New book: C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform

You might have noticed that things have been rather quiet around here for the last year or two? There are a lot of reasons for this: I have a family and a job like many of you, but I’ve also been spending most of my spare time writing a book about the caricaturist C.J. Grant and I’m very pleased to announce that it’s now finished.

C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform provides a detailed look at Grant’s life and his most significant work as a satirist – the substantial series of wood-engraved radical political satires that was published under the collective title of The Political Drama. For those of you who don’t know Grant, he was a caricaturist who briefly dominated the lower end of the market for humorous imagery in London during the latter half of the 1830s. His popularity was such that by 1838 the author William Makepeace Thackeray felt moved to complain that his “rude wood-cuts” adorned every cheap newspaper that one encountered on the streets of London. “…[A]lmost all [are] from the hand of the same artist”, Thackeray harrumphed, “Grant, by name. They are outrageous caricatures; squinting eyes, wooden legs, and pimpled noses, forming the chief points of fun.’ If the impression these images conveyed was to be believed…one would imagine that the aristocracy of the country were the most ignorant and ill-educated part of its population – the House of Lords an absolute assembly of ninnies – the Universities only seminaries where folly and vice are taught.’

The Political Drama set the tone of many of the prints that Grant was to produce during the latter part of his career and was to cement his longstanding association with the Radical movement and its demands for democratic reform. The image of late-Hanoverian England that leaps from the pages of The Political Drama is one of a society defined by its iniquities. In which the self-proclaimed elite shamelessly feather their nests at the expense of the public purse while the poor are left to fester in abject squalor. It is a world where politicians are corrupt, the king is a hen-pecked old fool, the Church is debased and the forces of law and order exist solely to protect the privileges of the powerful. Even John Bull, so often the doughty hero-figure of contemporary caricature, is a times vilified as a dupe and a dullard, the deserving victim of his own docility and excessive deference. This story is told in a series of visually impactful wood-engravings which borrow heavily from chapbooks and the lurid street literature of the day.

And yet The Political Drama, like much of Grant’s work, remains largely forgotten today. Complete editions of the series are rare and difficult to access, and images of most of the individual prints cannot be found online. C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform aims to rectify this situation by providing a fully illustrated guide to The Political Drama as well as an overview of Grant’s life and career. The book includes a foreword by Professor Brian Maidment and images of each of the prints in the series, accompanied by an explanation of the individuals and events being satirised. By including photographs of all of the 131 prints in the series, it is my hope that the book will appeal to those with a general interest in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century caricature, as well as those with a particular interest in Grant or the politics of his era.

Thanks are owed both to the trustees of the Working Class Movement Library and Professor Brian Maidment for helping me with my work.

C.J. Grant’s Political Drama: Radicalism and Graphic Satire in the Age of Reform by Mathew Crowther is available to purchase now from Amazon. 

Rare Rowlandson self-portrait goes on sale

A rare self-portrait by the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson will be going under the hammer at Bonham’s UK auction house in a few weeks time. The pencil, ink and watercolour sketch shows Rowlandson (on the left) and his friend and fellow artist Henry Wigstead checking their luggage at the office of a coaching company shortly before departing a journey. Rowlandson and Wigstead undertook several excursions together during the course of the 1780s and 90s, visiting France, Wales and various places on the south coast of England. These tours provided an opportunity for the pair to sketch and paint landscapes and topography but inevitably also resulted in the production of humorous sketches reflecting on the experience of travel itself. Many of these ideas would later resurface in the illustrations which Rowlandson produced for the Dr Syntax series from 1809 onward.

The drawing comes from the collection of Major Leonard Dent, DSO, “whose group of 39 works by Rowlandson is still regarded as one of the great collections” of the artist’s work. A set of drawings from the same collection achieved record breaking prices when they were sold in 1984 and that presumably explains why this sketch carries an estimate of £10,000 – £15,000.

