He was born in London. His grandfather had taken up the arts, and his father, Isaac Cruikshank, was a painter. His children's first playthings were the materials of the arts their father practised. George followed the family traditions with amazing facility, easily surpassing his rivals as an etcher. When his father died, about 1811, George, still in his teens, was already a successful and popular artist. He had virtually no training or apprenticeship in art, because of the necessity of working for immediate profit. He sometimes regretted this lack of formal training, and later tried to improve his knowledge by studying from the antique and drawing from life at the schools. From boyhood he was accustomed to turn his artistic talents to his advantage, selling designs and etchings, and helping his father in forwarding his plates. Before he was twenty his spirited style and talent had secured popular recognition; the contemporary of James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Henry Alken, William Heath, Richard Dighton, and other established caricaturists, he developed great proficiency as an etcher.
When Gillray, a major influence, died in 1815, George Cruikshank had replaced him as a satirist. For a generation he delineated Tories, Whigs and Radicals impartiall. Satirical material came to him from every public event,--wars abroad, the enemies of England (he was highly patriotic), the camp, the court, the senate, the Church; low life, high life; the humours of the people, the follies of the great. Cruikshank's technical and manipulative skill as an etcher was such that John Ruskin and others held him in high regard. He died at 263 Hampstead Road, and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.
A vast number of Cruikshank's spirited cartoons were published as separate caricatures, all coloured by hand; others formed series, or were contributed to satirical magazines, the Satirist, Town Talk, The Scourge (1811-1816) and the like ephemeral publications. In conjunction with William Hone's scathing tracts, Cruikshank produced political satires to illustrate the series of facetiae and miscellanies, like The Political House that Jack Built (1819). More genially humoristic are his well-known book illustrations, now esteemed for their inimitable fun and frolic, among other qualities, such as the weird and terrible, in which he excelled. Early in this series came The Humorist (1819-1821) and Life in Paris (1822). The well-known series of Life in London, conjointly produced by the brothers IR and G Cruikshank, has enjoyed a prolonged reputation, and is still sought after by collectors. Grimm's Collection of German Popular Stories (1824-1826), in two series, with 22 inimitable etchings, are in themselves sufficient to account for Cruikshank's reputation.
To the first fourteen volumes (1837-1843) of Richard Bentley's Miscellany Cruikshank contributed 126 of his best plates, etched on steel, including the famous illustrations to Oliver Twist, Jack Sheppard, Guy Fawkes and The Ingoldsby Legends. For William Harrison Ainsworth, Cruikshank illustrated Rookwood (1836) and The Tower of London (1840); the first six volumes of Ainsworth's Magazine (1842-1844) were illustrated by him with several of his finest suites of etchings. For C Lever's Arthur O'Leary he supplied 10 full-page etchings (1844), and 20 spirited graphic etchings for William Hamilton Maxwell's lurid History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 (1845).
Of his own speculations, mention must be made of George Cruikshank's Omnibus (1841) and George Cruikshank's Table Book (1845), as well as his Comic Almanack (1835-1853). The Life of Sir John Falstaff contained 20 full-page etchings (1857-1858). These are a few leading items amongst the thousands of illustrations emanating from that fertile imagination. As an enthusiastic teetotal advocate, Cruikshank produced a long series of pictures and illustrations, pictorial pamphlets and tracts; the best known of these are The Bottle, 8 plates (1847), with its sequel, The Drunkard's Children, 8 plates (:848), with the ambitious work, The Worship of Bacchus, published by subscription after the artist's oil painting, now in the National Gallery, London, to which it was presented by his numerous admirers.
See Cruikshank's Water-Colours, with introduction by Joseph Grego (London, 1903).