J.V. Quick, A Form of Prayer to be Said… Throughout the Land of Locusts, 1831

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The statue which stands atop the 130-foot-high column at the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne in north-east England is that of Lord Charles Grey (1764 – 1845), Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1830 to 1834 and author of the first Reform Act. An inscription on the pedestal informs us that the column was erected in 1838 to thank Grey for “safely and triumphantly” delivering “the great measure of Parliamentary reform… after an arduous and protracted struggle… in the year 1832.” But Grey’s Monument – like many statues – is an exercise in history being written by the winners. It was paid for by a subscription of affluent upper-middle class townsmen who had been amongst the principle beneficiaries of the Whig government’s reforms.

The opinions that were not so readily captured in stone were those of thousands of ordinary men and women who had been instrumental to the success of the campaign to secure Parliamentary reform, only to find themselves completely excluded from the new constitutional settlement that the Reform Act ushered in. These were the people who were to put themselves at the forefront of the Radical and later Chartist movements that emerged as a distinct force in British politics during the mid-nineteenth century. The Radicals of the 1830s were predominately drawn from the ranks of the urban working and lower-middle classes and from dissenting Protestant denominations. They had been energised by the reformist agitations of the early 1830s but regarded the limited extension of the franchise achieved under the Reform Act as a betrayal. Radicalism was therefore a continuity reformist movement that vowed to continue campaigning inside and outside Parliament to secure universal manhood suffrage and other reforms that would tip the balance of political power in favour of the working man.

Radicalism found its principle expression in a vibrant and protean print-culture consisting of newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and other printed ephemera, including satirical images. The most notable example of the latter was The Political Drama, a series of 131 wood-engraved political satires produced by C.J. Grant, George Drake, and a small group of collaborators, between 1833 and 1836. Prints such as these sought to propagate the Radicalism by reducing the institutions of state to objects of mockery and public contempt. Their recurrent themes included the absurdity of monarchy, the venality of the aristocratic political class, the hypocrisy of the clergy and the many inequities of a society structured around the hierarchy of class and title.

This rare illustrated broadside is another example of Radical satire from this period. It was probably published to coincide with the Parliamentary debates on a proposed repeal of the Window Tax which were brought before the House of Commons by Radical MPs in April 1833. The Radicals regarded the tax on windowpanes as an unfair charge on two of the basic necessities of light and one that fell disproportionately upon the shoulders of urban households. “The tax on windows, with its prying inspectors and restraints on light and air, ought not to exist for a single year in a country aspiring to free Government and a civilised fiscal system” [1] thundered a supportive newspaper editorial published at the time of the debates. Ultimately, the campaign proved to be unsuccessful as the Whig administration would not countenance the repeal of a tax that accounted for a large and growing proportion of public revenue. The Window Tax would therefore remain on the statute until 1851 when it was replaced by a simplified system of property tax.

The title: A Form of Prayer, To be Said by Persons of both Sexes throughout the Land of Locust, By Timothy Pindarie, the last of the Pindars, relates to the text which covers the bottom half of the page. It is a satirical sermon in which the people are encouraged to pray that “…the corrupted Whigites [sic] doth perform the promises they have heaped upon & doeth one thing that is of benefit to the People” by repealing the Window Tax and “giving notice to all Tax Eaters and Gatherers.” Religious parodies such as this were an established part of the Radical canon and harked back to notorious satires of earlier generations, such as those published by William Hone (1780 – 1842) during the Peterloo era, in which attacks against reactionary government policies were dressed up in the form of mock Anglican liturgies. Contemporary viewers would also have recognised that pseudonym Timothy Pindarie as a refence to the satirical writings of John Wolcot (1738 – 1819), who had published a series of essays mocking the King and other establishment figures in the 1780s under the pen name Peter Pindar.

The wood engraved image is similarly derivative, being modified copy of a caricature from 1831 entitled: The reformers’ attack on the old rotten tree; or the foul nests of the cormorants in danger. It’s not clear who created the original version of this caricature, as several editions seems to have been produced by different artists and publishers around the same time. The woodblocks used to create this image were originally engraved with a version of The reformers’ attack… which was then modified a year or two later to make the satire relevant to the debates on the Window Tax. The words “Window Tax” and “Light” have been carved over the names of the rotten boroughs that previously appeared on two of the birds nests and the labelling on the tree has also been amended from “Rotten Borough System” to “Rotten Tax System”. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate a copy of this plate in its original state but the British Museum collection includes another wood-engraved broadsheet of The reformers’ attack… which provides a good indication of what it would have looked like.

