Historicist: The Fine Art of Heckling
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Historicist: The Fine Art of Heckling

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

“Blackwash and Whitewash” From J.W. Bengough, A Caricature History of Canadian Politics [1886] (Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1974)

In the late nineteenth century, with each newspaper following a party line, it was difficult for Canadians to receive a balanced view of the country’s political news. Writing in 1886, George M. Grant of Queen’s College in Kingston provided this tongue-in-cheek solution for the reader trying to wade through all the partisan spin: “On the whole, he cannot do better than trust Grip, as the most honest interpreter of current events we happen to have. Grip, too, not only generally hits the nail on the head, but sometimes hits like a blacksmith—and we belong to a race that loves to see a blow well struck.” The first major English-Canadian humour magazine, Grip critiqued politicians of all political stripes and reflected popular opinion through verse, satirical commentary, and through the infamous caricatures drawn by the publication’s founder and editor, John Wilson Bengough.

2009_01_03WeInCanada.JPG Born in Toronto to a Scottish father and Irish mother in 1851, Bengough grew up in Whitby. After a modest education, he worked at a local law firm long enough to decide that a legal career wasn’t for him. After apprenticing at the Whitby Gazette, he moved to Toronto in 1871 to work as a reporter for George Brown’s Globe. After two years, he decided to put his artistic skills to work by founding a weekly comic paper modelled on Punch. Published for the first time on May 24, 1873, Grip—named for the acerbic raven in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge—filled its pages with punned witticisms, satirical commentary, verses, and cartoons addressing all the topics of the day. The majority of the creative material was supplied by Bengough himself—often in contrasting styles and under various pseudonyms—so the magazine naturally mirrored his own political views in support of temperance, women’s suffrage, free trade, and the single tax movement.
As Doug Fetherling put it in his introduction to a reprinting of A Caricature History of Canadian Politics (Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1974 [1886]), Bengough’s humour “was cutting and cruel but seldom inaccurate.” He could get away with anything in Grip as long as it was funny—but, with jabs at Roman Catholics and French Canadians among others, some of his caricatures are politically incorrect next to today’s political cartoons.
Like all great political cartoonists, Bengough was at his best (and most provocative) when he was able to draw upon the misdeeds of elected officials. Bengough’s treatment of the Pacific Scandal, in which electoral corruption linked to the Canadian Pacific Railway brought down the Conservative government in 1873, turned Grip into an influential political force within months of its first issue. With a readership ranging from 7,000 to 50,000 over the years, Grip was commented upon in newspapers and discussed on the floor of the House of Commons.
2009_01_03Whither.JPG Bengough’s favourite target for caricature was clearly Sir John A. Macdonald. Whether it was the Pacific Scandal or the National Policy, the two always found themselves on the opposite sides of a political question. Through endless repetition (and reproduction in countless history texts), Bengough’s depiction of Macdonald—as a sly, mischievous character with a boozy nose, frizzy hair, shrewd eyes, and dapper attire—survives in the popular imagination. The two only met once. Of the brief meeting in a House of Commons anteroom, he recalled: “I was indeed much affected at the air of humility and even bashfulness which the great Leader displayed, though he assured me that they all enjoyed the hits I made at them.” For all his skewering of his political enemy, Bengough understood how important the Old Chieftain had been for Grip‘s success. He once admitted that Macdonald was “my chief stock in trade.”
Bengough was nevertheless able to claim Grip‘s political independence by reference to the publication’s frequent swipes at prominent Liberal (and Bengough’s former employer) George Brown. Liberal M.P. Edward Blake even once called for the paper to be shut down. Nevertheless, like his father before him, Bengough was a Liberal. And throughout his career he was less effective at skewering his own party. With Macdonald, he’d never shown mercy, but with Alexander Mackenzie and Sir Wilfrid Laurier he was too sympathetic, and his depictions were dry and without colour. As a result, a Conservative member of cabinet, Sir Leonard Tilley, once sneered that Grip ought to be called “Grit,” in reference to the nickname for the Liberal Party.
2009_01_03HereHeComes.JPG Biographies of Bengough have consistently failed to reconcile the apparent contradictions between the man and the satirist. One incident in particular reveals the elusiveness of Bengough’s personality. Once in New York there was a dinner in his honour that was attended by all the leading cartoonists of the day, including Bengough’s great hero, Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly. Always modest, Bengough was in awe to be in such illustrious company, until the evening’s speeches were cut short so that the crowd could continue drinking at another restaurant. The teetotalling Bengough was disappointed by the turn of events, and the others were shocked to discover that he did not share their hard-drinking lifestyle. Despite possessing the Protestant-reformist temperament of a parson, Bengough could mercilessly satirize politicians in the most caustic way. Likewise, on one hand he staunchly refused to run for Parliament as a Prohibitionist despite the urging of others for fear of compromising Grip‘s independence. On the other, later in life he unsuccessfully sought appointment to the Senate as a Liberal. Still later, beginning in 1907, he served three terms on Toronto’s City Council.
He left Grip in 1892 in a disagreement with his financial backers. But after a short stint drawing political cartoons at the Montreal Star, he returned to Grip until it ceased publication in 1894. More than a world-renowned cartoonist, Bengough was also an engaging public speaker. His “Chalk Talks”—so called because he would stand at an easel on stage and draw caricatures as he gave a running commentary—were enormously popular with audiences from New Zealand to Britain. He also composed and illustrated an assortment of children’s, satirical, and poetry books in addition to a number of polemics on prohibition and the single tax movement. He died of a heart attack in 1923 while sitting at his drawing table drafting a cartoon for an anti-smoking campaign. A historical plaque was erected in his honour at 66 Charles Street East.
In an era when newspapers were thoroughly (and furiously) partisan, few in the public had the time, money, or inclination to read more than one broadsheet to get a balanced perspective. With sharp wit and a healthy degree of political independence, Grip therefore helped the public to understand current events better than newspapers could allow, and it uncovered the Canadian public’s taste for political satire in the process. Perhaps his most important journalistic legacy was in providing a distinctly Canadian voice for the still-young country. As George M. Grant put it in his 1886 preface to Bengough’s A Caricature History of Canadian Politics: “Grip‘s humor is his own. It has a flavor of the soil. It is neither English nor American. It is Canadian.”
“We In Canada Seem To Have Lost All Idea of Justice, Honor And Integrity”; “Whither Are We Drifting?”; and “Here He Comes.” From J.W. Bengough, A Caricature History of Canadian Politics [1886] (Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1974).