Midshipman Blockhead, The Progress of a Midshipman exemplified in the career of Master Blockhead in seven plates & frontispiece (caricature)

George Cruikshank’s series of eight naval scenes, first published in 1835, gently satirises the youthful ambition and achievements of a young sailor, Master Blockhead. Each plate chronicles a different episode in Master B’s career in the Royal Navy, from his beginnings as a young Midshipman to his eventual promotion as Lieutenant.

Cruikshank’s series is closely based on a series of drawings by Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), a Royal Navy officer and amateur illustrator. In 1820 Marryat produced a series of twelve studies called ‘The Life of a Midshipman’ (now at the British Museum), which formed the basis of Cruikshank’s detailed and finished satirical prints. After a distinguished naval career, Marryat became a writer and wrote, among other novels, ‘Mr Midshipman Easy’ (1836), a satire about a midshipman during the Napoleonic wars called Jack Easy who strikes up a friendship with an enslaved deck hand called Mesty.

Both Cruikshank and Marryat enjoyed satirising the follies and fashions of the day, not missing an opportunity to relay as much information as possible with each carefully crafted image. A useful comparison could be made between this series and the earlier example of The Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth (painted and published in the 1730s), which tells the riches-to-rags story of Tom Rakewell. Although much harsher in its satire than Cruickshank’s relatively benign tale of Master Blockhead, Hogarth’s ‘modern moral subjects’ provided a sophisticated and widely-known precedent for Marryat, Cruickshank and their audience.

This plate (no. 8) is from a series of eight plates, first published in 1820 by C. Humphrey of 27 St James Street, London. The series was then republished by Thomas McLean in 1835 with two additional plates in a different format: PAD4829 'The Sailors Progress' and PAD4838 'Arrival at the North Pole'.

Cruickshank’s frontispiece to Midshipman Blockhead sets the tone for the series as a whole and introduces its principal themes. A sailor in a small boat battles against the wind and stormy waters, looking fearful as he struggles towards an obelisk-like rock upon which is a precarious pavilion – a Temple of Fame where a number of naval officers, distinguished by their cocked hats, are gathered. The winged figure blowing a trumpet from the top, laurel crown in hand, embodies the fame that the sailors clambering up the rock are hoping to achieve. Unfortunately, another sailor who has tried yet failed in his quest for fame is swept away by the sea – a warning, perhaps, that ambitious young seamen pursue fame and glory at their peril.

Other versions of this image in the collection are: PAD4720, PAD4814, PAG8637, PAI5986, PAI6565 and PAJ1836.

Object Details

ID: PAD4837
Collection: Fine art
Type: Print
Display location: Not on display
Creator: McLean, Thomas; Cruikshank, George
Date made: 1 Aug 1835
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Sheet: 210 mm x 293 mm

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