In 1842 Thackeray began an association with the recently founded periodical Punch, or the London Charivari which, after an unhappy start, became one of the most successful and stimulating of his life. He entered into its inner councils and helped to target its humorous shafts, many of which flew in the direction of Queen Victoria’s German consort. In January 1844 Prince Albert, who had recently designed a shako for use in the British army, is credited with the design of a ducal hat for the editor of the Morning Post (‘Jenkins’, a frequent butt in Punch) and a letter in ‘Germanic’ English to Mr Punch: ‘Ven de hat grow old (or vat you call zeedy), Brince Albert has arranged so dat it will make a beaudiful and ornamendal flower-bot for a drawing-room vindow’ (PC 37–8). Jeames de la Pluche, the arriviste hero of one of Thackeray’s series in Punch, goes to court wearing, appropriately, a uniform topped by an ‘Albert’ hat with a plume ‘like a shaving brush’ (vii. 382)—a kind of ornamentation still known in present-day Germany. The news that Charles Kemble had read an abbreviated version of Cymbeline to the court at Windsor brings on, in May 1844, an item headed ‘Great News! Wonderful News!’: What wonderful news from the Court, Old Will’s at the palace a guest, The Queen and her Royal consort Have received him ‘a little compressed’. Shakespeare has supplanted the lion-tamer Van Amburg in royal favour; and when Albert hears how, in this abbreviated Cymbeline, ‘Fair Imogen sleeps in her bed | Iachimo lurks in a chest’, he is credited with a comment in Germanic English: 234What, locked in a drunk? the prince said, I think he’s a little gombressed. (vii. 268–9) The royal consort’s way with artists is criticized in April 1845, when ‘Mr. Smith’s reasons for not sending his pictures to the Exhibitions’ include his feeling that British art is being devalued by Albert’s desire to have a ‘new summer temple’ decorated by a number of artists at the derisory fee of £40 a piece. Moreover, Punch gives an airing to a false rumour that William Etty’s contribution to this series of frescoes had been rejected by his princely patron ‘on account of the nudity of the figures’, and that the picture—commissioned from Etty—had been removed without being paid for. Thackeray, as spokesman for Mr Punch, pretends to disbelieve this rumour:
A great prince insulting a poor artist, is like a lifeguardsman bullying a little baby. There is something cruel in the mere idea. The poor thing can’t resist: it was only meant for caressing and kindness, to be dandled on the giant’s knee, not pommelled by his great fist.… We place him glittering above us; his part of the job is to shine and be splendid like the sun—the sun, which shines not only on mountains, castles, elephants, and such big things, but kindly illuminates a cock-sparrow in a gutter, and warms a worm on a dunghill. (PC 115–16, 122–3)The disbelief, however, is only pretence; for Thackeray is here reviving the image of the cheapskate, parsimonious German which had been latent since Gillray’s famous cartoon of George III and Queen Charlotte as ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’. The poem entitled ‘A Painter’s Wish’ carries on the same attack: its speaker renounces royal patronage of the kind here attributed to Prince Albert, and looks for a ‘snob’, a bourgeois citizen with the requisite means and pretensions, as the kind of patron he needs; someone willing to part with good money for a work that would add to his self-esteem and the esteem of others: I will not ask for courtly fame, When returns are brought to shame— I will not pine for royal job, Let my Maecenas be a snob. (vii. 200) Snobs, it would seem, have their uses, however much Thackeray would excoriate them, in the columns of Punch, for meanly admiring mean things.