The Danger & Folly of Going to Law

There’s an old joke which goes something like this: “I hear scientists have recently started using lawyers as opposed to rats for scientific experiments. They do this for two reasons; One, the scientists become less attached to the lawyers. And two, there are certain things that even rats won’t do.”

As it turns out, making jokes at the expense of the legal profession is a pastime which has a fine historical pedigree. Satirical prints lampooning the supposedly self-serving nature of litigators had been published in London since the late seventeenth-century and by the closing decades of the eighteenth-century they were commonplace items in London’s printshops. The enduring popularity of these images was such that many of them remained in print until the early 1800s, with the most popular being used to decorate pottery and other manufactured goods.

Which leads us to this rather nice but sadly slightly damaged linen handkerchief. It probably dates to sometime during the latter half of the 1790s and is decorated with a medley of printed text and images. The centre oval contains an picture of a crowded courtroom with the defendant and the plaintiff sitting either side. Both men appear to have been reduced to a state of abject boredom by the proceedings and convey the impression that they have long-since ceased to care about the cause of the litigation. The text which appears at either side of this image is an extract of the humorous poem The Lawyer and Justice which appeared in Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts, or Useful and Entertaining Passages in Prose (1790). It tells the story of a lawyer who is visited by the spirit of justice and admonished for his money-grubbing ways. It was presumably based on an image that first appeared on paper, although I’ve been unable to locate any surviving copies of the original version in order to confirm this.

Another rhyme appears above and below the central cartouche. The six short verses of prose recount the tale of two men who are arguing over an oyster. They call on a lawyer to settle the dispute, which he does by opening the oyster, giving either man a shell and taking the meat as his fee. The story is illustrated by the now partially-lost picture in the bottom left corner of the handkerchief with the title A Sharp Between Two FlatsThis a copy of one of a pair of mezzotints satirising the legal profession which were published by Carington Bowles in 1791. It’s companion – A Flat Between Two Sharps – has been reproduced in the opposite corner of the handkerchief. And finally, the picture on the top right is a copy of an anonymous satire entitled Consolation which was published by Laurie & Whittle in December 1795. It shows a lawyer attempting to console his bankrupt client with the news that whilst he may have been reduced to his last guinea, the man he has taken to court has been left with nothing more than a farthing.

This handkerchief was offered up for sale here in the UK last week. The auctioneer’s estimate was £200 – £300, which seemed reasonable to me (even allowing for the damage) but in the end it didn’t sell. So it’s possible that we may see this item surface again at some point in the near future.

Sutton Nicholls, The Compleat Auctioneer, c.1720


We make a rare foray into the world of early eighteenth-century graphic satire for this post on an engraving by Sutton Nicholls which has popped up at auction recently.

Nicholls was active in the London print trade from 1687 until his death in 1729, operating from a variety of premises centred in and around Aldersgate Street in the City of London. He began his career as an engraver of maps and globes but the scope of his work eventually expanded to include topography, portraiture, various forms of printed ephemera (such as tickets and medley prints) and satire. On a business card dating to c.1720, he described himself as an engraver of “all sorts of Pictures viz. History, Perspective, Architect, Gardening & Landskip [sic] & c. Maps, Sea-Charts, Mathematical Schemes, Writing Flourish’d Pieces, Shop-bills, Tobacco-marks &c. He also cuts on Wood or Metal for Book-printers or Book-sellers, Seals, Stamps & Plate.”

The Compleat Auctioneer is a satire on the then still comparatively recent phenomenon of book auctions. The  first book auction took place in England in 1676 and they subsequently became a popular means of buying and selling books. The practice of offering second hand books for sale at a reduced price inevitably attracted snobbish criticism from conventional booksellers and aristocratic bibliophiles, who regarded the auctioneers as hawkers who devalued the monetary and cultural value of everything they touched. The scientist Robert Hook was horrified to find books by Robert Boyle being offered for sale at an auction in Moorfields, regarding it as an insult to the works of his great friend and patron. Moorfields itself was to acquire a reputation as the home of printers, publishers and booksellers operating at the bottom end of the market and its lack of status amongst serious book-collectors is reflected in the fact that Hooke barely makes a single reference to the area in his otherwise extensive notes on the London book trade in this period [1].

A book auctioneer is shown standing behind a stall of books with a small crowd of customers gathered about him. Behind him is a tree in which a sign has been hung that reads: “A Choice Collection of Books being the Library of the late famous Unborn Doctor, are to be put to Sale this Day and to continue untill [sic] all be Sold, at Mr L-GS Auction in the North West Corner of Middle Moorfields. Cattalogues [sic] may be had at most of the eminent Booksellers in the four Quarters of Moorfeilds [sic] Gratis, the Books may be Seen before or at the time of Sale” Two columns of text beneath the image on either side of the title mimic the auctioneer’s sales pitch, mocking him and his parvenu clientele: “Come Sirs, and view this famous Library, ‘Tis pity Learning shou’d discourag’d be: Here’s Bookes (that is, if they were but well Sold), I will maintain’t are worth their weight in Gold. Then bid apace, and break me out of hand: Ne’re cry you don’t the Subject understand: For this I’ll say – howe’er the Case may hit, Whoever buys of me – I teach ’em Wit.”