The catalogue entry reads as follows:

Thomas Rowlandson (London 1756-1827)
The coach booking office, the artist and Henry Wigstead paying their fares
pencil, pen, ink and watercolour on paper
17.7 x 28.6cm (6 15/16 x 11 1/4in).
The Earl of Mayo
Captain Desmond Coke
His sale, Christie’s, London, 22 November 1929, lot 28 (bt. Sabin, 46 gns)
With Frank T. Sabin, 1936 where acquired by
Major Leonard Dent, in 1939
His sale, Christie’s, London, 10 July 1984, lot 2 (£16,200), where purchased by
With Leger Galleries, London, 1987, where purchased by the present owner

London, Frank T.Sabin, Watercolour Drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, 1933, no. 93, ill.
Reading, Museum and Art Gallery, Thomas Rowlandson: Drawings from Town and Country, 1962, no. 64
London, Richard Green and Frank T.Sabin, Thomas Rowlandson, 1980, no. 2, ill. (loaned by Major Dent)
London, Leger Galleries, English Watercolours, 1984, no. 37
New York, The Frick Collection; Pittsburgh, The Frick Art Museum & Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, The Art of Thomas Rowlandson, 1990, no. 16
London, Lowell Libson Ltd, Beauty and the Beast: a loan exhibition of Rowlandson’s works from British private collections, 2007, no. 31

H. Faust, ‘A Note on Rowlandson’, Apollo, June 1936, ill.
The Illustrated London News, 12 Sept, 1936, ill. p. 452
F. Gordon Roe, Rowlandson: the Life and Art of a British Genius, 1947, ill, pl. XI
R.R. Wark, Rowlandson’s Drawings for a Tour in a Post Chaise, 1963, p.13 note
L.M.E. Dent, Hillfields: Notes on the Contents, 1972, p. 19
J. Hayes, The Art of Thomas Rowlandson, 1990, pp.58-9
L. Libson, H. Belsey, J. Basket et al, Beauty and the Beast: A loan exhibition of Rowlandson’s works from British private collections, London, 2007, pp. 74-5, ill

Henry Wigstead (c. 1745-1800) was, over a 20 year period, one of Rowlandson’s closest friends as well as being a neighbour in Soho. He had been an executor to the estate of Rowlandson’s aunt whose support had been fundamental to the artist’s development as she financed his attendance of the R.A. schools. Wigstead and Rowlandson made three trips together, the first a 12 day sortie to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in 1784 which produced around 70 sketches entitled A tour in a post chaise, the majority of which were acquired in the 1920s by Henry E. Huntington. Their format is somewhat smaller than the present drawing. Several of the prints emanating from the trip are said to be ‘after Wigstead’ but they are clearly by a more skilful hand and it is likely that it was Rowlandson who brought to life compositions suggested by his companion. Drawings from the subsequent trips made by the pair to Brighton in 1789 and Wales in 1797 were published in books with text by Wigstead and illustrations by Rowlandson. As the present work is not reproduced in print it has not so far been possible to identify the expedition to which it relates.

Very little is recorded of Rowlandson’s life through documentary evidence so what we do know of him is largely through his artistic output, making the present drawing of particular interest. He is known to have spent time in Paris in his early years and the influence of French artists is particularly evident in this work. He has turned his assured and fluent penmanship to describing a moment during one of the tours when he and Wigstead find themselves in a coach booking office with a yawning postillion and a porter lugging a trunk and an armful of game. He achieves a sense of depth not just with the use of dark foreground washes but by varying the ink used for the outlines, darker in the foreground and paler as the composition recedes. It is first and foremost an anecdotal record of their journey but Rowlandson was nothing if not an acute observer of his fellow men and he adeptly captured the foibles of those he encountered en route. The drawing was once in the collection of Major Leonard Dent, DSO, whose group of 39 works by Rowlandson is still regarded as one of the great collections; it was sold as a single-owner sale in 1984 achieving the highest price for a drawing by Rowlandson ever to be sold at auction (a work now in the Getty Museum, California), a record that still stands today.

Original works by Robert Dighton (1751 – 1814) – The David Padbury Collection goes on sale


A large collection of original works by the caricaturist Robert Dighton came up at auction in London earlier this week. All of the items were formerly part of a collection of prints, paintings and drawings by various members of the Dighton family that belonged to a collector named David Padbury. In 2007, Padbury produced a short catalogue raisonné of Dighton’s work to accompany an exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum. The book, entitled A View of Dighton’s The Dighton Family, Their Times, Caricatures and Portraits is still in print and remains the only detailed study of the artist’s life and work. Most of the items which were being offered up at the sale appeared in Padbury’s book and will therefore be familiar to anyone who’s read it. Nevertheless, I thought it worthy of re-posting the images from the sale catalogue here so that they remain freely accessible online for the foreseeable future.

