William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built was arguably one of the most influential pieces of political satire published in Britain during the early nineteenth-century. First published in December 1819, during the febrile months which followed the Peterloo Massacre, the pamphlet used the deceptively simple format of the children’s book in order to launch a blistering attack on the British political establishment. The illustrations were provided by the young caricaturist George Cruikshank and were executed as wood-engravings in order to reduce the cost of the finished product and ensure that it was accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Some 100,000 copies were thought to have been sold in the 18 months following its release, it spawned a plethora of contemporary imitators and was to continue to influence the aesthetic style of Radical political satire for at least a generation.
Given the contemporary commercial success enjoyed by The Political House… it’s not entirely surprising that the illustrations from the book were taken up by the pottery trade and transfer printed onto creamware. Nevertheless, I must admit to being somewhat surprised when I came across these two plates in an auction catalogue recently. After all, scenes of famine, civil unrest and Radical political satire are not normally the sort of things one expects to see staring back at you from the kitchen dresser. Perhaps this explains why these plates appear to be so rare?
They are decorated with transfers of cuts 8 and 9 from Hone and Cruikshank’s pamphlet, with each illustration being accompanied by a short quote from the text. The plate on the right, shows the starving people of Manchester (or England as a whole) watching in despair as their fellows are attacked by a rampaging group of yeoman cavalry (à la Peterloo) and is accompanied by the text: “What man seeing this, and having human feelings, does not blush and hang his head to think himself a man?” The plate on the left is decorated with an image of Sidmouth, Castlereagh and Canning in conversation. The text reads: “Dream after dream ensues and they dream that they shall still succeed and still are disappoint[ed].” A quote which Hone lifted from William Cowper’s epic poem The Task (1785) and which refers to the dogged pursuit of a deluded and worthless aim.
As I said before, these plates are rather rare and it appears as though a number of people were keen on acquiring them when they came up at auction the other week. In the end they sold for £850, meaning that the winning bidder will have to part with just over £1,000 once the auctioneer’s fee and any taxes are factored in.