Caricaturing Mill, Empirically

To read an individual’s inner character from their outward appearance is to indulge a deep-seated temptation that has perennially plagued the history of art.  Often manifesting itself in drawings of typical expressions or personalities—to say nothing of its troubled connections to theories of race—the very act of visualizing an inner mind by way of outer forms quite easily gives way to another prevalent practice: caricature, the intentional distortion of a given person’s distinctive features for expressive effect.  At least since the Carracci, this type of grotesque portrait has flourished as a popular mode of visual art and has served a diverse variety of ends, sometimes lyrically comical, other times sinisterly political. The history of this practice, moreover, has long been a topic of research here at the Warburg Institute and a recent study has admirably connected that interest to the Institute’s own well-known flight from Nazi Germany.  If such basic facts are familiar, they also serve as a kind of pre-emptive warning; my focus in this blog post on a specific caricature of the philosopher John Stuart Mill is overdetermined indeed.

First published on 29 March 1873 in Vanity Fair, and developed from a surviving sketch preserved in the National Portrait Gallery, on its surface this caricature is typical of the genre.  Mill’s large beak-like nose, shrunken oblong skull, and preposterously droopy eyes and cheeks top off his ever-so-slender, forward-hunching frame, which is masked under the evidently oversized drapes of his black coat and only balanced by his proper school-boy gesture of hands gently clasped behind his back.  Signed with the pen-name “Spy” and titled “The Feminine Philosopher”, the print is the work of Sir Leslie Ward, himself one of the most prolific and successful caricaturists of Victorian London and at that moment just at the beginning of a long career.  

John Stuart Mill, photograph: London Stereoscopic Company, c.1870

If this caricature is typical of Ward’s work, what gives it specific interest for me as a member of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project are the paradoxes of empiricism that it foregrounds.  By titling his work “The Feminine Philosopher,” Ward lays bare his association of Mill’s outward appearance with his philosophical feminism, famously put forward for debate by Mill in the House of Commons during his short-lived tenure as a Member of Parliament from 1865-68 and most robustly articulated with the help of his wife Harriet Taylor in his book The Subjection of Women of 1869.  Importantly, Mill’s feminism was fundamentally premised on his denial of the very coherence of the associations at the heart of Ward’s image; in the grand tradition of empiricism stretching back to Locke, Mill radically denied almost all innate faculties of the mind and this led him to see the social relations between men and women as cultural—and therefore as contingently learned through experience—rather than naturally in-born.  Ward, for his part, made clear that he saw Mill’s outward appearance reaching to the very essence or substance of the philosopher’s feminine mind.  In his autobiography, Ward retrospectively recalled sketching Mill and noted that “as [Mill] recited passages from his notes in a weak voice, it was made extremely clear that his pen was mightier than his personal magnetism upon a platform. A strange protuberance upon his forehead attracted me; and, the oddly-shaped skull dipping slightly in the middle, “the feminine philosopher” just escaped being bereft not only of his hair when I saw him, but of that highly important organ—the bump of reverence.”  By first noting Mill’s rather “weak voice” in this description and then focusing on the particular shape of Mill’s skull, Ward’s description betrays his own familiarity—if not his indebtedness—to phrenological modes of belief.  Indeed, the “bump of reverence” is a notable part of phrenological vocabulary and Ward’s appeal to it is all too typical, helping to explain the pervasive trope within Victorian visual culture of Mill’s femininity, about which Demelza Hookway has admirably written

George Combe lecturing on phrenology to a large mixed audience in his Edinburgh home?; presented with protuberances covering his head. Coloured lithograph by L. Bump, 1826, after J. Lump.. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Developed in late 18th century Germany by Franz Joseph Gall, imported to Britain by Gall’s one-time assistant Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, and then popularized in the UK by figures like George Combe, phrenology was the most pervasive “science” of character of the Victorian world and it manifest itself in numerous phrenological societies and countless phrenological publications, truly becoming a part of popular culture.  It is therefore unsurprising that Ward would have been familiar enough with its terms and theories to bring them to bear on his attempts to capture the inner mind or personal essence of his various subjects, Mill included.  As a “science”, phrenology is premised on the brain’s division into distinct geographic zones that control various character traits, that the enlargement or reduction of those zones leads to the greater or lesser expression of those traits in an individual, and that the shape of the outer skull proportionally adopts or reflects the size of the zones of the brain beneath. This cascade of shaky inferences positions phrenology as an epistemological promise to make the invisible visible, to make personality and character the objects of direct empirical observation.  Though the vogue and success of this doctrine has been admirably historicized and interpreted in a variety of ways, part of its ostensible appeal in Victorian Britain was its harmonization with the very philosophical school or mode of thinking of which Mill was a distinguished member and which is still so heavily associated with the Anglo-American world: empiricism.  Indeed, the opening up to public observation of the mysterious causes of character and personality makes phrenology undoubtedly and classically empirical.  And yet, as the case of the above-described caricature of Mill makes particularly clear, it was also premised on theories that were fundamentally anathema to empiricism philosophically defined.  Far from being some dead-end or historical embarrassment to be swept under the proverbial rug, however, it is precisely this type of paradoxical role of empiricism that my project here at the Warburg is endeavoring to unpack.

Cite this blog post
Oliver O'Donnell (2020, February 25). Caricaturing Mill, Empirically. BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

You may also like...

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search