We like a bit of caricature-related pottery round our way and this mug is one of the nicest examples of transfer-printed English creamware that we’ve seen in quite some time.
The design has been lifted from one of the panels of James Gillray’s famous French Liberty, British Slavery (1792). The print presents us with a contrasting view of the emaciated French revolutionary, gloating about his freedom as he gnaws on a raw onion, and a fat Englishman who moans about taxes as he sets about a side of roast beef and a pint of ale. The conclusion we are expected to draw from this is clear: Abstract notions of freedom are well and good but they are as nothing when compared with the stability and economic prosperity which are the hallmarks of the British constitutional settlement.
Given that much of the humour of the original design is thought to have come from the juxtaposition of the two characters, you’d expect that this mug was part of a pair and that there would be a companion piece somewhere out there with French Liberty printed on it, right? Well, no actually. British Slavery was copied onto creamware tankards by at least two different pottery manufacturers and as yet there are no known examples of similar items carrying the other half of the original design*. This raises some interesting questions about contemporary responses to Gillray’s image. The decision to discard the contrasting image of the Frenchman transforms British Slavery into something far more innocuous and ephemeral; turning the figure of the Englishman from an emblem of Burkean conservatism into a harmless celebration of the joys of beer and beef. It therefore prompts us to ask whether political satire was as popular or as influential as we tend to assume and if contemporary viewers were far more familiar with the comic figures of genre, like Toby Fillpot, Jack Tar and Doctor Syntax, than with the political prints which dominate the history of British caricature in this period?
Supersize vs Superskinny. James Gillray, French Liberty, British Slavery, 1792.
* Both images appeared on a creamware jug produced by one of the Liverpool potteries sometime during the 1790s, but this is the only ceramic version of French Liberty that I’ve been able to locate. See Drakard for further details.