Adrian Teal is an acclaimed caricaturist whose work has featured throughout the national press. He is also the writer and illustrator of The Gin Lane Gazette – a scandal-laden eighteenth century ‘Heat magazine’, an extract of which can be viewed here.
What is an historian?
You were hoping for a short answer, I take it? I can only tell you what I try to be when presenting history, and that’s someone who immerses themselves in the past, and then tries to present their impressions and interpretations to others in an engaging and original way. It’s about imparting enthusiasm, really. Foucault would have you believe that long-dead personalities aren’t recoverable, but I disagree. You just have to put the hours in and coax them back. Just because people are dead, it doesn’t mean they aren’t very lively.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
I came to history as something of a career very late, and via a circuitous route. As a caricaturist I’ve always been acutely aware of the debt I owe my inky-fingered, Georgian predecessors. But the story of the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty is what aroused my interest in the 18th century. No portrait of Fletcher Christian exists, so I set out to create one with an anatomically trained artist, based on descriptions, family resemblance in other portraits, and research into uniforms and hairstyles. The likeness we created has ended up in documentaries, and in a biography of Christian by his great-great-great-great grandson, the TV chef and author Glynn Christian. The Bounty story, with its bravery, resourcefulness, honour code, folly, expansionism, patronage, and adventure is the 18th century in microcosm. I’m besotted with the era, and want to share it.
What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?
Greg Dening’s ‘Mr Bigh’s Bad Language’ is a masterpiece. He has a way of milking every drop of information out of what he calls ‘the texted past’. It changed my approach to history.
Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why? It’s by no means perfect, but you’d have to go a long way to beat the online version of the ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’. All those extraordinary lives, distilled and presented in one place. Remarkable.
What is your favourite historical place?
Cottesbrooke Hall in my home county of Northamptonshire. It’s said to be the house on which Jane Austen based Mansfield Park. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is the most incredible place, with a calming atmosphere, and it oozes history. The perfect gentleman’s country retreat.
You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?
I’d start off in Covent Garden, around 1760, and catch a play in Drury Lane, then toddle off to Brooks’s Club in the 1780s, and gamble the night away with Charles James Fox and the Devonshire set. (Carriages long after midnight.) I’ve always thought I’d like to hang out with the Whigs, mostly for all the air-ballooning.
You have a new research project and a deadline, what is your normal working pattern?
Most of what I do – which is a combination of words and caricature – takes a lot of work. I spend more time thinking than actually writing and drawing. Cartoons are 80% idea, and I can write things very quickly if I’ve worked out the point I want to make long in advance. That said, I am very used to deadlines, so I can saw stuff off by the yard if I have to. If I’m writing rather than drawing history, I like to absorb all the available information I can find, let it ferment in my mind, and then hammer it out on the keyboard.
Your period of expertise no longer exists, which historical period would you research instead? The Middle Ages, without question. I read English at university, and concentrated on Chaucer, Langland, Old English, and the like. As it happens, I think the bawdy mediaeval period and the bawdy 18th century have a lot in common.
Because it’s happening right now. History is everything that has ever happened. Cliché it may be, but by looking back at the direction our path has taken, we can gain insights to the path we will take. Most of all, though, history tells us what it is to be human.
Finally, what is your best historical fact?
That Edward Gibbon, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’, had three botched operations on his groin. His scrotum swelled ‘to the size of a small child’, but he fondly imagined nobody ever noticed.