Dighton occupies a marginal place in the history of eighteenth-century caricature. Most modern print-collectors probably associate him with the mezzotint drolls that were characteristic of Carington Bowles printshop during the 1780s, or else the decidedly less interesting caricature portrait studies that formed the bulk of his output from around 1800 onward. However, he was also a prolific watercolourist and in this medium he undoubtedly excelled. His frenetic paintings of life in the streets around Covent Garden are arguably superior to similar works produced by Thomas Rowlandson (an assertion made by Kenneth Barker in the foreword to Padbury’s book) and the sale of paintings such as these may have accounted for a larger proportion of his income than that which he derived from his prints. The catalogue of known works that appears at the back of Padbury’s book certainly suggests that his output of paintings far exceeded his output of published works during the mid-1790s. He was also a well-known stage actor and singer, performing in such noted venues as Sadler’s Wells Theatre and Vauxhall Gardens and may therefore have regarded the production of caricature engravings as a secondary form of employment.

Robert Dighton was born in London in late 1751. His father was a “paper-hanging-manufacturer” who may also have briefly dabbled in printselling and publishing (Padbury, p. 28). Dighton entered the Royal Academy School in 1770 and came to specialise in portraiture and conversation pieces, his style being heavily indebted to that of Hogarth, Laroon and Hamilton. His first published work appeared in 1776 and by 1781 he was regularly producing images for the printseller Carington Bowles. The connection with the Bowles family lasted until ‘droll’ mezzotints finally fell out of fashion in the late 1790s, by which time Dighton was also regularly self-publishing his own satirical etchings on copper. His work was dominated by social satire of one kind or another, although he briefly strayed into political subjects during the tumultuous years of the early-to-middle 1790s. Most of these prints appear to have been self-published, perhaps indicating that Dighton was making enough money from his theatrical endeavours to cover his own production costs and could therefore dispense with the interference of a publisher. If Dighton’s finances were in rude health in the 1790s then the situation changed rapidly during the first decade of the nineteenth-century. In 1806 he was caught selling drawings by Rembrandt and other Old Masters that he had stolen from the reading rooms of the British Museum. He fled London in disgrace, washing up in Oxford where he scratched out a living engraving caricatures of provincial society figures and noted members of the university faculty. He eventually returned to London in 1810, publishing a small number of prints before apparently becoming increasingly reliant on the work of his sons – Robert Junior and Denis – to support the family. He died at Spring Gardens and was buried at St Martin in the Fields on 13th June 1814.

Dighton’s background in portraiture means that it is not surprising that that Padbury’s collection contained a large number of caricature portrait studies. Many of these appear to be preparatory works for mezzotints that were published by Carington Bowles during the 1780s and copies of the engraved versions can be easily located using the British Museum’s recently revamped online catalogue.


Perhaps the most interesting of the portrait pieces is this signed pencil drawing of a family group done on laid paper with a 1797 watermark (which appears at the top of this article). Padbury notes that the likeness of the man at the centre of the group is similar to that of Dighton’s self-portrait of 1779 and that the lady on the lower right also bears a resemblance to a study of Dighton’s first wife Letitia (d.1778). By 1797, Dighton had been married three times and had at least six children who had lived beyond infancy. It’s therefore possible that this drawing was conceived as an extended family portrait, showing the current members of Dighton’s family alongside the likenesses of his dead wives and children. A second family group – a signed watercolour of parents and a child in a garden which is dated 1811 (right) – was also sold. However, the likelihood is that this is a straight-forwardly commercial piece that Dighton was presumably commissioned to produce for the sitters.


