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, Thomas Rowlandson, 1814.

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.

Savage Satire – An Exhibition of the Works of James Gillray

Fairfax House in York is currently hosting a James Gillray exhibition entitled Savage Satire. The exhibition features 35 original prints by Gillray, including a number of his most important and iconic works, as well as one of his original engraved copper plates. Savage Satire runs until 7th June 2019 and admission is included in the price on entry to Fairfax House.

Further details, some of which are reproduced below, can be found on the Fairfax House website. I’ll be going and I hope to see you there.

Savage Satire – From the pen of James Gillray

James Gillray, savage satirist, cruel cartoonist and biting political commentator, wielded a power with his pen that few could match in Georgian Britain. His grotesquely exaggerated and wicked caricatures mercilessly ridiculed and poured scorn on politicians, celebrities and royalty alike.

The visceral and subversive nature of Gillray’s Georgian humour knew no bounds. From the underbelly of British life and the cut-throat business of politics, through to nationalistic squabbles with European neighbours and intensifying notions of ‘Britishness’, all offered a rich seam for Gillray to prod and poke fun at. At the height of his creative powers in the 1790s Gillray’s pen turned out an incessant medley of acidic attacks on everything from insidious tax increases, failed trade missions and constitutional reform, through to the terrors of the French Revolution, war and the threat of imminent invasion.

200 years on, his often ruthless, sometimes gruesome, but always sharp and sophisticated satires have never been more amusing or relevant.

Drawing on an extraordinary collection of Gillray’s works, a life-time creation by collector Donald Coverdale, Savage Satire draws many parallels between Gillray’s world and today’s current affairs.

The Prodigal Son’s Teapot c.1770

The Parable of the Prodigal Son was a recurrent theme in repertoire of the publishers of satirical prints during the third quarter of the eighteenth-century. This was a period in which the overt didacticism of Hogarth’s era was seemingly giving way to a more laissez-faire mood, in which the supposed excesses of the libertine were regarded as a source of wry amusement rather than an extensional threat to the moral health of the nation.

The popularity of the Prodigal Son as a theme for print-makers presumably owed something to the fact that the early plates in the series usually allowed customers to indulge themselves in scenes of rakish excess, safe in the knowledge that they were framed against the broader backdrop of a Christian morality tale and therefore remained within the bounds of contemporary notions of politeness. One only has to look at the two most famous examples of Prodigal Son prints from this period – published by Robert Sayer and Carington Bowles respectively – to note that the scenes of the wayward youth “Reveling with the Harlots” always seem to be rendered with far more enthusiasm than those of inevitable reconciliation that marks the son’s return to clean and sober living.

This Liverpool porcelain teapot indicates that the theme was popular enough to make the leap from print into other forms of material culture. It’s decorated with a transfer print adapted from Richard Purcell’s mezzotint’s after an original work by Sébastien Leclerc II which was published by Robert Sayer c.1765. The original print is one from a series of six engravings that tell the complete story of the Prodigal Son. As usual with pottery transfer printing, the design has been altered significantly to reflect the size and shape of the vessel and the comparatively limited skills of the engraver (who may have been a potter rather than trained draughtsman). I’ve provided an image of the original engraving from the British Museum collection below for comparison.

A Merry Tale of the Jealous Weaver c.1745

This weeks ‘random item spotted in an auction catalogue’ is a mid-eighteenth-century satirical broadside which offers some truly awful advice on how to build a successful marriage.

Two columns of rhyming couplets tell the tale of a jealous weaver who disguises himself as a friar in order to trick his wife into unwittingly revealing her alleged infidelities. The wife duly confesses to having slept with a young man, an old man and a friar, only to later reveal that she was aware of the ruse and that three men she claimed to have slept with were the weaver at different stages of his life.

It is accompanied by two engraved images showing the despairing weaver at work at his loom and then dressed as the monk taking his wife’s confession. Whilst the quality of the engraving leaves a lot to be desired when considered against the elevated standards of the period, the artist has included some nice touches, such as the lounging cat, which liven up the composition somewhat.

What is perhaps unusual, or at least unexpected, given that this print was likely to have been published sometime during the 1740s, when Britons were vociferous in expressing a loathing of Popery, is that both the weaver and his wife are obviously Catholics (because the Anglican Church doesn’t practice confession and doesn’t have friars) and therefore not characters we would expect to see portrayed sympathetically in caricature. So it’s possible that this may have been a reworking of an earlier European print, or perhaps the artist simply couldn’t make the joke work without casting his two principle characters as practicing Catholics?

The publication line reads “Printed and Sold by Samuel Lyne Map and Printseller at the Globe in Newgate Street. The BBTI lists Lyne as active from 1741 to 1748. The British Museum has a small number of his prints and other items listed in its catalogue and it would appear as though he specialised in the publication of humorous prints and other ephemera (including trade cards and watch faces). The paper contains a large “Pro Patria” watermark suggesting it was probably manufactured in Holland especially for export to Britain (Britain’s own paper industry being virtually non-existent in this period). It’s valued at £400 – £600, which seems like a plausible hammer price given its age and apparent rarity.