Back in the 1880s, Brighton’s newspapers were full of local celebrities. But in contrast to the performers and reality TV stars of today, these were clergymen, councillors and public servants.
We have recently digitised the Brightonian Cartoons, a series of portraits of these local celebrities. The Brightonian was a short-lived weekly newspaper of the early 1880s, which contained whimsical coverage of the town’s events and entertainments. From March 1882 each edition offered a portrait of a man considered to play a prominent role in local life. The Brightonian was probably following the example of a rival newspaper, The Brighton Times, which from 1878 – 1883 produced a series of regular supplements featuring photographs and biographies of local notables. But while the Times’ depictions were conventional photographic portraits, The Brightonian captured its subjects with caricatures.
Caricatures are often produced for comic or satiric purposes, such as James Gillray’s depictions of the Prince Regent. But the Brightonian Cartoons were intended to celebrate the men they portrayed. Yet they are curiously indirect in doing so: the men are not named in the prints, but given a title that alludes to their work. The men were usually identified in the main body of the newspaper, and some were given a brief biography. But these biographies are frequently cryptic: on 10 June 1882, James Terry, the Chief Constable of Brighton Police, is described as:
‘When a plain constable he carried a chief’s baton in his coat tail pocket, and lived in purpose to verify an adage of French extraction. Is a good policeman, a better officer, and free from nonsense. Is popular in and out of the force and deserves all he has got.’
In 1884 the cartoons moved away from portraiture, and illustrated a range of subjects from current debates to sailing craft. Soon after, The Brightonian folded. This periodical is now rarely consulted, yet its cartoons are a unique record of Brighton characters, many of whom cannot be seen in surviving photographs. They are also a reminder that our fascination with celebrity is far older than we might think.
Kevin Bacon, Curator of Photographs