Padbury’s collection contained preparatory studies for several of Dighton’s mezzotint ‘drolls’ which are illustrated in order below. The most recognisable of these is the original watercolour version of the Scottish plate from the triptych Geography Bewitched! (1797) but there were also original versions of the prints Intelligence on the Change of Ministry (c.1783), A Master Parson with a Good Living (c.1782-83), Youthful Sport (c.1783 – 84), Quarrelsome Taylors, or Two of a Trade seldom agree (c.1794 – 95) and The Harmony of Courtship / The Dischord of Matrimony (c.1796). There were also a number of watercolours that were either conceived as works in their own right or as preparatory drawings for prints that either weren’t published or for which no surviving copies can be found. These were the two small ovals entitled The Peep Show and A Lady Marketing (c.1780s) and the lively Term Time or the Lawyers Alive in Westminster Hall (c.1795). The latter was the single most expensive item of Padbury’s to appear in the sale and it achieved a final hammer price of £4,500. Finally, at the other end of the income scale, was an early rural landscape entitled The Village Well (c.1780) that fetched just £180. Which I guess goes to show that there’s more money in law than you’re likely to find at the bottom of a wishing well…


Thomas Rowlandson after Sir Joshua Reynolds, Count Ugolino… c. 1773

If one were to imagine the sort of painting likely to capture the imagination of the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson then it’s unlikely that Sir Joshua Reynold’s Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon would be the first image to spring to mind. Rowlandson’s obvious love of bawdy humour and scenes of convivial sociability seems at odds with this rather austere meditation on suffering and death. However, it is precisely that fact which marks out this pencil and watercolour painting as something a little bit special. For it is likely that when Thomas Rowlandson sat down to sketch out this picture, all of that – the caricatures, the teeming street scenes, the raunchy erotica – still lay ahead of him. Because in all probability he drew this image when he was still a 15 or 16 year old boy studying at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Given the arc of Rowlandson’s subsequent career as an engraver of humour prints (not to mention illegal pornography), it’s sometimes easy to forget that he also pursued a very successful career as a serious artist. His watercolour landscapes found their way into some of the finest collections in the land and were a direct influence on the early work of J.M.W. Turner. He also possessed impeccable artistic credentials – not only being one of the few caricaturists to have studied art at the prestigious Royal Academy School but to also succeed in winning a place there at the unusually young age of 15. The Academy had been founded by King George III four years earlier in 1768 in an effort to raise the status of British art to a level that was commensurate with the nation’s economic, maritime and colonial power. This was to be achieved both by the education of young artist and the staging of an annual exhibition of works by great Academicians – including Reynolds who was appointed to act as its first president.

The Academy School was based in Old Somerset House on the Strand. The academic programme began with the study of portraiture and Rowlandson and his fellow pupils would have spent their days drawing objects from the  extensive collection of plaster copies of antique statuary that was housed in the building. When not engaged in formal study under the supervision of a master, pupil’s were encouraged to busy themselves by copying works which hung in the Academy’s exhibition rooms in Pall Mall. It is almost certainly here that Rowlandson would have first set eyes on Reynolds painting of Count Ugolino. Rowlandson arrived at the Academy on 6th November 1772 and Reynolds unveiled the painting at the opening of the annual exhibition five month later. If Rowlandson took his sketch from direct observation of the original then it must have been completed before 1775, when it was sold to the Duke of Dorset for the princely sum of 400 guineas (apparently it was a shrewd investment – Dorset would later claim he had been offered £1,000 for it). [1.]

The painting depicts an obscure episode in the bloody history of medieval Italy. Count Ugolino was a Pisan nobleman who was ousted from power following a coup orchestrated by his arch-rival Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino and his sons were confined to a locked room at the top of a high tower in the city and there they were left to starve to death on Ruggieri’s orders. The incident would probably have vanished into the footnotes of history were not for the fact that it was recorded for posterity by the poet Dante in The Divine Comedy. Dante places Ugolino and Ruggieri in the Circle of Hell reserved for traitors, with the Archbishop being judged to be the worst of the pair and therefore forced to endure the pain of having his rival gnaw hungrily at his head for all eternity.

