There’s an old joke which goes something like this: “I hear scientists have recently started using lawyers as opposed to rats for scientific experiments. They do this for two reasons; One, the scientists become less attached to the lawyers. And two, there are certain things that even rats won’t do.”
As it turns out, making jokes at the expense of the legal profession is a pastime which has a fine historical pedigree. Satirical prints lampooning the supposedly self-serving nature of litigators had been published in London since the late seventeenth-century and by the closing decades of the eighteenth-century they were commonplace items in London’s printshops. The enduring popularity of these images was such that many of them remained in print until the early 1800s, with the most popular being used to decorate pottery and other manufactured goods.
Which leads us to this rather nice but sadly slightly damaged linen handkerchief. It probably dates to sometime during the latter half of the 1790s and is decorated with a medley of printed text and images. The centre oval contains an picture of a crowded courtroom with the defendant and the plaintiff sitting either side. Both men appear to have been reduced to a state of abject boredom by the proceedings and convey the impression that they have long-since ceased to care about the cause of the litigation. The text which appears at either side of this image is an extract of the humorous poem The Lawyer and Justice which appeared in Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts, or Useful and Entertaining Passages in Prose (1790). It tells the story of a lawyer who is visited by the spirit of justice and admonished for his money-grubbing ways. It was presumably based on an image that first appeared on paper, although I’ve been unable to locate any surviving copies of the original version in order to confirm this.
Another rhyme appears above and below the central cartouche. The six short verses of prose recount the tale of two men who are arguing over an oyster. They call on a lawyer to settle the dispute, which he does by opening the oyster, giving either man a shell and taking the meat as his fee. The story is illustrated by the now partially-lost picture in the bottom left corner of the handkerchief with the title A Sharp Between Two Flats. This a copy of one of a pair of mezzotints satirising the legal profession which were published by Carington Bowles in 1791. It’s companion – A Flat Between Two Sharps – has been reproduced in the opposite corner of the handkerchief. And finally, the picture on the top right is a copy of an anonymous satire entitled Consolation which was published by Laurie & Whittle in December 1795. It shows a lawyer attempting to console his bankrupt client with the news that whilst he may have been reduced to his last guinea, the man he has taken to court has been left with nothing more than a farthing.
This handkerchief was offered up for sale here in the UK last week. The auctioneer’s estimate was £200 – £300, which seemed reasonable to me (even allowing for the damage) but in the end it didn’t sell. So it’s possible that we may see this item surface again at some point in the near future.