The titles of some of the books are visible and the British Museum’s Online Catalogue identifies a number of them as being genuine contemporary works with which Nicholls customers would presumably have been familiar.


  1. E.L. Furdell,  Publishing and Medicine in Early Modern England, (New York, 2002) p. 119.


Unpicking William Heath

The Artist, attributed to William Heath, 1812. Portrait of the artist as a young man? But was Heath a teenager or in his early 30s when this image was published?


While doing some research for a writing project recently, I came across what appeared to be a rather puzzling reference to the caricaturist William Heath in a newspaper article from 1827 [1].


The family of Mr. Heath, an artist, residing in Stangate-street, Lambeth, has, within these few days, been plunged into the deepest affliction, in consequence of Miss Ann Heath, Mr. Heath’s youngest daughter, and sister of the engraver of that name, having attempted to destroy herself by swallowing poison. It appears that the unfortunate young lady, who is in her 18th year, and distinguished for her personal attractions, had meditated self-destruction for a considerable time past, although she was observed to be in her usual good health and spirits, up to Wednesday morning last, when she made the attempt on her life, her elder sister’s attention was then drawn to the unhappy girl, soon after breakfast, by hearing her convulsive sobs in the adjoining apartment. On entering the room, she was shocked at beholding her sister in violent convulsions; she was grasping a piece of paper in her hand, and the unhappy girl exclaimed, “There, you wretch! See what I have done!” and immediately fell down in a state of insensibility. Medical assistance was instantly obtained, and a powerful emetic being administered, the young lady was sufficiently recovered in the course of three or four hours, to acknowledge that she had taken a large quantity of red nitrate of mercury, which she had purchased nearly a month ago, for the purpose of committing suicide, having previously ascertained what quantity would be sufficient to cause death; and she expressed her regret that she had not effected her purpose, saying, “that other people killed themselves when they were miserable, and she did not know what she should be prevented from terminating her existence.” She still continues seriously indisposed, constantly refusing to accept any nourishment; and she has intimated her unalterable resolution to decline all sustenance, in order that she may starve herself to death, since no other means of putting a period to her existence are open to her. The unfortunate young woman is surrounded by affectionate friends, and in the possession of a most comfortable home. It however appears, that a love affair if the cause of attempting to commit suicide.

Of course the story is interesting in and of itself but I describe it puzzling because the Dictionary of National Biography and numerous other secondary sources tell us that Heath was born in 1794 [2]. If that were true and the youngest of his children was 18 by the time this article was published in 1827, then it means he had managed to father at least three offspring by the time he was 14 or 15 years old. Even by Georgian standards this seems too far-fetched to be credible. So what other explanations might there be for this apparent discrepancy?

The suggestion that William Heath was born in 1794 appears to have been derived from a short obituary notice which appeared in several London newspapers in early April 1840 [3]. The notice informed readers that a Mr William Heath, artist, aged 45, had expired at Hampstead on the 3rd of the month – implying that he was either born in 1794 or the first three months of 1795. Could the obituary have been mistaken? Perhaps they got Heath’s name, age or occupation wrong? Or perhaps they were referring to another William Heath who also worked as an artist? As other historians of print have pointed out, there were a surprising number of people named Heath working as artist-engravers in London during the early nineteenth-century. Historians used to think that the caricaturist William Heath was the son of James Heath (1757 – 1834) and / or brother of Charles Heath (1795 – 1848) but this was refuted by the author of a recent catalogue raisonné of those two artists and their family, who concluded that “There are other Heath engravers in the period, but none appear to be related at all closely to the Heath family engravers noted above”[4].  So it’s certainly possible that the obituary notice was incorrect or that it has been wrongly associated with the caricaturist William Heath.

Other explanations can be extrapolated from the fact that the article also mentions that Heath’s son was an engraver. The first of these is that there were two William Heaths working in the print trade during the early 1800s and that the paucity of surviving documentary evidence has led to their work has being mistakenly attributed to one man. This would certainly explain the apparent discrepancy between Heath’s presumed birth date and the age of his children. The historian Julie Mellby briefly considers the same theory in a recent article, noting that Holden’s Triennial Directory records that there was a “print colourist” named William Heath working on Stangate Street in Lambeth in 1802 and speculates that this might have been the caricaturist’s father [5].

A second theory is that the son referred to in the article was actually the caricaturist and engraver Henry Heath. Again, this is not a novel idea. Dorothy George first suggested that “similarity of manner and, once at least, cooperation suggest that [William] was a near relation of Henry Heath” in the introduction to the ninth volume of her catalogue of the British Museum’s collection of satirical prints [6]. The newspaper’s description of the elder Heath as an “artist” and the younger as an “engraver” would have been recognised by contemporaries; William was regarded as a serious artist specialising in military subjects as well as a caricaturist, while Henry’s talents remained confined to the world of print. More compelling evidence that the pair were father and son can be found in the Lambeth parish records. Henry Heath is recorded as being born in Lambeth on 14th July 1801, baptised at the church of St Mary’s-at-Lambeth on 17th April 1803 and crucially is shown as having a father named William. William and his wife Grace also had at least one other child, a daughter named Emily who had been born the previous year (although I’ve been unable to locate a record of an Ann Heath’s birth which would have had to have occurred in 1809). William himself appears to have been born in the same parish some twenty years earlier on 21st October 1781 [7].

