Doyle, John (1797–1868), portrait painter, lithographer, and caricaturist, was born in Dublin, one of two sons of a catholic silk mercer whose forebears had been dispossessed of their lands. Expressing his artistic talent from an early age, he studied drawing at the Dublin Society's schools and was awarded a medal in 1805; he subsequently trained under the Italian landscape painter Gaspar Gabrielli (fl. 1803–33), and the miniature painter John Comerford (qv). Between 1814 and 1821 he exhibited several equestrian portraits; his eye for detail and love of horses led to the painting of portraits of influential horsemen, including the 2nd marquess of Sligo (1788–1845) and the lord lieutenant Earl Talbot (qv), and a series of six prints, The life of a racehorse (1822). Between 1817 and 1821 he left Ireland – declaring that he would never return to a country where catholics had been so badly treated – and settled in London, where he struggled unsuccessfully to establish himself as a portrait painter. He painted several horse portraits in 1825, and recognition first came with the acceptance by the Royal Academy of ‘Turning out the stag’ (1825) as well as completing three portraits of a gentleman and two portraits of a lady between 1826 and 1835.
His subtle sense of portraiture led him to lithography, and developing a taste for satire he turned to caricature; encouraged by Thomas McLean (1788–1875), a print-publisher, he produced a series of 917 Political sketches between 1829 and 1851 and made his reputation as the leading political caricaturist. He excited curiosity and preserved his independence by concealing his identity, adopting the monogram HB, a combination of his initials – two IDs (I being a conventional initial for John) placed one above the other. He haunted parliament in search of copy, a ‘quiet, silent unsuspected frequenter of the lobby and gallery’ (Art Journal, 47) and introduced a new spirit into English satiric art; ‘his drawings’, he wrote in a letter (1 January 1842) to Robert Peel (qv) (1788–1850), ‘were governed by a certain steadiness of moral and political principle’ in which he scrupulously avoided ‘all indelicacy, private scandal and party bitterness . . . and were directed to the furtherance of some intelligible public object’ (Engen, 15). He had no fixed party loyalties – though he described himself as ‘an ardent supporter of catholic emancipation’ (O'Connell, 67) – no personal adulations or feuds; his subjects included the duke of Wellington (qv), Peel, Thomas Spring Rice (qv), and Daniel O'Connell (qv), whose public image in England during the 1830s and 1840s owed much to HB's portrayal of him as larger than life or as the power behind the whigs. After the general election of 1841, The Times declared that ‘one great use of these . . . works of art, is their tendency to give a good humoured turn to the dissensions engendered by party feeling’ (George, xlvi) and so he provided an amusing record of political events and truthful portraits of public men, which were carefully drawn, only mildly satirical, and in marked contrast to the often grotesque and brutal caricatures of his predecessors and contemporaries. So great was his following that he became a household phenomenon; between 1834 and 1843 The Times welcomed each batch of prints with enthusiastic comment and described him as ‘that prince of caricaturists’ (George, xlvi), and McLean reissued Doyle's prints in book form with An illustrative key in 1841 and 1844. By the mid 1840s the popularity of the prints had waned; realising that his ‘HB’ days were numbered and that it would be ‘irksome’ to be identified with his sketches, Doyle wrote to Peel in 1843, revealing his identity as ‘HB’, and in 1850 to Lord John Russell, seeking posts in the public works department, but was unsuccessful.
By 1840 Doyle had established himself at the fashionable address of 17 Cambridge Terrace, Hyde Park, where he welcomed many distinguished visitors, including Disraeli, David Wilkie, Wordsworth, and Thackeray. He was the head of a celebrated family which, over three generations, introduced five prominent figures to the literary and artistic world. He married Marianna Conan of Dublin; they had five sons and two daughters. Marianna died in 1832 after the birth of their youngest son, Charles. A doting and beloved father, Doyle reared his children with great care, nurturing the talents with which they were gifted, and maintained a strong influence over their subsequent careers. His sons inherited his artistic talents: James William Edmund Doyle (1822–92), artist and historian, wrote and illustrated A chronicle of England (1864), and The official baronage of England . . . with sixteen hundred illustrations (1886). Richard Doyle (qv), the most famous member of the family, was a humorous artist and designer of the cover of Punch which was used until the late 1950s. Henry Edward Doyle (qv), painter, became director of the NGI. Charles Altamount Doyle (1832–93), civil servant and an amateur artist, exhibited watercolours at the Royal Scottish Academy (1862–87), illustrated books and contributed to several magazines including The Illustrated Times (1856–60), London Society (1862–4), and The Graphic (1877); he was father of the celebrated author, Arthur Conan Doyle. Francis, considered by the family to be the most talented, died c.1843. Of their two daughters, Adelaide died c.1844.
After his reluctant retirement in 1851, Doyle took comfort in his religion and led a secluded life, riding occasionally in Hyde Park and visiting art galleries, a tall, graceful figure with noble features. The anonymity of his work ensured that he was not well known and his prints were soon forgotten. Straitened financial circumstances forced him to move in 1864 to 54 Clifton Gardens, Maida (Vale) Hill, London, where he died 2 January 1868. A pencil and chalk portrait by his son Henry hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. His paintings are preserved in the Royal Academy (his portrait in oils of sculptor Charles Moore hangs in the NGI) and his pencil studies and prints, including a collection presented by Prince Metternich, are held in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Posthumous publications include The seven years of William IV, a reign cartooned by John Doyle by G. M. Trevelyan.