Other changes include the removal of the King and Queen from the background of the design and modifications to the labelling and features of the politicians surrounding the tree. In the original caricature, the Whig ministers are shown cutting down the tree while the Tories try to prop it up. To reflect the fact that many of the Whigs were now regarded as enemies of reform, the engraver has added the names of Radical politicians to the blades of the axes carried by the figures on the left. The caricatured likeness of the Whig Lord Brougham (1778 – 1868) has also been engraved over that of the Tory James Scarlett (1769 – 1844) on the right. Unfortunately, the engraver has either neglected or been unable to erase Brougham from group of politicians on the left where he can be clearly identified by his judicial robes. The Lord Chancellor is therefore rather confusingly depicted on both sides of the struggle. This error, along with the large white line that runs diagonally through the centre of the image, which either caused by a crack in the plate or the separation of two plates during printing, provides further indication that speed and economy were the main concerns of the publisher.

The publication line is that of John Vandenbergh Quick (1792 – 1858), a printer, wood-engraver, and publisher of printed ephemera. Quick was descended from a long-line of Dutch and Flemish printers. His maternal grandfather was Simon Vandenbergh (1728 – 1808), a successful book publisher and outspoken advocate of freedom of speech and publication. Quick had established his own publishing business by 1823 and would spend the next thirty years producing materials such as paper toys, ballad-sheets, broadsides, and penny dreadfuls. When the Thames Tunnel opened in 1843 he took out a lease on one of the concession stands located inside the tunnel, set up a printing press down there and began publishing a novelty newspaper whose publication line boasted that it was “printed by authority, 76 feet below the high-water mark.” Quick’s subterranean premises also did a roaring trade in pop-up peep shows of the Thames Tunnel which were sold to thousands of sightseers who flocked through it every day. The tunnel peep shows were said to have made Quick a fortune. However, he squandered the money on an ill-judged venture to republish great works of literature for the common man. The series began with a cheap edition of Antiquities of the Jews, a 2,000-year-old tract on Jewish history running to several hundred pages in length which unsurprisingly failed to become a bestseller and wiped out Quick’s profits.

References

  1. Bury & Norwich Post, 3rd April 1833.

A Designing Character: A Biographical Sketch of Joseph Lisle (1798 – 1839)

A Designing Character. Almost certainly a self-portrait. The publication line reads: “Drawn, Etched & Published by Joe Lisle” c.1828.

“Do you ever peak at a picture shop?” an anonymous contributor to The Weekly Dispatch newspaper asked its readers in January 1828. “Do you ever make one of the unprofitable customers at the outside of the print sellers in the Haymarket, Piccadilly and Brydges-street? Do you ever frequent Theatrical Houses? If you do, the facetious Joe Lisle cannot be unknown to you. Are you partial to punsters? If so, my present hero will find favour in your eyes.” The collection of barroom anecdotes and tall-tales contained within the article constitutes the only surviving account of the life of Joseph Lisle, a comedian, actor and artist who enjoyed a moderately successful career as a caricaturist in London during the 1820s and 30s. [1]

The earliest surviving examples of prints carrying both Lisle’s name and a date of publication were issued in March 1827, but he may have been working as an artist of a professional or semi-professional basis for months or even years before that. Indeed, Lisle’s biographer states that he began producing caricatures in 1820 after being fired from his job for attending a Radical political rally. While there are aspects of this story that I find difficult to believe, it’s entirely possible that Lisle’s career extended over a much longer period than is implied by the dating on his prints. [1] Printshops of the period often relied on amateur artists to keep them supplied with ideas for new caricatures and Lisle could have entered the trade via this route, providing sketches that were then engraved by others and published without his contribution being acknowledged. C.J. Grant – a near contemporary of Lisle’s – seems to have started his artistic career in a similar fashion, providing drawings for the caricaturist William Heath to pass off as his own work. [2]

