“Coming events cast their shadows before”, reads the caption for Charles H. Bennett’s frontispiece; it shows a young child dipping into a pot of preserves as a raised hand foreshadows punishment. The twenty-two other portraits in Shadows (1856) paint human nature in strokes nearly as dark, the cleverly manipulated silhouettes revealing drunks, killjoys, gluttons, fools, and minor monsters. Christened “Cheerful Charley” by his Savage Club compatriots — and recalled (after his early death at thirty-nine in 1867) by his fellow Punch men as “the kindlest and gentlest of our associates” — Bennett’s satirical sensibility in Shadows is relentless, even if intended as light-hearted moralism.
Originally published as individual graphics for Fleet Street bookseller David Bogue’s Illustrated Times, Bennett’s caricatures were reprinted in a number of expanded editions, popular due to a simple and ingenious magic-lantern conceit: that the shadow thrown by a spotlit individual can reveal her inner character.
Born and raised on the Covent Garden piazza, where Samuel Pepys observed the first recorded performance of a Punch & Judy show in 1662, Charles Bennett instilled his finest drawings with the antics of puppetry, bursting with frantic noise and movement in a tightly controlled space. In the title-page illustrations for his books, and in most of the more than two hundred drawings he did for periodicals, the characters spill out beyond the margins. Many of Bennett’s shadow satires rely on the visual vocabulary of animals to cast shade on his subjects. A vain old woman is rendered into a self-admiring parrot; a young woman is belittled by the shadow of a “Little Duck”; a leering man projects the menacing shadow of a greedy crocodile.
A gifted storyteller as well as artist, Bennett wrote a number of children’s books — The Faithless Parrot (1863), The Frog Who Would a Wooing Go (1864), The Nine Lives of a Cat (1860) — whose animal protagonists were far more sympathetic than the humans lampooned in Shadows. More often, however, as in Fables of Aesop (1857), which pairs up animals in Victorian garb to make thinly-veiled digs at London’s fashionable class, Bennett’s animals are mere beasts of rhetorical burden to castigate their two-legged cousins.