The World’s First Comic

Publication date (11 June 1825 – 3 April 1826)

First page of Vol. 1., No. 1: Glasgow Looking Glass
June 11th, 1825

The Northern Looking Glass

The Glasgow Looking Glass was the first mass-produced publication to tell stories using illustrations, and as such may be regarded as the earliest comic magazine. The fortnightly publication provided satirical snapshots of Glasgow society, British culture and Nineteenth century fashions and local west coast weather. Innovations included use of the term “To be continued” and the use of speech bubbles. It appeared some seven years earlier than anything similar like Punch and comics from France. It’s innovation being so far ahead of its time some argue this explains why it has been overlooked in the historical context.

The Glasgow Looking Glass was published fortnightly by Glasgow lithographic printer John Watson and its principal strip illustrator was William Heath. The fourth issue contained History of a Coat, its first comic strip. After the fifth issue, the title was changed to The Northern Looking Glass to reflect broader Scottish concerns. Running for fourteen more issues. The copies held in Glasgow University Library’s Special Collections appear to have been hand-coloured.
Reference: Sp Coll Bh14-x.8

The format of the magazine evolved rapidly. The first seven issues were produced by lithography, the illustrations in later instalments were etched. By number 9, letterpress printing was introduced for the final page.

There was a choice of impressions available for each issue, at varying cost. At the lower end of the scale, a ‘common’ impression cost one shilling. By the end of the magazine’s run, a ‘beautifully coloured’ copy cost six shillings. This was a luxury that only the well-to-do could have afforded.

‘Northern Looking Glass’ illustrator, William Heath, wishes everyone Happy New Year. 9th January 1826 (Sp Coll Bh14-x.8)

It is believed that its creator, William Heath, had to stop publication after running up debts in the city. The demise was apparently due to the success of the publication, rather than its failure, as the owner indulged in the good life, joined the popular drinking clubs, made enemies, and had to flee to London.

It’s interesting to see environmental issues of the burgeoning industrialisation being raised so transparently.

Consumption of Smoke: Present/Future
From Vol. 1, no. 8: Northern Looking Glass
17th September 1825

If you step back and look at the ‘Looking Glass’ one would have to be well placed, well liked and confident to satirise their own.  Heath & Watson would not have gotten away with it by themselves without the patronage and dare I say protection of someone like merchant Thomas Hopkirk Esq and his familial connections. 

I was unable to find any evidence in Glasgow Directories of Watson & Hopkirk names being linked in a formal business title. However, in 1821, John Watson established his business at 169 George Street, Glasgow. Thomas Hopkirk was listed as a ‘Merchant’ at the same address. Similarly, when Watson moved to 230 George Street (1826/7) Hopkirk was again listed separately, still as a ‘Merchant’, at the same address.
It would suggest patronage or an informal arrangement between the two men.

I was reading Schenck’s Lithography directory of Scotland.   While my copy does not acknowledge Thomas Hopkirk I did by chance see online that Schenck has agreed to amend and include a citation on any future work.  While I agree with his original premiss that Hopkirk was not a professional printer and thus not worthy of inclusion he misses the point entirely.  To simply imply he was a publisher would sell Hopkirk short.  Thomas Hopkirk Esq was a gentleman in every sense and wouldn’t have gotten involved in the day to day.  His other interests bear this out.  However, when you look at those interests, Botanical Study / Looking Glass / Cartography the common theme is the need for replicable accurate prints.  I suspect he was a most accomplished amateur lithographer.

One of my favourite cartoons is of Cleland’s ‘miss step’ with the Ramshorn and its narrow entrance. Cleland hardly put a foot wrong in his civic duties but the Ramshorn doorway is one. Why his name isn’t up there along with William Harley. They both definitely merit more kudos in Glasgow for their civic labours. Local history needs to reflect these endeavours far more fully & transparently.  And so its intriguing to note that another Cleland, his son John Cleland, introduces lithography into Virginia Street and one of the streets first known associations with printing.

Schenck doesn’t do Glasgow any favours when he concedes that between 1820-30 Glasgow was ‘virtually identical’ to Edinburgh.  And then goes on to explain the increase in the west was simply due to the railways and industrialisation.  Glasgow was not alone in possessing those.  Nothing then to do with skill base, education, literacy levels or penny libraries driving demand.  With the geographical advantage and head start that Edinburgh began with in printing  it is quite instructive to see how exponentially Glasgow exploited lithography.  Second only really to London.   I believe the Mechanics Institute (the UKs first) doesn’t get enough recognition. It was pivotal in terms of ‘education for all’.

What little I’ve read about the Scottish enlightenment,  it’s clear that Glasgow played more than simply a supporting role. The picture of the Foulis Academy painting exhibition in the old college quadrangle blew me away when I saw it for the first time. That’s even before I knew that the pioneering Foulis Academy predated the founding of the Royal Academy in London by fifteen years. The scale & bravado of it so un-Glaswegian. Similar to how the merchants of old greeted each other… ‘kissed in the continental style’. How times change.

Engraving by David Allan. Exhibitions of the Foulis Academy’s (1753-1775) painting in the inner court of the University of Glasgow. On the right in the foreground is a tribute to Raphael’s Transfiguration and the picture hung on the tower follows Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the original of which was at Hamilton Palace.

Thomas Hopkirk the younger of Dalbeth (1785 – 23 Aug 1841)

unknown artist; Thomas Hopkirk of Dalbeth (1785-1841); Glasgow Botanic Gardens;

Thomas Hopkirk was born near Glasgow in 1785. He matriculated at Glasgow University in 1800, and later became a botanist. In 1813 he published Flora Glottiana: a catalogue of the indigenous plants on the banks of the River Clyde, and in the neighbourhood of the city of Glasgow, followed in 1817 by Flora Anomoia: a general view of the anomalies in the vegetable kingdom. He prepared many of his own botanical illustrations. His work was cited by Charles Darwin.

Dedication ‘to James Hardie Esq with best respects’

In the Glasgow PO Directory of 1817, Thomas Hopkirk is shown as a Merchant, at 49 Wilson Street. A Justice of the Peace, it is certainly possible that his interest in botanic illustration, may have first stimulated a curiosity in lithography.

Hopkirk was closely involved in the foundation of the Glasgow Botanic Gardens (1817) with the support of a number of local dignitaries and the University of Glasgow. He donated thousands of plants from his own garden.  The Gardens were originally laid out on an 8 acre site at Sandyford at the western end of Sauchiehall Street (at that time, on the edge of the city). The Royal Botanical Institution of Glasgow owned and ran the Gardens and agreed to provide the University of Glasgow with teaching aids, including a supply of plants for medical and botanical classes.

In 1812 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society and he received an honorary degree from Glasgow in 1835. He moved to Ireland after 1830, working with the Irish Ordnance Survey, and he died in Belfast in 1841.

unknown artist; Mrs Thomas Hopkirk of Dalbeth; Glasgow Botanic Gardens;

At some point, probably around 1834 or 1835, Thomas Hopkirk and Agnes Farlane moved their family from Glasgow to Belfast. The family investments, mostly in America, had disappeared and Thomas had been offered a job with the Geological Survey of Ireland. Whether he did not like the job or his health took a turn for the worse is not known, as apparently Thomas only worked a few days with the Geological Survey. About the same time Thomas Hopkirk moved to Belfast, his brother James, the barrister, moved to Canada.

© Cicerone: MerchantCityGlasgow.  All Rights Reserved. 2021 

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