If Lisle’s artistic career did begin in 1820 then his early work has either been lost or is yet to be identified. It is not until the late 1820s that prints bearing his name began to appear in the windows of several London printsellers, with Thomas McLean, G.S. Tregear and George Hunt being amongst his most noteworthy patrons. His caricatures usually dealt in pun-based humour and were chiefly rendered in etching and aquatint. George Hunt, who was an engraver as well as a printseller, helped Lisle to realise several of his designs on copper, although intriguingly did not publish all of the plates he etched. Typical examples of his work include The Man of Taste (c.1828 – 1830), which shows a man asking a butcher to cut him some boiled beef with “a Ham’y Knife to give it a Relish.” And Cheap Music (1820 – 1828), in which the owner of a music shop advises a frugal customer that the only “cheap fiddles” to be had in the area are the phoney elixirs sold by the quack doctor next door.  His most substantial endeavour in the field of pun-prints was Joe Lisle’s Play Upon Words, a series of 40 engravings  published in a collected edition by Thomas McLean in January 1828. Muggy Weather, the first plate in the series, sets the tone for what follows, showing group of labourers downing large mugs of beer to refresh themselves on a warm day. The humour my be decidedly old old fashioned by our standards but it undoubtedly appealed to his contemporaries, as another notice from The Weekly Dispatch makes clear: 

[Mr W. Spooner of Regent Street has just published] several laughable and good-humoured satires on the prevailing follies of the day, in the execution of which our old acquaintance, the facetious Joe Lisle has displayed his usual keen perceptions of the ridiculous. Mr Lisle is certainly one of the cleverest caricaturists of the day. In the present sketches of the aquatic dangers, sporting blunders, and march of intellect pretensions of the Cockneys, are admirably hit off. Most of the figures are full of character, and the situations are irresistibly ludicrous [3]

Lisle was seemingly less preoccupied with overt forms of political or social satire, although his few forays into this field are worthy of consideration. The World. When a man is down – keep him down (1830) for example, offers a bleak view of the hardships of contemporary life and hints at Lisle’s Radical sympathies. The pro-Radical journal Figaro in London also recommended one of his political prints to its readers:

A clever caricature we have lately seen, executed by a Mr Joseph Lisle… represents two dustmen talking politics, and one, enquiring of the other, “I say, Bill, if the King vos to go into Vitecross-street, could he pay off the National Debt by taking the benefit of the Insolvent Act?” This is certainly a funny notion, but, nevertheless a decidedly wholesome one, for why should not William the Fourth rub off an unpleasant score by a six week residence in limbo. [4]

This association with the Radical movement seems to have flourished during the 1830s and may have led to commissions to produce prints. Lisle’s signature appears on the final plate of The Political Drama, a series of political satires published by the Radical printer George Drake between 1833 and 1836. C.J. Grant was primarily responsible for creating the series but abandoned it after the publication of its 130th number. A lull of several weeks followed before Lisle’s own attempt at Radical political satire was published as The Political Drama No. 131. The Modern Guy Fawkes; Or, the New Bronze Horse. However, the experiment evidently proved to be a failure as publication of the series ceased thereafter. [5] This print appears to be the last surviving caricature Lisle published and if his artistic career continued beyond 1836 then all evidence of this seems to have been lost. In seeking to explain why Lisle’s involvement in the production of humorous prints may have come to an end, we must now turn our attention to what is known about the other aspects of his life.

Joseph Lisle was born in 1798. Very little is known about his background but aspects of his later history point to the likelihood of a family that belonged to the middling classes of society and adhered to the Methodist faith. Lisle’s education extended well into his teenage years and would therefore have been considered above average by the standards of the day. However, his school days were characterised by truancy, misbehaviour and “a propensity for punning and caricaturing” [1] that chiefly manifested itself in the form of mockery and insolent retorts directed towards his teachers. Growing tired of the beatings the inevitably resulted from these encounters, Lisle left school at the age of 14 and proceeded to drift through a long series of short-lived apprenticeships. Amongst other things, he worked as a legal clerk, a linen draper, a watchmaker and a wood-engraver, before his despairing family prevailed on an uncle with a naval connection to secure him a midshipman’s berth and packed him off to sea. Lisle would later claim that he served aboard the ship that carried Napoleon Bonaparte off into exile – another story that perhaps needs to be treated with some scepticism – but otherwise seems to have been no more successful at holding down a job at sea than he was on land. By 1819 he had discharged himself from the Royal Navy on the grounds of poor eyesight – asserting that “it would not do to go to sea with spectacles” and returned home. [1]

