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Vic Gatrell is a Life Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Born in South Africa, he graduated from Rhodes University before taking first-class honours in history and completing his Ph.D. in Cambridge. In the Cambridge History Faculty he was Lecturer and then Reader until he became Professor of British History at the University of Essex 2003-9 - after which he returned to Cambridge, where he now lives.
His City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London (Atlantic Books, 2006) has been awarded both the Wolfson History Prize (the premier award for history in Britain) and the International PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for history, and was listed for the BBC's Samuel Johnson Prize for all non-fiction and shortlisted for the Banister Fletcher Award in art history by The Authors' Club. A study of satirical caricature and manners from 1780 to 1830, it has been described as "the most sumptuous and beautiful history book in years", and as a "masterpiece": "not since E. P. Thompson has a historian written with such passion, originality and wit"; "It would be hard to overstate the importance of this wonderful book."
" 'City of Laughter' is not just a great book to look at. It is original in conception and in the raw materials on which it draws. It is deeply researched and smart as hell ... a bold, often breathtaking work of historical scholarship that challenges and enriches our understanding. ... Urban history writing at its best. ... In Gatrell's hands, laughter - and London itself - becomes a prism through which he can explore a broader cultural terrain. There is a great deal of absorbing detail about London in this provocative and stimulating book - but far more about the complex and conflicted process through which manners, morals and values changed and Victorian notions of respectability came into being." -- Matt Houlbrook, Times Higher Education Supplement 1 June 2007
"His astonishing book is a combination of first-rate exhibition catalogue, landmark work of social history, and compendium of gossip, scandal and very lewd jokes. It is rare to read such a serious, indeed highly academic work which also feels like going to a fiesta. Only the most joyless prude could resist its sheer exuberance. ... a provocative, opinionated book ... a major work of academic scholarship." -- Matthew J.Reisz, Slightly Foxed, Autumn 2007
"One can only stand in awe when contemplating Gatrell's achievement. ... His industry and commitment are prodigious. ... And there is a larger issue here than the straightforward energy of the medium of the satirical print: it concerned liberty and independence, a freedom of mind that could either tell the truth to power, or simply laugh at everything. It couldn't last: an age of moralising dawned, and you could make a case for saying that we're still living in it. So all the more reason for cherishing this book, which celebrates, as Gatrell puts it, "our great, louche, comic tradition" ... This is a work that will keep you entertained for months." -- Nicholas Lezard, Paperback Choice, The Guardian, October 2007
Gatrell's earlier book, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (Oxford, 1994) was awarded the Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society. In 2010 it was included 'The Canon' of seminal works in the Times Higher Education magazine.
In 2013, Penguin Books published Gatrell's 'The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age' - a history of 'proto-bohemian' Covent Garden and the 'lower' art world in eighteenth-century London. It makes a powerful plea for the significance of the arts that celebrated 'real life' rather than the nymphs, shepherds, and 'histories' favoured by the Royal Academy, by which the art of that era is usually characterised.
Gatrell is a frequent commentator on televised history programmes.