So what to make of all this? It certainly suggests that the accepted details of Heath’s biography need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Beyond this, I think that there is some credible evidence to support the notion that William Heath was older than originally thought, that he began printmaking in his late 20s after spending several years working as a colourist, that he and Henry Heath were father and son, and that the pair spent a number of years working alongside one another in a similar fashion to Isaac and George Cruikshank. This doesn’t change the way we think about his work but it does at least help us know a little more about the man behind the prints.


  1. The article quoted her comes from the Cork Constitution, 8th December 1827, although the story had originally appeared in the London Evening Standard and the Globe on 3rd December 1827.
  2. See the British Museum Online Catalogue for a summary of Heath’s accepted biography:
  3. Morning Post, 8th April 1840, Globe, 9th April 1840, & Atlas, 11th April 1840.
  4. Heath, J., The Heath Family Engravers 1779 – 1878, vol. 3., (Aldershot, 1999), p.224.
  5. Mellby, J., ‘William Heath (1794/5–1840): ‘The man wots got the whip hand of ’em all’, The British Art Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 3-19.
  6. George concluded that “Biographical details are strangely lacking; he is known as the ‘ex-captain of Dragoons’, and it was assumed in Volume VIII that he was the William Heath who appears for a few years in the Army List before 1816. But this man died in 1816 and no other relevant William Heath is discoverable. Perhaps he served in the yeomanry, perhaps his army rank is mere legend. There is nothing to connect him with the great engravers Charles and James Heath; similarity of manner and, once at least, cooperation suggest that he was a near relation of Henry Heath.” George, M.D., Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, vol. 9., (London, 1949), p.54.
  7. England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, FHL Film Number: 0254603-0254607 (Henry Heath), 0254603-0254607 (Emily Heath) & 1595090 (William Heath).

Lecture: The Fantastic Visions of James Gillray, June 2019

Fairfax House’s Savage Satire exhibition will conclude with a lecture by Tim Clayton entitled The Fantastic Visions of James Gillray. Readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with Clayton’s work on English prints and printmaking during the long eighteenth-century, which includes a number of books on the subject of caricatures. He is currently a new study of Gillray and the business of satire, which will no doubt form the basis of his presentation.

The lecture will begin at 7pm on 6th June at Fairfax House in York. Admission to a post-lecture wine reception is included within the price of the ticket. Further details can be found HERE.

Wapping Old Stairs, After Thomas Rowlandson, 1814.

[UPDATE – JUNE 2019: A reader has contacted me to suggest that this drawing is a later imitation of Rowlandson’s work. Aside from the differences in line and colouring, the title (which is written in the same hand as the signature) indicates that this is a view of Wapping Old Stairs. However, both Rowlandson and his contemporaries would have known that the Salutation Inn stood on the banks of the Thames at Greenwich not Wapping.]



I spotted this nice watercolour scene by Rowlandson in an auction catalogue this morning.

It shows a group of pedestrians descending Wapping Old Stairs towards a small wherry which is being loaded with passengers wishing to cross the River Thames. A young girl and her elderly father stand closest to the viewer. The old man is a former soldier, dressed in a pensioners uniform, who hobbles along on a wooden leg with the help of his daughter and his walking stick. Ahead of them strides a young soldier, perhaps heading off to join his regiment, who carries a large drum on his back and a sheathed sword in his hand. He is being greeted with great enthusiasm by an oarsman who is no doubt attempting to lure him into another nearby boat with the promise of a reduced fair or a quicker crossing. Behind them, beneath the windows of the inn, a woman, presumably a prostitute, canoodles with a bearded man. In the distance, oarsmen can be seen helping other passengers onto a rowing boat next to the indistinct form of the bow of a collier ship. The scene plays out beneath the open windows of The Salutation public house, whose proprietor, according to the sign which hangs above is a Mr Ben Block. A group of carousers can be seen inside, drinking smoking and consorting with the working girls who evidently frequent the place.

Rowlandson had engraved a similar caricature for Thomas Tegg’s Miseries of London series in 1812. This watercolour version is set further back from the waterline and has a slightly smuttier subtext, placing a greater, albeit still subtle, emphasis on the more debauched aspects of London’s docksides. Some elements of the drawing are based on real life, Wapping Old Stairs and the eighteenth-century public house which stands next to them are still there today. However, the pub in question was (and still is) named The Town of Ramsgate. Rowlandson presumably changed it to The Salutation as a punning reference to the various forms of greeting which are taking place in the street outside. Ben Block was a contemporary placeholder name, similar to ‘Joe Bloggs’ or ‘John Doe’ today, and is probably also fictitious. The watercolour may have been a preparatory sketch for the 1812 engraving that Rowlandson kept and subsequently sold, or he may simply have regurgitated the idea two years later in order to turn out an original piece for a collector.