Lisle threw himself into theatrical circles on returning to London, directing and starring in a romantic melodrama that received encouraging reviews in the press. [6] A short stint as a travelling actor followed and this may have also been when he began to monetize his artist talents, as his biographer notes that he supplemented his meagre income by offering his services as a miniaturist in the towns and cities through which he travelled. Over the course of the next few years, Lisle worked as an actor, writer, director and set designer, for London’s unlicensed theatres, specialising in comedy, melodrama and other forms of popular entertainment. By 1822, he was sufficiently well embedded in theatrical circles to co-found the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a drinking club for actors and those with a professional connection to the stage. The Order prospered as a fraternal society and remains in existence today, securing Lisle a modest but enduring place in posterity. [7]

By 1839, Lisle had risen to manage the Queen’s Theatre in Charlotte Street near Tottenham Court Road. [8] This was one of London’s most successful unlicensed theatres and would go on to become a noted venue for music hall performances later in the nineteenth-century. This perhaps provides us with the most credible explanation as to why Lisle’s name began to disappear from prints from the mid-1830s onwards – his career as an artist was simply eclipsed by his on-going involvement in the theatre. His move into management also suggests that Lisle’s public profile had declined by the late 1830s and that his name was no longer the draw it had been a decade earlier.

Accounts of Lisle’s behaviour leave one with a decidedly mixed impression of the man. The fact he founded a successful fraternal society suggests a love of socialising and this is corroborated by a contemporary reference to him being “one of the merriest men in existence.” [1] However, even these favourable accounts hint at a quarrelsome nature and Lisle was described as “eccentric” by more than one acquaintance. [9] This eccentricity seems to have manifested itself in a love of rather vicious practical jokes. In 1822, following a quarrel about Lisle’s failure to repay a loan, the caricaturist challenged one of his acquaintances to a duel. A set of pistols was produced and the two men turned and fired on one another, whereupon Lisle dropped to the floor covered in blood, moaning that he was a dead man. His terrified opponent, believing he had just committed murder, was then induced to flee by Lisle’s friends, but not before leaving his watch and wallet to pay for the victim’s funeral. Of course the entire scenario was a set-up: Lisle had loaded the guns with powder but no bullets and produced the ‘wound’ by means of a hidden sponge soaked in bull’s blood. Lisle and his companions then spent the rest of the evening carousing at their victim’s expense. On another less celebrated occasion, Lisle convinced a dim-witted milkman to purchase expired theatre tickets from him and would have gone through with the con where it not for the merciful intervention of his own friends. [1]

Physically, he was a rather unimpressive specimen. His biographer quipped that he’d “never saw any one so thin to be alive” [1] and poor eyesight seems to have resulted in a lifelong dependence on glasses. His likeness is captured in a self-portrait entitled A Designing Character that Lisle probably published sometime during the late 1820s when he was at the height of his fame. The image shows Lisle in the stereotypical guise of a poor artist in his garret. It probably contains and element of affectation and may have been intended to serve as an advertisement for his more serious artistic side. There is evidence that Lisle may have attempted to broaden his artistic work to include more serious subjects such as portraiture and sporting subjects around this time, but none of these prints appear to have survived. [10]

Joseph Lisle died in November 1839 and was buried at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel In the Parish of St James Clerkenwell, Spa Fields on 1st December. [11] The cause of death is unknown but it was obviously premature and an accident or sudden illness seem to be the most likely explanations. His career as a caricaturist was probably already over by the time of his death but his prints arguably represent a late-flourishing of the eighteenth-century traditions of humour that were rapidly dying out during the 1820s and 30s. His love of puns and aptitude for rendering them as a form of visual humour is perhaps his unique contribution to the genre and is a field of caricaturing in which he undoubtedly excelled. His name and legacy survive today almost solely thanks to his connection with the oddly-named Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a fitting epitaph for such an unusual character.

