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Thomas Rowlandson, The Political Hydra, 1806.

This copy of Thomas Rowlandson’s The Political Hydra is the latest item to find its way into The Printshop Window’s personal collection of Georgian caricature prints. The image was originally published in December 1788 by S.W. Fores and was one of a number of satires to appear around that time which dealt with Charles James Fox and the Whig’s role in the unfolding Regency Crisis. Fores then reissued the print eighteen years later, in April 1806, to coincide with the appointment of the Whig-led coalition government in which Fox was serving as Foreign Secretary. Unfortunately, as the publication line had been trimmed from this copy and as such I couldn’t tell whether my copy was one of the 1788 originals or part of the later edition that had been brought out in the nineteenth-century. I therefore decided to refer to the recently revamped online catalogue of the British Museum and see if I could try and date the print.

I found that the Museum actually holds four coloured copies of this caricature: two carrying the original 1788 publication line and two marked with the revised details for 1806. Comparing my print to the images on the Museum’s website, it quickly became clear that the colouring was exactly the same as that used on the two late prints from 1806 and that my copy of The Political Hydra was almost certainly a later re-strike. While looking through these images, I noticed that there were some significant variations in the way in which the different versions of the image had been coloured; with the two prints from 1788 differing both from each other and from the later editions. This got me thinking about the processes that may have been used to colour Georgian caricature prints and whether we can infer anything from these differences in colouring.  

While it’s perfectly easy to understand why the more collectable coloured prints dominate the surviving body of eighteenth-century caricatures, we shouldn’t assume that colouring was a default mode of production for Georgian printsellers. Colouring caricatures cost time and money and it’s unlikely that the tight profit margins of the publishing business would have allowed printsellers to carry large numbers of coloured prints in their stock. Indeed, the fact that the publication lines of so many printsellers states prices for both coloured and uncoloured copies of the design may indicate that prints were normally only coloured to order. The additional cost of colouring prints also means that they were unlikely to have been as common as uncoloured versions. The exact cost varied according to the printseller but in almost all cases it would appear that the price of a caricature would increase by anything from 50% to 100% once the customer had asked for it to be coloured.

The fact that so few of London’s print shops appear to have employed colourists on a regular basis may also suggest that the production of coloured prints was not the norm. We know for example that Rudolph Ackermann, who was undoubtedly one of  London’s larger and more successful publishers, would send bundles of prints out to the homes of his colourists and pay a set rate for each item that was returned in a satisfactory condition. If an arrangement such as this was standard across the print trade then it seems reasonable to assume that the demand for coloured prints was rarely sufficient to warrant the employment of a permanent colourist on staff. It also stands to reason that the number of colourists used would have increased in times of high demand and that therefore the notable differences in the tone and application of colouring may provide a very rough indication of the popularity of a particular print. For example, if we return to our copies of The Political Hydra from 1788, we can clearly see that these prints were coloured by two individuals who, although working from a common set of instructions, were using different paints and had varying approaches to details like the colouring of Fox’s hair and the crowns. Conversely, if we compare my copy of the print with the two other 1806 editions held by the British Museum, the colouring is almost exactly the same. This may indicate that demand for this second edition was insufficiently high to warrant the employment of more than one colourist. 


Thomas Rowlandson, The Political Hydra, 1788(a)


Thomas Rowlandson, The Political Hydra, 1788(b)

Clearly, we need to test this theory out before jumping to any conclusions but a quick glance through the British Museum’s catalogue would certainly support the notion that some prints were more prone to variations in colouring than others. As such, I suspect that this is a subject that we will be revisiting again at some point in the future.