Sketches from a Young Country:
The Images of Grip Magazine

275 pages,
ISBN: 0802076477

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by Fraser Sutherland

A good cartoonist is a satirical novelist drawn small; a great cartoonist invents a world. J. W. Bengough was not a great cartoonist. In some respects he was not even a good one. Though admiring his subject, Carman Cumming neatly presents the charge sheet against Bengough's work: "It is (say the experts on art) derivative, cluttered, and rough. It is (say the modern reformers) tainted with bigotry. It is (say the political analysts) unfair to Tories and too kind to Grits."
This is a fairly comprehensive indictment, but far from the whole story. Ranked against his contemporaries, Bengough lacked the densely packed ferocity of the great Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly, the seamless fluidity of England's John Tenniel, or the elegance of his fellow Canadian, Henri Julien. Yet what he lacked in draughtsmanship he made up for in liveliness of line and a genuine gift of vivid caricature. As Cumming points out, our images of the public men of Victorian Canada are largely based on those Bengough sketched in Grip.
Bengough fell back on stereotypes for women, Native peoples, Métis, Catholics, Irish, Chinese, and Jews, but at least he thought all of them deserved decent treatment. Unlike his socialist colleague Phillips Thompson (genealogical note: Thompson was Pierre Berton's grandfather), he never questioned capitalism's underpinnings-nor could he, because he was a self-made businessman, a young Scot on the make. But he did rail against fat-cat plutocrats and, unlike many today, did not consider greed to be a virtuous and self-evident economic boon. As a law-and-order man who approved of salutary hangings and disapproved of Sunday streetcars, he never escaped the bonds of received ideas or the more blatant biases of his Protestant Ontario audience. On the other hand, we can be sure that our own bundle of prejudices will seem equally quaint or reprehensible in a few decades' time.
As for his partisanship, it's certainly fair to say that Grip might as well have been called Grit. But Bengough's admiration was hardly undiluted. His attitude toward Liberal leaders like Alexander Mackenzie, Edward Blake, and Oliver Mowat mingled respect and exasperation, and he often pilloried George Brown, the powerful editor of the Toronto Globe. In any case, the Tories formed the federal government for most of Bengough's time at Grip, and were an unfailing source of scandals and pratfalls, the bread and butter of any political cartoonist. In John A. Macdonald, Bengough found a specimen of physical grotesquerie and mental deviousness as indispensable as John Diefenbaker was later to be for the Toronto Star's Duncan Macpherson. In this kind of love/hate relationship, the cartoonist merges admiration and repugnance, the subject becoming the cartoonist's shadow side. When Bengough has Macdonald blandly telling the dour Alexander Mackenzie, "I admit I took the money and bribed the electors with it. Is there anything wrong about that?", a kind of veneration informs the outrage.
Born in 1851, Bengough was a Presbyterian boy from Whitby, Ontario, who made his start as a reporter with the Gazette there, then moved on to the Globe. In 1873 he bravely inaugurated Grip, named after the raven in Barnaby Rudge (Bengough was always in thrall to Dickens) and loosely emulating Punch. Amazingly, the ill-financed venture lasted until 1894, Bengough running it for almost the entire period. True, the paper was aided by printing contracts with (Liberal) provincial governments. But it also helped that Bengough was a workaholic. During and after his Grip years, he was a chalk-talk platform performer as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, illustrated books, and scribbled plays, comic operas, and an unconscionable amount of doggerel.
Carman Cumming, a journalism professor at Carleton University, has done a sturdy, solidly-researched job of depicting Bengough's life, times, and cartoons. He is especially poignant on the "paragraphers", denizens of Toronto's Grub Street who would stumble into the Grip office in hopes of hawking a humorous trifle or feeble lampoon. Cumming's book has minor shortfalls. The title is weak: surely it is time Canadians stopped using the arguable statement "After all, we're a young country" as an excuse for misbehaviour or underachievement. We should have been told more about the ideas of Bengough's great hero, Henry George, the immensely popular U.S. economist who advocated a single tax on unearned increases in land value. The book would have benefited by some foregrounding about Grip's format and frequency, and an overview of Grip, Ltd., its allied printing business. But Cumming, the author of Secret Craft: The Journalism of Edward Farrer (about a contemporary of Bengough who was a fervent anti-imperialist and peripatetic newspaper editor), deserves credit for delving into such yellowed piles of periodicals, a neglected cranny of Canadian history that amply repays academic, or any, inquiry.
It is impossible to find Grip's like in today's dismal print media scene. The gossipy Frank? Maybe, but to achieve a rough equivalence Frank would have to publish a vast amount of prose and verse satire, multiply the cartoons of Charles Jaffé, and get its names, dates, and numbers right at least some of the time. Yet in many ways Bengough himself would be much at home today; one can easily imagine him ranting against currency speculators and bank mergers (instead of railway monopolists) and energetically promoting anti-smoking laws (instead of Prohibition). "It was typical of Bengough," Cumming says, "that when he died in 1923 at the age of seventy-two, it was with pencil in hand, drawing a cartoon for an anti-tobacco campaign." Bengough's brother Thomas said that he "fell from his chair while drawing a series of cartoons on moral reform. He died as he had lived, working for the uplift of humanity." To put it another way, non-smoking killed him.

Fraser Sutherland is the author of The Monthly Epic: A History of Canadian Magazines 1789-1989.


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