References

  1. The Weekly Dispatch, 13th January 1828, p. 6.  The level of personal insight and entirely uncritical tone of this biography strongly suggests that it was written by a friend of Lisle’s or even by the caricaturist himself. We know that Lisle was hired to produce illustrations for the Dispatch on at least one occasion (see below) and the favourable reviews he received from the newspaper suggest a connection to the editor. The timing of this article’s appearance coincided with the publication of Joe Lisle’s Play Upon Words and it’s possible that it was intended to serve as an extended advertisement for his work. Some of the claims made in the article are demonstrably false. The first of these is the story about Lisle’s entry into the print-trade. The author claims that Lisle’s employer gave him the day-off to attend the State Opening of Parliament in 1820 and “cheer his Majesty.” But Lisle ignored this instruction and instead “went to Spitalfields to shout for Hunt.” This incident cannot have taken place as described, as neither George III or the Prince Regent attended the opening of Parliament in 1820 and Henry Hunt was still in jail following his arrest in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre the previous year. The second claim on which we may cast doubt relates to Lisle’s service with the Royal Navy. His biographer states that he “sailed under Captain Hamilton with Bonaparte to St Helena.” However, Captain Charles Ross commanded HMS Northumberland, the vessel that famously carried Napoleon off into exile. It seems unlikely that Lisle would mistake the name of his former commanding officer and this raises the possibility that the story was concocted to make his naval service appear more glamourous than was actually the case.
  2. M. Crowther, C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform, (Amazon, 2020), p. 8.
  3. The Weekly Dispatch, 18th August 1834, p. 6.
  4. Figaro in London, 30th August 1834, p. 2.
  5. An image and analysis of the print can be found in Crowther, Ibid.
  6. The Monk of Naples; Or St Marco’s Eve opened at the East London Theatre on 7th September 1819. The critic for The Morning Post thought that the “story borders rather upon the romantic, but upon the whole, the situations and stage effect were of a novel and pleasing description. The scenery, splendid and appropriate… met with its due share of applause; and the Overture, Vocal and Dramatic Music… was received with reiterated plaudits. The piece was announced for repetition amidst a tumult of approbation, which will ensure it a favourite with the visitors of the East. Morning Post, 7th September 1819.
  7. A reference to Lisle’s role in founding the Buffalos can be found in Egan, P., Pierce Egan’s Finish to the Adventures of Tom, Jerry and Logic, in their Pursuits Through Life in and Out of London, (London, 1830)  p. 137. Information about the society can also be found at: https://www.raobgle.org.uk/
  8. London Dispatch, 18th August 1839, p.8.
  9. Egan uses the term in the work referenced above. It is also used in an article that appears in The Weekly Dispatch, 26th October 1828, p. 8. that refers to “Our eccentric, but highly talented friend Joe Lisle.”
  10. Lisle’s biographer mentions that he worked as a miniaturist while touring the country with a group of actors in 1820. His ability to capture accurate portrait likenesses was also recognised by the editor of The Weekly Dispatch, who sent Lisle up to Bury St Edmunds in August 1828 to capture the likeness of a notorious murderer executed there. The Weekly Dispatch, 17th August 1828, p.4. Portraits and sporting prints can also be seen amongst the caricatures by Lisle that are depicted in the window of the printshop that appears in The Spectator. Very Fond of Prints & a Drawing-Master (1828).  
  11. Register of Burials At the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel In the Parish of St James Clerkenwell, Spa Fields, London From 1838 To 1849, RG4 / Piece 4367 / Folio 26. This was a Methodist chapel, hence the suggestion that Lisle’s family may have belonged to this faith.

