was first revived, in a column confirmed to be by Gilbert entitled “The Royal Academy Exhibition (by a critic who couldn’t get in)”:

“The Royal Academy Exhibition,” Punch, 17 June 1865

(I apologise for the poor definition in the above image: it is taken from a photocopy. I must certainly acquire the original Punch volumes.)

If we ask the question again: why Bab?, an answer may suggest itself. Gilbert may have wanted to keep a distance between himself as a writer on Fun and his sporadic work for Punch. It may be doubted however whether any attempt to pretend that the distinctive style of “Bab” had nothing at all to do with the distinctive style of “W.S.G.” would have been especially convincing.

It is an odd, and rather mysterious, fact that Gilbert did not draw any cartoons at all for Fun from about March 1865 through to May 1866 – though he made frequent prose and verse contributions that have been identified through the extant Proprietor’s Copies of Fun (May 1865 onwards) which are marked up with the names of contributors.

However, and whatever the reasons for the hiatus, on 19 May 1866 he did come back as an artist in Fun – and he came back as Bab:

“The Story of Gentle Archibald,” Fun, 19 May 1866

From this point “Bab” became Gilbert’s signature as an artist, and even became associated with the wild verses he wrote for Fun with Bab illustrations: the Bab Ballads. Bab was effectively his alter ego, the irresponsible and anarchic part of Gilbert that was also partly channelled into the operas.

Archie brings havoc: “The Story of Gentle Archibald,” in Fun, 19 May 1866.

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