Reynolds painting shows Ugolino staring out at the viewer in helpless anguish as the first of his children succumbs to hunger. It’s a striking image and a radical departure from the society portraits that he was more commonly known for. As a consequence, the cognoscenti’s reaction was decidedly mixed. While The Public Advertiser acknowledged that it was “a good picture” it also felt it necessary to add that “if the same Excellence had been employed on a pleasing Subject, it would have inchanted [sic], as it may now terrify, the Public.” The Morning Chronicle on the other hand regarded it as a work which was utterly without merit and described Reynolds efforts as “the rude disorderly abortions of an unstudied mind, of a portrait painter, who quitting the confined track where he was calculated to move in safety, had ridiculously bewildered himself in unknown regions.” [2.]

Nevertheless, Reynolds and his fellow Academicians regarded history painting as the highest form of art and it’s entirely possible that Rowlandson and his fellow pupils were instructed to make careful copies of Count Ugolino… when it was put on display. The choice of subject matter certainly strengthens the case for this being an early work, as by the 1780s Rowlandson was already beginning to drift away from the classical and Italianate ideals of the Reynolds and his fellow Academicians. In 1783 he pointedly declined to submit any paintings for the Academy’s annual exhibition and instead put forward four drawings for inclusion in a display by the rival Society of Artists, a body which promoted a more vernacular style of British art in keeping with the manner of William Hogarth and Joseph Wright of Derby. It therefore seems hard to imagine Rowlandson devoting time and effort to copying Reynolds’ picture after this date. It therefore stands as an exceptionally early example of Rowlandson’s work and one which is most definitely worthy of note.

The painting is signed in the lower left-hand corner and measures 27.7 x 37.5cm. It was sold at auction in the UK on 4th March 2020 for a hammer price of £2,200.


  1. John Chu, “High Art and High Stakes: The 3rd Duke of Dorset’s Gamble on Reynolds”, British Art Studies, Issue 2, 5462/issue-02/jchu.
  2. Public Advertiser, 28th April 1773 & Morning Chronicle, 30th April 1773.

Britannia and the British Museum

It seems as though posts about prints by James Gillray are a bit like buses – You wait ages for one and three turn up in quick succession. I hadn’t planned to write another piece on Gillray this quickly but a reader was kind enough to contact me last week to share some information that I thought others would find interesting.

John Staral – an enthusiastic fellow print collector and occasional correspondent – got in touch to tell me that he’d recently acquired a copy of Gillray’s Britannia. The print came with a letter written to its former owner by the Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. This gentleman had evidently contacted the museum to enquire whether the presence of the initials “G.M.” in the border of the image implied a connection to the painter George Morland (1763 – 1804) and why a print which purported to have been published on 25th June 1791 was printed on paper with a watermark for the year 1811?

The Keeper’s  answer to the first question can probably be guessed but the response to the second was rather more interesting:

For me this print and the accompanying letter help to answer a long-standing query about the nature of the Hannah Humphrey’s printselling business, namely: How did she manage to sustain herself after Gillray’s ill-health overcame him and he was no longer able to produce caricatures? A quick look at the (frustratingly creaky) online catalogue of the British Museum’s collection indicates that Hannah produced comparatively little new material between the publication of Gillray’s final few plates in 1810 and the time of her death in 1818. 1813 seems to have been her busiest year during this time and even then it appears as though she only felt the need to publish around a dozen or so new plates (mostly political prints capitalising on the surge in demand for satires on Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow). The answer seems to be that she kept herself going by plundering her stock of Gillray’s copperplates and constantly reissuing copies of his old caricatures. This practice was continued by George Humphrey when he inherited the shop and assumed a prominent role in the business. By 1823 Humphrey was styling himself as “Printseller & Publisher of Gillray’s Satirical Prints & Being the Proprietor of his Original Works” and it’s therefore not too surprising that his business failed when Gillray eventually fell out of fashion a decade later.

They also raise an interesting question about the concept of originality in print-collecting. This print was published whilst Gillray was still alive and was coloured according in Hannah Humphrey’s “shop” standard. However, this particular copy was also printed 20 years after the first edition and the colouring is slightly different from that which appears on other (presumably earlier) copies of the same image. So is it an original? For my money the answer to this question is “yes”, as it meets the basic criteria of being published in Gillray’s lifetime, but beyond this we enter a far more subjective and difficult arena of debate. What we can say for certain is that publication lines are untrustworthy little devils and that even Gillrays with the “correct” style of colouring may have been printed and sold several years after the design first appeared in Hannah Humphrey’s shop window.