Original works by John Collet (1728 – 1780)

A couple of oil paintings by John Collet went under the hammer recently. Both pictures formerly belonged to the printseller Carington Bowles (1724-1793) and his partner Samuel Carver (1756-1841) and were part of a considerable collection of Collet’s paintings that the pair amassed between 1777 and 1780. Make no mistake, this was an exercise in commerce rather then connoisseurship, with Bowles & Carver purchasing the pictures so that they could establish a monopoly over engraved images of them at the expense of their rivals. The investment seems to have paid off, with both mezzotints enjoying extraordinarily long print-runs that probably lasted until the firm went out of business in the 1830s. [1]

The first of the two pictures in the lot was Tight lacing, or, Fashion before ease, a satire on the price of vanity and the follies of fashion. The title comes from the mezzotint engraving which was first published by Bowles & Carver in 1777 and proclaims itself to be taken “from the original picture by John Collet, in the possession of the Proprietors.” The plate may have remained in near-continuous use for some considerable time thereafter, with the publication date eventually being removed to disguise its age. Tight Lacing… was still listed in Bowles’s catalogue in 1786 and Yale University has a copy published in paper with an 1812 watermark. Copies of the image were used a decorative transfer for creamware pottery manufactured in the North of England and the Midlands. [2] It also spawned several contemporary and near-contemporary imitators, including most notably James Gillray’s Fashion Before Ease (1793). [3] The canvas measures 34.9 x 26.4cm; 13¾ x 10½ and is signed in the lower left corner.

Detail of lower left corner of Tight lacing… showing Collet’s signature.

The second painting is The Triple Plea, an old satirical image with a longstanding connection to the Bowles family. The original version was an engraving published in 1725 by John Bowles (c.1701 – 1779). Its enduring popularity was such that Bowles was still listing it in his catalogues in 1753 and licensed it to Josiah Wedgewood for use on decorative pottery in 1763. [4] John’s son Carington Bowles evidently felt that The Triple Plea was due a revamp after fifty-five years and commissioned Collet to paint a new version that he published in mezzotint on 15th May 1780.

A clergyman, a doctor and a lawyer are shown debating the question of whose profession is superior. The pictures on the wall behind them – of three harpies tearing a man to pieces and a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” – leave the viewer in little doubt as to the answer. The text next to the title reads: “Behold these three by fate designed / To poison, plunder & delude mankind.” It is an exert from a longer poem that appeared on the earlier printed versions of The Triple Plea and it would be used again on the the 1780 mezzotint edition. The canvas measures exactly the same as its partner but lacks a signature. As with Tight Lacing… this image appears to have enjoyed a long commercial life and was still being used to decorate transferware pottery in the early 1800s. [5]

The pair achieved a hammer price of £3,000 in August 2021 and will have cost the buyer around £4,500 once fees and VAT are taken into account. That’s not to be sniffed at but it may be slightly disappointing news for the seller, who presumably paid £4,812 for the paintings when they were sold at Bonhams in October 2019 and subsequently had them framed and restored to a high standard. It’s a shame for the seller but such is the nature of any commercial market. I hope their new owner enjoys them all the more for having secured something of a bargain.

For a previous post on Collet’s artwork, including a brief biography of the man himself, click HERE.

References

  1. Alexander, David. “Prints after John Collet: Their Publishing History and a Chronological Checklist.” Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 26 no. 1, 2002, p. 136-146.
  2. Drakard, David. Printed English Pottery. History and Humour in the reign of George III 1760 – 1820, (London, 1992), p. 108. For the Yale version see: https://hdl.handle.net/10079/digcoll/292098
  3. Gillray’s caricature is in some respects closer to a crudely rendered version of Tight Lacing that was published by William Humphrey on 5th March 1777. This print could be the original version of the design, as Bowles & Carvers mezzotint is thought to have been published after June 1777 (See Yale University catalogue https://hdl.handle.net/10079/digcoll/292098). The Triple Plea was also based on a satirical image that dated back to the 1720s and Bowles & Carver may have similarly asked Collet to produce a more upmarket version of Humphrey’s caricature.
  4. Bowles, John. A Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Copy-Books… (London, 1753), p. 28. The catalogue states that the print was engraved by George Bickham. It’s not clear whether this was the elder or the younger Bickham, both of whom were working as engravers at this time. Nor is clear whether this was the original 1725 plate or a later reworking of the same satire. The 1725 edition of The Triple Plea was signed “G W H W H N M sculpsit” which may have been used by one of the Bickham’s as a pseudonym.
  5. Drakard. Ibid.

The Origins of The Plumb-Pudding In Danger?

