It’s 5 pm and I am sitting at the back of a pub in Soho awaiting the arrival of Adrian Teal, national cartoonist and writer. I’m sipping a G&T in honour of his latest creation, Gin Lane Gazette—which cleverly brings the 18th-century to life through the medium of a fictitious illustrated newspaper.
Mr Teal arrives promptly despite the long commute into London. He’s dressed like a Georgian gentleman who’s been forced, begrudgingly, to modernise his wardrobe. He wears a waistcoat with shiny, gold buttons and a shirt that balloons slightly at the sleeves. His thick, black-rimmed glasses give him a creative authority that regular specs could never achieve.
He looks every bit the artist, much to my delight.
Mr Teal has a carefree air about him, though you know as a cartoonist he is secretly studying every inch of your face. He admits that he ‘catalogues’ features to use later for his illustrations. I wonder if I’ll inadvertently end up as a hysterical midwife in one of his 18th-century cartoons, with unruly hair and chipmunk cheeks that my grandmother swears I’ll be grateful to have in old age.
At that thought, I swallow a big swig of gin.
Eventually, we settle back and begin chatting about his book, and where he finds inspiration for his work. We discuss the importance of imagination when talking about history; and how creating a visual past is just as essential as constructing a textual one.
Here’s what the ingenious Mr Teal had to tell me.
C.A. Gin Lane Gazette is such a unique concept. Where did you get the inspiration for it?
A.T. I’d been writing and illustrating Georgian-themed pieces for the QI Annuals, which got me thinking about doing my own illustrated book project. The problem was bringing together all those wonderful but disparate 18th-century stories in one volume in a coherent and intelligent way. Then I read an excellent biography of the Regency journalist William Cobbett by Richard Ingrams, and it suddenly struck me that a newspaper format would be ideal. I could unite gossip, scandal, celebrity, obituaries, advertisements, and sports reports, which could all stand alone, but which would also be connected to each other in some shape or form, whether in narrative or thematic terms.
C.A. Are all the stories you write about in the book historically accurate?
A.T. Yes. I was clear from the beginning that I wanted everything to be accurate, and I was meticulous in my research. Mind you, the 1700s are so wonderfully bawdy and bizarre that you don’t really need to make stuff up. The only fictional element is my newspaper’s editor, Mr. Nathaniel Crowquill, who prefaces each section of his compendium of Gazette stories with his own thoughts, worries, and misadventures, but real historical characters and places are mentioned here too, so I hope it feels authentic. I felt I needed him, to give the book some structure.
C.A. You write about several incidents relating to medical history in Gin Lane Gazette. Which story is your favourite?
A.T. I like the story of Mary Tofts, who fooled a series of royal doctors and the general public into thinking that she’d given birth to seventeen rabbits. Hers was perhaps the most infamous con of the century. I’m also quite keen on the sad demise of Edward Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, who died with testicles so swollen that they were said to compare in size to a small child.
C.A. As a historian, I am constantly trying to reconstruct the past through words. You are able to do this through drawings. How important do you think imagination is when talking about history?
A.T. From my perspective, it’s essential. I like to think and imagine my way into history. I don’t really see how else one can do it. Aside from artefacts and locations, history really only exists as words and pictures on paper or vellum; what the historian Greg Dening calls ‘the texted past’. My approach is perhaps undisciplined, and would probably horrify academics, but by immersing myself in the visual and textual world of the 1700s, and then presenting my impressions of the period in the way I have, I hope I’ve captured a tiny bit of the essence of how life was lived in that gloriously exuberant and eccentric century. And I hope I’ve shared my enthusiasm for it successfully too.
C.A. Do you ever draw yourself into your caricatures? What about friends or family?
A.T. I’ve drawn myself very rarely, although I was asked to caricature myself as a Georgian rake for the Gin Lane Gazette’s campaign video, which you can see on the Unbound website. I find it tricky to caricature my family, because I know their faces too well, and caricature is largely about first impressions. The things that stand out about a person when you first meet them are the things you caricature. I have caricatured many friends as Georgians for the book, though. There’s quite a lot of my female friends’ bare flesh on show, with their gracious permission, you understand, and sometimes at their insistence!
A.T. I suppose it was getting the look and feel exactly right. I spent weeks agonising over fonts with my designer, Lisa Hunter, and we were clear we wanted to use the archaic long ‘s’, which presented us with more than a few logistical headaches. In terms of the writing, I’m trying to walk a fine line between the euphuistic language of the 18th century, and keeping the stories rattling along nicely. It took a while to get into my stride.
C.A. I imagine your readers blush quite often while reading some of the bawdy stories in Gin Lane Gazette. What makes you blush?
A.T. Me? Blush? The very idea. In truth, when you’ve been up to your eyeballs in Georgian muck and fun for four years, not a lot embarrasses you. I find it quite tricky to take praise for my work, though. I’m just doing what I love, so when other people like it it’s almost a shock!
C.A. And lastly, if you could travel back into the past, which period would you visit? Who would you meet? What would you do?
A.T. Well, you won’t be surprised to hear I’d pick the 1700s. I’m a bit obsessed with 18th-century maritime exploration, particularly people like Cook and Bligh, and I’m fascinated by the mutiny on the Bounty. I think I’d have to sign on to the Bounty’s books, and spend some time with Fletcher Christian, whose face I reconstructed in the mid-1990s. He’d have a few yarns to share, I’m sure. Plus, Tahitian ladies in the 1700s were a lot of fun, by all accounts.
Perhaps so, but I reckon they weren’t nearly as fun as a night out in a pub with Mr Teal. Before I left, he surprised me with my own modern Danse Macabre (see below)!
If you want to be shocked, titillated and amused by the Georgians (and I highly recommend you do), you can buy your own copy of Gin Lane Gazette here!