Carlo Pellegrini (caricaturist)


The Italian Artist Who Became a British Institution in Victorian England

Carlo Pellegrini, in a painting by Degas
Carlo Pellegrini, in a painting by Degas

Carlo Pellegrini (Naples, 25 March 1839 – London, 22 January 1889) was an Italian artist who for many years was the leading caricaturist for the magazine Vanity Fair, and whose drawings became synonymous with the magazine’s artistic sensibility.

Pellegrini was born into a family of noble lineage: his father Pompeo Pellegrini, belonged to a noble Capuan family and his mother Maria Serafina, Francesca Luisa Raffaela Anna de’ Medici of the princes of Ottajano, descended from the Medici family.

Early years

Pellegrini was educated at the College of the barnabites (a religious order)  and later at that of St. Anthony in Maddaloni, near Caserta. As a young man he began to make cartoons on the members of the Neapolitan society, referring in style to the portraits of Daumier and other French and English artists of the period. Pellegrini claimed to have fought under the orders of Garibaldi during the wars of Italian unification; however, these were just tall tales. In 1864 he decided to leave Italy after a series of personal crises, including the death of his sister, and headed to England via Switzerland and France. Pellegrini arrived in London in November 1864; he later claimed to have arrived in very poor condition, having slept on the street and in the entrances of the gates. However, even these statements may well be fantasies to present oneself in public as a Bohemian artist. In London he became friends with the Prince of Wales. [2]

The years at ‘Vanity Fair’

There is no record of how Pellegrini met Thomas Gibson Bowles, the owner of Vanity Fair magazine, but soon he found himself employed in the editorial staff of the magazine becoming the first caricaturist, at the beginning he signed his works with the pseudonym ‘Singe’ (= monkey, in French), then changing it into the more famous English ‘Ape’.

Pellegrini's Caricature of Aldous Huxley, one of the early proponents o the Theory of Evolution
Pellegrini’s Caricature of Aldous Huxley, one of the early proponents o the Theory of Evolution

Pellegrini’s worked for the magazine cover twenty years from January 1869 to April 1889. His caricature of Benjamin Disraeli was the first color lithograph to appear in Vanity Fair and was a great success. Although the later caricatures made for Vanity Fair by Sir Leslie Ward are still better known today, those of ‘Ape’ are considered by many collectors to be superior technicall and artistically. In addition to drawing caricatures for the magazine, Pellegrini also tried to present himself as a portraitist, but this initiative met with limited success. In 1870 Pellegrini met the French artist Degas in London and painted him in a portrait signed with the dedication à vous/Pellegrini. In return, Degas painted a portrait of Pellegrini, signing it in a similar way.

Pellegrini was a member of the Beefsteak Club in London and there he met Whistler, who exerted a great influence on his style; Pellegrini also attempted to paint portraits in whistler’s style, but, as mentioned earlier, this initiative was limited in success. Pellegrini was also a member of The Arts Club from 1874 to 1888.

Pellegrini's Caricature of Purcell O'Gorman, an Irish Politician
Pellegrini’s Caricature of Purcell O’Gorman, an Irish Politician

Pellegrini was very fond of his appearance, for example he always wore white gaiters on shiny shoes. He grew his nails as long extremely long, never walked if he could ride a horse and often told funny stories or resorted to eccentricities. He spoke ungrammatical English, flaunted his homosexuality (at that time it was dangerous and illegal to do so) and often served macaroni dishes in elegant dinners. He refused invitations to country houses for fear of finding uncomfortable beds and had a habit of keeping a cigar in his mouth even when he slept. 

Carlo Pellegrini died of a lung condition at his home at 53 Mortimer Street, near Cavendish Square in London. He is buried in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, London, England.

Translated and adapted from

By Translator Mike



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