A reader named Antoinette Tomsett contacted me a few weeks ago to share some interesting thoughts on what may have inspired James Gillray’s iconic caricature The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State Epicures taking un Petit Souper.

The print was published by Hannah Humphrey on 26th February 1805. It’s considered to be a satire on Napoleon’s attempts to engage Britain in peace negotiations immediately prior to the formation of the Third Coalition of European powers against France. On 2nd January 1805, with an army of 200,000 men camped at Boulogne preparing for an invasion of the British Isles, the Emperor wrote to King George III in an effort to secure a peace based on the notion of both powers dividing the world into separate spheres of influence :

SIR AND BROTHER,— Called to the throne of France by Providence, and by the suffrages of the senate, the people and the army, my first sentiment is a wish for peace… I conjure your Majesty not to deny yourself the happiness of giving peace to the world… what end can be assigned to a war which all my efforts will not be able to terminate! Your Majesty has gained more within ten years, both in territory and riches, than the whole extent of Europe… what can it hope from war?— To form a coalition with some powers of the Continent?… To take from France her colonies?—The colonies are to France only a secondary object; and does not your Majesty already possess more than you know how to preserve?… The world is sufficiently large for our two nations to live in it, and reason is sufficiently powerful to discover means of reconciling every thing, when the wish for reconciliation exists on both sides.

The British government dismissed the offer out of hand but the words: “The world is sufficiently large for our two nations to live in it…” may have had some resonance for Gillray and other political observers when news of it was finally made public via The Times newspaper on 15th February 1805.

The phrase may have popped back into Gillray’s mind a week later when he heard – or at least read about – a speech delivered by William Windham in the House of Commons on 21st February 1805. Windham was attacking the government on its war record, particularly its policy of raising a force of 500,000 volunteers to defend Britain from the threat of French invasion while the regular army was deployed overseas. Militiamen, no matter how enthusiastic or well turned-out, were no match for trained regulars, he thundered:

It was impossible to make an army out of a painted army, or what merely looked like an army… You might as well suppose, that flour and eggs and butter and plums, would make a plum-pudding, as that men alone would make an army.

Perhaps Gillray combined Napoleon’s image of Britain and France sharing the world between them with Windham’s colourful plum pudding metaphor and… Voilà! It’s certainly an interesting theory and one to which I would like to add a slightly irreverent footnote of my own:

The Plumb-pudding in danger… can also be read as a satire on imperialism and the inexhaustible appetite of France and Britain for land, riches and power. Gillray may have taken his inspiration from newspaper accounts of high diplomacy and parliamentary speech-making, but equally he may also have drawn it from less august sources. In the final week of January 1805, several London newspapers carried the following story:

A journeyman carpenter working at the military depot near Horsham, lately offered to pay a housekeeper that that place, the sum of fourteen shillings, on condition of being supplied, by the said housekeeper, with as much plum-pudding as he… could eat in the space of seven successive day; the terms having been agreed to, the man was daily served with a sufficient quantum of this favourite old English food, and managed in the course of the week, to devour forty-six pounds, averdupouis! The same carpenter, it seems is willing to undertake to eat a cubic foot of similar solid pudding in a fortnight, and what is more extraordinary than all, will engage for a wager of five guineas, to let pass seven other successive days, without eating the least particle of any food whatever. (London Courier and Evening Gazette, 23rd January 1805, p. 4.)

So it’s perfectly possible that Gillray was inspired by a much more literal tale of plum pudding being placed in danger of veracious consumption! Now there’s a thought!

The Pillars of the State, Satirical Snuff Box, c.1756

“It is necessary to be well acquainted with the disposition of a free, proud, fickle and violent people, before one can conceive of the indignation occasioned by this intelligence… The Admiral was burned in effigy in all the great towns; his seat and park in Hertfordshire were assaulted by the mob, and with great difficulty saved. The streets and shops swarmed with injurious ballads, libels, and prints, in some of which was mingled a little justice on the Ministers” – Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Second. [1]

