It’s not unusual to come across eighteenth and early nineteenth-century satirical prints that have been modified in some way. Our ancestors treated these prints with far less reverence than we do, regarding them as tactile objects which could be cut, coloured, and otherwise amended after purchase. This interaction with printed satire is not something which has been particularly well documented by historians, probably because academics tend to rely on large institutional collections of perfectly-preserved caricatures, but it’s something with which most private collectors will be familiar.
Modern amendments are something altogether different though, and would presumably only occur as a result of either accidental damage or gross ignorance on the part of the owner. I will let the reader decide which of those criteria applies to a former owner of this skit-note; for they, at some point during their custodianship of this 200 year old object, evidently decided that it’s appearance would be enhanced by the addition of fuzzy-felt stickers spelling out the title “Compensation Wanted” across the top of the print. Sadly the aesthetic impact of their modification has somewhat diminished over time, as the felt is now starting to fall off, leaving patches of white sticky-back plastic visible underneath.
Let’s just take a minute to allow the classiness of that wash over us…
It’s a great shame, as this is an otherwise interesting and seemingly rather rare example of a satirical skit-note engraved by W.J. Layton of Oxford Street in 1810. The British Museum has a similar version of the note in its collection, but it’s of notably lower quality and is evidently a copy of Layton’s original edition.
The note carries a roundel imitating Josiah Wedgewood’s famous abolitionist logo, depicting a kneeling slave and the text “A Day, An Hour, of Virtuous Liberty is Worth a Whole Eternity in Bondage”, which is a quote from Joseph Addison’s Cato, a Tragedy (1712). The remaining text reads:
England Expects every Man to do his Duty 1810
I Promise to pays Messrs. Cambridgeshire, Ryecastle, & Co. Bearer on Demand TWO PENCE when Englishmens grievances be recompensed when Foreigners are Banished from our Land, & Willm. Cobbett cease to expound Britons Cause.
For the Govr. & Compy. of Integrity Innocence.
The image of the slave and the reference to money appear to have convinced the former owner of this print that it related to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Unfortunately, it’s got nothing to do with the slave trade or African slavery at all. The figure of the slave is entirely symbolic and probably refers to the perceived oppression of the British people. The satire is actually about the radical political journalist William Cobbett, who was jailed in June 1810 for attacking the government’s decision to garrison German soldiers on British soil and went on to publish a series of open letters attacking the economic hardships imposed on ordinary working people by the disruption of trade, war taxes, and inflation of the currency. The note promises that the bearer will be able to exchange their paper money for cold hard cash when the reformist cause is won, the King’s German Legion have been sent packing, and Cobbett has no more cause to complain about the government’s conduct.
Sadly, the misinterpretation of this image means that not only has someone spoiled an antique print, but that they’ve also spoiled it for entirely the wrong reason!
The notes’ coming up for auction in the US in a couple of weeks time. The estimate’s £200 – £350, but I’d want to be pretty certain that those sticky letters will come off before paying that kind of money for it.