The Laughing Boy c.1780

The name James Whittle (1757 – 1818) will no doubt be familiar to readers of The Printshop Window. Whittle and his partner Robert Laurie (1755-1836) co-owned one of eighteenth-century London’s most well-known printshops. Laurie and Whittle inherited their business from Robert Sayer (1725 – 1794) but it origins could be traced back to a member of the Overton family, a dynasty of publishers that had sold books and prints in the city since the early sixteenth-century. Their shop at 53 Fleet Street must therefore have been regarded as an established feature of London’s topography; a reassuring beacon of continuity in a city that was hurtling towards modernity with growing rapidity. 

The radical publisher William Hone (1780 – 1842) certainly looked back on his youthful forays into Laurie & Whittle’s with a glow of nostalgia. In 1827, he included the following anecdote in the second volume of his Every-Day Book (1827):

At Laurie & Whittle’s printshop “nearly opposite St Dunstan’s Church, Fleet-street”, or rather at Jemmy Whittle’s, for he was the manager of the concern – I cannot help calling him “Jemmy”, for I knew him afterwards in a passing way when everybody called him Jemmy; and after his recollection failed and he dared no longer flash his merriment at The Cock at Temple Bar and The Black Jack in Portugal-street, but stood, like a sign of himself, at his own door, unable to remember the names of his old friends, they called him “poor Jemmy!”

I say,  remember at Jemmy Whittle’s there was always a change of prints in springtime. Jemmy liked, as he said, to “give the public something alive, fresh and clever, classical and correct!” One print, however, was never changed. This was “St Dunstan and the Devil“. To any who inquired why he always had “that old thing” in the window, and thought it would be better out, Jemmy answered, “No, no, my boy! That’s my sign – no change – church and state, you know! – no politics, you know! I hate politics! There’s the church, you know (pointing to St Dunstan’s), and here am I, my boy! It’s my sign, you! No change, my boy!

Alas, how changed: I desired to give a copy of the print on St Dunstan’s day in the first volume of The Every-Day Book, and it could not be found at “the old shop”*, nor at any printsellers I resorted to. 

Another print of Jemmy Whittle’s was a favourite with me as well as himself, for through every mutation of “dressing out” his window it maintained its place with St Dunstan. It was a mezzotinto called “The Laughing Boy”. During all seasons this print as exhibited “fresh and fresh”… I am now speaking of five and thirty years ago, when shop windows, especially printsellers’, were set out according to the season. I remember that in springtime Jemmy Whittle and Carrington Bowles in St Paul’s Churchyard, used to decorate their panes with twelve prints of flowers of “the months”, engraved after Baptiste*** and coloured “after nature” – a show almost, at that time, as gorgeous as “Solomon’s Temple in all its glory, all over nothing but gold and jewels”, which a man exhibited to my wondering eyes for a halfpenny. 

Although bits of this exert have been quoted in books about eighteenth-century caricature before, I took the liberty of reproducing almost all of it here as I think it raises a couple of interesting points. Firstly, there’s a nice bit of human interest in the fact that “poor Jemmy Whittle” clearly suffered some sort of cognitive decline in his final years that robbed him of his memory and left him “standing like a sign of himself” in the doorway of 53 Strand. One must assume that by this point the running of the business had been entirely handed over to Laure and / or Laurie’s son, who was to take on full responsibility for the shop after Whittle died in 1818. Whittle’s continued presence can be explained by his will, dated 1811, which indicates that he and his family lived in the same building as the printshop, as did Robert Laurie and his family and a number of their employees.

Secondly, while I was aware that Whittle eschewed political prints, the full quotation can be read in way that suggests Whittle was conservative rather than apolitical in his outlook. The decision to avoid publishing politics may therefore have had an implicitly political dimension to it. Hone was recalling the events of the mid-1790s, a time when the British government was locked in a literal and figurative war against French-inspired radical republicanism at home and abroad. The freedom of the press and public assembly were curbed in a deliberate effort to discourage ordinary men and women from engaging in political discourse. It’s hard not to see Whittle’s decision to avoid displaying political prints in his windows as endorsing this reactionary stance in some way. The remark “no change – church and state, you know! – no politics, you know!” certainly has echoes of the slogan “church and king forever” which was adopted as the rallying cry of the loyalist societies of this period. Whittle’s comment “no change” could certainly also be interpreted as having more than one meaning.

Finally, I didn’t know that printshops of this period were in the habit of changing their window displays in accordance with the season. It doesn’t come as a surprise, after all topicality was the lifeblood of the satirical print-trade and seasonal prints of the type Hone described could be wheeled out year after year without the need to invest in new designs. There is some circumstantial evidence that this practice extended to printshops with a more well developed connection to satirical publishing. Years ago I attempted to put all of S.W. Fores prints into a database to see if it was possible to analyse any trends in his patterns of publishing (a crazy idea – Fores published thousands of prints and I never got past the 1790s). One of the trends that did emerge from this rough and ready piece of data mining was the fact that Fores seems to have published large quantities of prints on 1st January each year. This makes sense when one remembers that a significant proportion of his business (possibly the most significant element) was taken up with the sale of stationary, which would include items like diaries, calendars and ledgers that would typically be purchased on or around the first day of the new year. A new window display of prints may therefore have been used as a lure to get customers into the shop to sell them stationary, or as a means of ‘upselling’ to customers who were mainly interested in buying a new diary or ledger for the year. This interesting historical titbit also makes one wonder if James Gillray’s famous ‘weather’ series was produced to give a seasonal flavour to Hannah Humphrey’s window displays?

* By the time Hone was writing Whittle was dead and Robert Laurie had retired, leaving the business shop in the hands of his son, Richard Holmes Laurie, who ran it until his death in 1858. Although copies of the Laughing Boy have survived, I’ve been unable to locate a copy of their version of The Devil and St Dunstan. One assumes it would have looked something like the woodcut version etched by George Cruikshank in the 1820s, which is linked in the article.

** The Laughing Boy was already at least twenty years old by the time Hone saw it in the mid-1790s. A copy of the print carrying Robert Sayer’s publication line can be found in the British Museum and it is listed in Sayer’s 1775 sales catalogue.

** The prints may have been taken from Bowles’s Florist (1777), an illustrated botanical encyclopedia “containing sixty plates of beautiful flowers, regularly disposed in their succession of blowing: to which is added an accurate description of their colours with instructions for drawing and painting them according to nature: being a new work intended for the use and amusement of gentlemen and ladies delighting in that art.”

*** Hone’s description suggests this was a raree show of some kind.