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Vanity Fair Groupings

The society magazine Vanity Fair was founded in 1868 by Thomas Gibson Bowles, the magazine’s long-term editor and owner, who had extensive social connections in the worlds of politics, fashion, journalism and the arts. While working as a civil servant he started to write for social and political journals, and went on to launch Vanity Fair on his own account. The title and its byline ‘We buy the Truth’ originate in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), but it was almost certainly prompted by the title of Thackeray’s novel of 1847/8, and its irreverent depiction of the fashionable world.

Vanity Fair introduced a distinctive type of satirical portraiture new to English journalism. Its earliest issues were illustrated with the customary size cartoons within the text, but Bowles soon made the innovative decision to exchange these for a single, high quality chromolithographic print, suitable for framing, which was supplied free with each issue. The caricatures have become a part of British visual culture, but were originally supplemented with a witty commentary which completed the satirical portrait. Texts varied in length from a single word to a few hundred words, and often included cryptic references to events which were about to become publically known.

For the most part, the magazine’s caricatures followed the regular pattern of the English social season. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race, Cowes week, the Grand National, and the foxhunting season were all celebrated with caricatures of topical sitters. New governments, appointments of Judges and clergyman would prompt series of caricatures. A significant number, however, were extremely topical, and in these cases the magazine could, so they claimed, have a caricature drawn and printed within two days.

Vanity Fair was focused on London society; sitters from other countries, including British diplomats and colonial administrators, tended to have caricatures published around the time they were visiting London. For instance, there is a substantial sequence of heads of states who were attending the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902, and of other people involved in the ceremonies.  Vanity Fair’s extensive coverage of international affairs was, nevertheless, a vital part of its appeal. During the Franco-Prussian War, Bowles was besieged in Paris during 1870-1871, editing the magazine by messaging his office via balloons.

The National Portrait Gallery archive has a complete run of 2,387 Vanity Fair chromolithographs, in addition to the numerous original watercolours in the Primary Collection. Using the hyperlinks below, you can search this complete run of chromolithographs by date range, by Vanity Fair’s original categories, by theme, or by regional relevance.

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A fuller history of the magazine, its caricatures and the artists who created them can be found in the National Portrait Gallery’s Later Victorians Catalogue here.