Alongside his colleague Leslie Ward (who took the pen name ‘Spy’), Carlo Pellegrini defined the look of the Victorian society journal, Vanity Fair. Inspired by the work of Melchiorre Delifco and Honoré Daumier, his caricatures, produced under the pen name ‘Ape’, had an enduring effect on Victorian high society as a whole. So did Pellegrini himself, as the eccentric Neapolitan caricaturist became known as one of London society’s most well-known and well-loved figures.
Carlo Pellegrini was in Capua, Campania, Italy, on 25 March 1839, a descendent of the Sedili Capuani, an aristocratic landowning family. He was educated at the Collegio Barnabiti, then at the Sant’ Antonio in Maddaloni, near Caserta. By the age of 20, he had already established himself as a highly popular figure in Neapolitan high society.
He was eccentric and funny, kind-hearted and generous. He quickly earned himself many friends and patrons and delighted many of them by drawing caricatures for them, though he had no formal artistic training.
In the autumn of 1860, it is possible that the young Pellegrini joined the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi and fought in the last battles against the Bourbons at the Volturno and at Capua. Although this assertion is the subject of debate, as are many of his anecdotes, according to his Vanity Fair colleague, Leslie Ward.
On 9 November 1892, Pellegrini met the Prince of Wales during a visit to Naples, and celebrated his coming-of-age with him. This encounter was significant to his future career, as two years later, when he arrived in London, he was quickly ensconced as a close friend and jester in the Prince’s social circle. Why he left Italy is unclear, though he maintained to friends that it was a combination of unrequited love and the death of his sister. He claims that he initially endured poverty when he first arrived in London, including periods sleeping rough in Whitehall and Piccadilly, but his reputation and popularity in London’s bohemian society rapidly grew.
As he had done in Naples, Pellegrini regularly drew caricatures for his friends and royal companions. These caricatures came to the attention of Thomas Gibson Bowles, who had recently founded the society paper, Vanity Fair. He commissioned Pellegrini to produce colour portraits of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. These portraits were reproduced by Vincent Brooks, then London’s premier lithographer and appeared in Vanity Fair in January and February 1869 under the pseudonym ‘Singe’, the French for ‘ape’. His drawings were an immediate success and he became a permanent member of staff at Vanity Fair, producing caricatures under his new pseudonym, ‘Ape’.
In the 1870s, he met and struck up a friendship with Edgar Degas, and the two men produced portraits of one another, Pellegrini’s inscribed ‘a vous’, and Degas’ ‘a lui’. Remaining as highly sociable in London as he had been in Naples, Pellegrini was a member of the Arts Club from 1874 to 1888, and a member of the Beefsteak Club, along with Leslie Ward. It was here that he first met James McNeill Whistler, who became a great influence on his work. Pellegrini had long aspired to become a portrait painter to the level of Whistler, and twice left Vanity Fair, first in 1871 and again in 1876, in an attempt to succeed in this field. However, his talents for caricature did not extend to portraiture and, after his work in this field was poorly received by critics, he returned to Vanity Fair early in 1877. Though he was debilitated in his final years by tuberculosis, he continued to produce cartoons for Vanity Fair until his death on 22 January 1889.
At barely five feet two inches tall, with a large head and very small feet, Carlo Pellegrini certainly made a huge impression on those he met. He flaunted his homosexuality, at a time when it was dangerous to do so and dressed eccentrically, though flawlessly. As Leslie Ward observed, ‘he always wore white spats, and their whiteness was ever immaculate, for he rode everywhere, a fact which probably accounted for his bad health in later years. His boots, too, were the acme of perfection, and his nails were as long and pointed as those of a mandarin’ [Forty Years of Spy, page 96]. His story-telling at London society gatherings was legendary, despite his struggles with the language. Ward recalled that when regaling his listeners with his stories, ‘his English, which was ever poor, stumbles and tripped, for although he was rather too quick to recollect slang terms, his grammar remained appalling, but delightfully naive’ [Forty Years of Spy, page 97]. Such was his popularity that when he was debilitated by tuberculosis, his fashionable friends raised the money for his care in a private hospital, settled all his debts, and provided the luxuries to which he was accustomed until his death. The Fine Art Society sold a proof from a destroyed plate of his much admired caricature of Whistler, with Whistler's signature, to pay for his gravestone in Kensal Green Roman Catholic cemetery, London.
His work is represented in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery; and the Royal Library, Windsor.
Maria Cristina Chiusa, ‘Pellegrini, Carlo (b Carrara, Nov 22, 1605; d Carrara, 1649), Grove Art Online, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T066088 ; Peter Mellini, ‘Pellegrini, Carlo [peud. Ape] (1839-1889)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/21806 Leslie Ward, Forty Years of ‘Spy’, London: Chatto & Windus, 1915