The British public greeted the news of Admiral Sir John Byng’s defeat at the Battle of Minorca on 20th May 1756 with shocked disbelief. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Seven Years War, they had been relentlessly fed on a diet of chauvinistic political rhetoric in which Britain’s naval power was frequently identified as the most tangible aspect of her superiority to other nations. Britons had nothing to fear from the prospect of war with France and should scorn the idea of forming alliances with other European nations, an anonymous pamphleteer assured his readers. “Great Britain, being an island… has no need of foreign assistance… if we carry on the war wholly by sea and have nothing to do with the Continent, we shall have everything to hope and nothing to fear.” William Pitt the Elder delivered a similar message to the House of Commons, demanding that the government “break these fetters which chained us, like Prometheus, to that barren rock” (i.e. Europe) and strike out to pursue a naval and colonial war against France. “Sea War, no Continent, no subsidy, is almost the universal language” the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, concluded wearily after another such debate. However, those with a firmer grasp on the reality of Britain’s political and military situation in 1756 were far less sanguine in their assessment. After surveying the dilapidated state of the defences of Gibraltar, Lord James Tyrawley wrote that he feared that the course of international events was being steered by the “natural prejudices” of “English coffee-house politician[s]” who believe “that Gibraltar is the strongest town in the world, that one Englishman can beat one Frenchman, and that London Bridge is one of the seven wonders of the world.” [2]

As the shock of Minorca reverberated through the nation, popular opinion turned to the question of who was to blame. Fearing that the public’s gaze would eventually settle upon himself, the Duke of Newcastle ensured that defeat was seen as being the responsibility of Byng and Byng alone. Walpole recalled that “the impression against Mr. Byng was no sooner taken, than every art and incident that could inflame it were industriously used and adopted.” The government published exerts of the Admiral’s own account of the battle which were discreetly edited to convey a tone of satisfaction that was guaranteed to further inflame public opinion against him. “They descended even to advertise in the Gazette, that orders were sent to every port to arrest Admiral Byng, in case he should not have been met by Sir Edward Hawke [who had been dispatched to arrest him]. All the little attorneys on the Circuit contributed to blow up the flame against the Admiral, at the same time directing its light from the original criminals.” The “original criminals” were of course the Duke of Newcastle and his ally Henry Fox, whose pre-war programme of spending cuts had resulted in Byng taking command of a squadron in which half the ships were in a state of disrepair and all were undermanned. Byng was court-martialled and executed in relatively short order, not as Voltaire famously quipped “pour encourager les autres”, but in the hope that further debate about the failings leading up to the loss of Minorca could be quietly laid to rest alongside him. [3]

The government was unsuccessful in entirely deflecting blame for the crisis away from itself and the mood of the country provided fertile ground for caricaturists. Pamphlets, ballads and satirical prints attacking Newcastle and Fox were produced in large numbers. “A new species of this manufacture now first appeared, invented by George Townshend: they were caricatures on cards. The original one, which had amazing vent, was of Newcastle and Fox, looking at each other, and crying, with Peachum, in the Beggar’s Opera, ‘Brother, brother, we are both in the wrong’.” Townshend’s caricature was also used to decorate other items, such as this enamelled snuff box which was manufactured in Birmingham sometime during 1756. It’s not difficult to see why objects like this were popular; hitherto satirical prints had been relatively large and delicate items that had to be viewed indoors. The simplicity of Townshend’s caricatures and the portability of these new mediums gave graphic satire a new sense of sociability. Humorous images could now be carried into society and enjoyed with one’s friends. Townshend’s association with this particular image possibly also lent it a degree of respectability that meant it was construed as being particularly ‘safe’ to share in polite company. That may explain why this particular image was chosen for use in decorating a more expensive item like a snuff box. [4]

One aspect of this object that’s particularly charming is the spelling mistake in the scroll at the top of the item. In the original print it reads “Gallus So Near”, in reference to the sympathies which Newcastle and Fox are accused of harbouring towards the French. However, the craftsman responsible for copying the design onto the box lid clearly had no clue what “Gallus” meant (it’s the Latin word for rooster, the animal commonly associated with France in English satires of this period) and has mistakenly engraved it as “Galtus So Near”, thus rendering the phase nonsensical.

  1. Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Second, vol. 2, 2nd ed., London, 1847, p. 218.
  2. All quoted in Brendan Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat, The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783, London, 2007), p. 398 & pp. 412 – 418.
  3. Walpole, p. 218 & 227.
  4. Ibid. p. 229.