The facts of his life as told by Carlo Pellegrini (1839-1889) are hard to establish such was the exaggerating nature of the famed Vanity Fair caricaturist’s character. We do know he was born in Capua, Southern Italy, then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and that his father was a wealthy landowner. Whether his mother was descended from the Medici dynasty is open to question.
Pellegrini’s eye as a caricaturist was honed on Neapolitan society who he would sketch as a child with good-humoured mockery; modelling his work on the artist Honoré Daumier. It was Pellegrini who told London society that he had fought for Italian Independence with Garibaldi but contemporary descriptions of him make this claim seem unlikely.
According to the National Portrait Gallery biography of Pellegrini, ‘In person, he was little and stout and extremely fastidious. He always wore white spats and their whiteness was ever immaculate, for he rode everywhere. His boots, too, were the acme of perfection and his nails were as long and pointed as those of a Mandarin’.
Though Pellegrini said he arrived in London penniless in 1864 and slept under Waterloo Bridge this seems like a tall tale. A tramp would not have gained entry into the charmed circle of the Prince of Wales and become the Marlborough House set’s court jester. Nor would a vagrant have met Vanity Fair owner Thomas Bowles and been engaged to sketch the satirical London magazine’s first in a series of ‘eminent gentlemen of the day’ cartoons: Benjamin Disraeli.
Though not as prolific as his co-caricaturist Sir Leslie Ward (Pellegrini executed 333 to Ward’s 1325), Pellegrini’s Vanity Fair cartoons are considered the superior works and are now the most collected. Ward worked under the nom de plume Spy while Pellegrini called himself Ape, the Italian word for a bee. He would work for Vanity Fair for over twenty years despite the occasional largely unsuccessful attempts at fine art portraits influenced by his friends Edgar Degas and James McNeill Whistler.
Ape’s technique was unique. According to the NPG, ‘he did not give his sitters much trouble in the way of posing. He would make a note of any personage on his thumb nail, or on his shirt cuff, but generally it was sufficient for him to follow his intended victim about for two or three days. He would learn them by heart and in his studio, with only the mental image of the man before his mind’s eye, Pellegrini would produce the salient points that made a smile come to the lips of the observer as he saw the cartoon of the week’.
Pellegrini’s 1884 lithograph of Oscar Wilde is the most valuable Vanity Fair cartoon for contemporary collectors and sells for in excess of £500. The artist caught the strange physical dichotomy of Wilde’s lumbering great body and fey posture to perfection. The artist got away with the physical comedy of his caricatures because he was such a ludicrous character himself declaring that he slept with a cigar between his pursed lips of an evening. He was also an ‘out’ flamboyant homosexual in an era when to be so could mean a term of hard labour as it would to Wilde in 1895.
Many of Carlo Pellegrini’s subjects including the Prince of Wales were Henry Poole customers. The 5th Earl Spencer was one of the most prolific in the latter decades of Queen Victoria’s reign. Ape caricatured the Earl mercilessly with a luxuriant ginger beard lolling on the front bench in the House of Lords. Pellegrini’s self-portrait for Vanity Fair depicts him as a cigar-chomping little pocket of a man with a magnificently upholstered pot belly.
The Prince of Wales commissioned Pellegrini to caricature twenty founder members of his Marlborough Club and a portfolio presented to the future King Edward VII is now in the Royal Collection. Like the Marlborough Club members, Pellegrini lived excessively, drank deep and smoked cigars incessantly. He died of a lung disease at his home off Cavendish Square and was buried in Kensal Green’s Roman Catholic cemetery.