Another post inspired by my recent trip to Boston. I noticed that a large copy of this print had been used in one of the displays in the Old State House museum and it suddenly occurred to me that I had an original version sat in a drawer at home somewhere. And so here it is: The Political Cartoon for the Year 1775.
I purchased this print on eBay a couple of years ago. The seller had titled their listing somewhat clumsily (I’m being polite – they’d described it as an ‘American horse-racing print’) and consequently I was able to get this for a fraction of the price I’d normally have expected to pay for something which referenced the American Revolution. As a collector, these are possibly the moments that make life worth living.
It was produced for the The Westminster Magazine or The Pantheon of Taste, a society magazine published under the auspices of a number of different London publishers between 1773 and 1785. The magazine was founded with the intention of providing a high-brow alternative to the popular Gentleman’s Magazine, a publication which many felt was becoming overly preoccupied with commerce, industry and the bourgeois business of making money. The Westminster Magazine would therefore provide those who still clung to the aesthetic sensibilities of the true English gentleman with reading material which focused exclusively on the world of the arts, philosophy and the polite sciences.
The Cartoon was one of two plates that were engraved for the April 1775 edition of the magazine. The second being a portrait of the Scottish author and poet Dr Thomas Smollett by the engraver John Walker of Paternoster Row. Walker produced most, if not all of the prints used by the Westminster Magazine at this time and it’s likely that he was also responsible for etching this plate.
The plate was accompanied by the following text:
The principle figure is a full-grown young man in leading-strings [George III], mounted in a curule chair, supported by the people, yet swallowing the beginning of a period, “I glory in the name of Englishman”.
On one side of this lifeless charioteer, sits a Scorbutic Figure, in the habit of a Judge [Lord Mansfield], who constantly holds the reins, and who is furiously driving down a precipice, trampling over MAGNA CHARTA and the CONSTITUTION. Behind in a certain THANE [Lord Bute], scattering places, pensions and reversions.
The same side exhibits a groupe of coronated and mitred S—es, laying down their insignia of dignity for the purpose of feeding on Garbage, or picking up white sticks, blue or red rags, &c. &c. [A reference to Lord North and the Anglican Bishops who can be seen begging for titles and other honours as the royal chariot drives by]
The opposite side represents a sketch of the incorruptible virtue of modern electors, as practiced lately in the immaculate boroughs of Hindon and Shaftesbury; – from whence we may infer the characters of the elected, the majority of whom, consisting partly of desperate adventurers – Pimps – Waiters – Old Cloathesmen, &c. [This is a reference to political corruption. Hindon and Shaftebury were potwalloper boroughs in which every male householder was entitled to vote. This resulted in endemic corruption, with parliamentary candidates typically vying to outbid each other in the amount they were willing to pay the residents to vote for them. The 1774 general election had been particularly notorious, with voters in Hindon securing pledges of payments for anything up to 15 guineas – over £2,000 in today’s terms – in order to back a particular candidate.]
…The near prospect exhibits AMERICA in flames — UNIVERSAL BANKRUPTCY AND ANNIHILATION.
The print proved to be quite prophetic, as this edition of the Westminster Magazine was published shortly before news of the fighting at Lexington and Concord finally reached British shores. The British press and public would continue to exhibit widespread hostility towards the government’s policy of using military force to subdue the American rebels throughout the early stages of the War of Independence. It was not until the colonies declared themselves independent, and then concluded an alliance with the hated French, that British public opinion finally turned against the Americans.