I’ve been looking at the publication dates which appear on prints published by Samuel William Fores to see what they can tell us about the business of satirical printselling in late eighteenth-century London. This work started out as part of the research for a short biography of Fores that I’m hoping to put on the blog soon, but it rapidly outgrew its original footnote status and I think it now warrants a short post of its own.
The date of publication was engraved onto the majority of satirical prints that were produced in Britain during the eighteenth-century. This was partly done to conform with the requirements of the Engraving and Copyright Act 1734, which granted artists a 14 year copyright from the date of first publication, but also served a commercial purpose in advertising the newness and this desirability of a particular design. These conventions were not always strictly obeyed, with many publishers deliberately falsifying publication dates in order to make it seem as though their print had made it onto the market first or re-engraving dates onto old plates in order to disguise the fact that the print in question was a reissue. Generally speaking though, this does not appear to be the case and we have no reason to suspect that the vast majority of publication dates were not accurate.
So why do publication dates matter? Well firstly, they can tell us about the way in which satirical printselling business operated. Plot the distribution of a particular retailer’s publishing dates and you can infer something about the manufacturing process that brought those prints to market, the way in which that market may have operated, and even the types of people who may have been buying the finished product. Identifying patterns in the publication data could also reveal something about the social uses of graphic satire. If one could demonstrate that caricatures were published on a seasonal basis, and therefore were more likely to be reflective of events that occurred at a particular time of year, that would totally undermine the notion that historians should be using satirical prints to judge the popularity of a particular subject or event.
A quick note here on my methodology, which was crude to say the least. What follows is based on an analysis of the British Museum’s holdings of prints published by S.W. Fores between 1784 and 1794. This period covers the first ten years of Fores’ involvement in the satirical print publishing trade and the height of what has been referred to as the ‘golden age’ of British caricature. I transcribed the data from the British Museum’s online catalogue in order to allow it to be chronologically sorted and mapped against calendar dates. Most of this work was done manually and I suspect that further details are likely to emerge if one were to use a computer-based means of interrogating the data. I’d be happy to share my source data with anyone who feels that they are capable of doing that.
One of the most marked trends to appear from the data was an apparent seasonal variation in Fores’ publishing activity. His prints were far more likely to carry dates that fell sometime during the first six months of a given year, with the number of publication dates peaking between March and May before dropping off sharply during the summer. This pattern may be reflective of the passage of the London social season and the migration of England’s moneyed classes in and out of the capital over the course of the year. The data would seem to suggest that Fores’ publishing activities were often timed to coincide with the height of the social season, when he could be assured that there were more wealthy individuals around to buy his wares. Conversely, publishing caricatures became less attractive in the months after June because there were simply far fewer people in town who would be able to buy them.
This seasonal trend does appear to become less pronounced as we move into the 1790s. Publication dates begin to run on into the summer months and appear in the autumn, with the quiet period being increasingly confined to August and September each year. This may simply be indicative of the fact that Fores’ business was becoming more successful and therefore capable of sustaining the publication of prints on a more regular basis. It could also be reflective of a growing involvement in wholesale and international markets which reduced his reliance on the London market. Finally, it might signal the arrival of a new cohort of middle class consumers who were far less transient than their wealthier counterparts and could be relied on to buy prints throughout the year.
Another notable pattern to emerge from the data is the repetition of January 1st in Fores’ publication lines. In the ten years after 1784, Fores published a new print on this day every year apart from 1792, when the 1st fell on a Sunday and he postponed the publication of a new caricature to the following day. In some years the number of prints published on January 1st was considerable, with 1786, 1787 and 1794 seeing the publication of 5, 6 and 10 new plates respectively. There also seems to be a trend in the types of caricatures being published on New Year’s Day, with social satires and reissues of old plates being far more likely to appear then than at other times of the year.
To explain the significance of January 1st in Fores’ publishing calendar we need to consider how satirical prints may have fit into the broader context of his business. Fores always identified himself as a stationer rather than a printseller and the surviving records of other contemporary stationers indicate that Fores was unlikely to have derived more than 50% of his business from the sale of prints, books, picture frames, toys, medicines and all the other miscellanea that we know he dealt in. The core of his business activities would have been based upon the sale of writing implements, inks and particularly paper . This paper was often bound into writing books, diaries, ledgers, account books and similar items which were typically refreshed at the start of a new calendar year. Fores therefore chose to publish new satires at the start of January because he knew this was likely to be a busy period and he had more chance of selling them then. Looked at in this way, the sale of satirical prints appears to be an ancillary activity which was very much dependent on the sale of other related items such as books and stationary.
There’s also some evidence to indicate that Fores attempted to settle his customers down into routine patterns of consumption by trying to establish regular dates on which his prints would be published. The first day of the month appears consistently across the data and seems to have been a preferred date for publishing. It is also possible to identify short bursts of routine publishing activity, such as in June 1787, when Fores issued a new print by James Gillray on five successive Saturdays. Although the fact that such a regular run of satirical prints was not attempted again until 1798 perhaps indicates that Fores overreached himself and that the venture was not a commercial success.
Further work and a proper computer-based analysis would probably be required in order to make more of this data. For example, it would interesting to see if we could detect any evidence of dates bunching together that may indicate that the publication of a particularly popular print led to further prints being rushed out in quick succession. I would also like to see if we could map out whether particular types of prints were more likely to be published at certain times of year. This is all work for the future though. What I hope this short post has done is highlighted that some interesting data lurks within the publication lines of satirical prints and that further work in this area is a worthwhile avenue of historical enquiry.
- John Feather, John Clay of Daventry: The Business of an Eighteenth-Century Stationer, Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 37, (1984), pp. 198-209