Continuing the previous post’s theme of esoteric prints that reflect the relative intimacies of social life in the late eighteenth-century, I’d like to consider another unusual engraving by James Gillray. Love in a Coffin was published on 30th December 1784 by Thomas Trotter (of whom we will hear more in a moment). It’s a fine example of the artist’s early work which dresses scurrilous social satire up in the mantle of artistic and literary criticism. The image parodies the style of French Rococo art that was popular amongst illustrators of romantic fiction of the time. There are similarities between the design and Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Progress of Love (1771- 1773), a series four paintings in which scenes of romance are played out against a pastoral backdrop of picturesque ruins. However, as such scenes were also frequently parodied in contemporary pornography, it’s equally possible that Gillray drew his inspiration from more earthy material, deliberately introducing a strong sexual subtext to the piece that many of his customers would have acknowledged surreptitiously. The print also contains references to Tristram Shandy (1760 – 1767) and Swift’s A Journal to Stella (1766) .
The meaning of the caricature is largely lost on modern audiences but the beau monde of late eighteenth-century London would have recognised it as a satire on scandalous rumours of an illicit affair between the young Lady Elizabeth Sackville and an officer of a volunteer militia company. Confirmation of this can be found in the journal of Captain Edward Thompson, a Royal Navy officer who managed to carve out a successful literary career for himself by writing salacious poems celebrating the talents of London’s noted courtesans. On 1st January 1785, Thompson wrote:
The print of Love in a Coffin – was published today – the family hath taken much pains to suppress every thing on this subject – Lord Sackville took home [to Ireland] his Culprit truant daughter. I know no satire, no chastisement so severe against vice in people of fashion, as prints – for which I designed the above… .
This could lead us to the assumption that Thompson was responsible for designing Gillray’s print, but that seems unlikely given that Gillray’s version of Love in a Coffin purports to have been published two days prior to Thompson’s journal entry. The print that Thompson was probably referring to is one which appeared in the 1st January 1785 edition of The Rambler’s Magazine. An advertisement for which appeared in several newspapers at the time:
RAMBLER’S MAGAZINE, for 1784. And on Saturday, the first of January, 1785, will be published. Embellished with three very curious Copper-Plates, and another extraordinary Embellishment, viz. 1. LOVE in a COFFIN; or Irish Ardour too violent to be abated by STONE-SHELL… .
A more likely explanation is that Thompson’s engraving was the first version of the satire to make it to market (as his journal entry suggests that prior to the 1st January 1785 the Sackville family had been successful in preventing news of the scandal leaking out), that Gillray then spent several days fashioning a more accomplished version of the same image and this was then published with a false date in order to convey the impression of originality (a practice which was not uncommon at the time). I therefore suspect that the print was actually published sometime during early January 1785 and not on 30th December 1784 as the publication line claims.
This particular piece of deception may have been the work of the print’s publisher – Thomas Trotter. This is the only print of Gillray’s known to have been published by Trotter and his involvement in its production is perhaps telling. Gillray and Trotter studied at the Royal Academy together and are likely to have been acquaintances if not friends. Trotter was primarily a portrait engraver but also published a small number of prints on his own account. The fact that Gillray appears to have been forced to turn to such a small-time publisher perhaps suggests that his usual publishers were unwilling to touch a print which may have brought the wrath of Lord Sackville down upon them. This theory may be borne out to some extent by the existence of another caricature on the same subject – Isaac Cruikshank’s Love in a Stone Coffin – in which the publisher’s name and address appear to have been deliberately obliterated from the copperplate.
At this point I’d like to digress to briefly sketch out a biography of Thomas Trotter, about whom little appears to have been written. It’s not difficult to see why Trotter and Gillray may have become friends. Both men were the sons of Scottish immigrants with strongly religious bents. Trotter’s father was the Reverend Dr John Trotter (1728 – 1808), a noted figure amongst London’s Scottish community who presided over the Scottish Presbyterian church in Swallow Street for nearly forty years. A description of Reverend Trotter which appeared shortly after his death described him as:
a very respectable character [who] …embraced that scheme of doctrines which usually pass under the name of Calvinism… As a preacher his aim was to declare the whole counsel of God, and he insisted much on the peculiar doctrines of the gospel. These he explained with fidelity and affection, and took care to introduce something in every sermon with a view to consolation of the afflicted. He made himself well acquainted with his flock, visiting them frequently, especially in the seasons of distress .
Thomas was born in the tiny village of Ceres, Fife, in 1760 and had moved to London with his father in December 1769. The boy displayed a talent for drawing and possibly received some tuition in the subject from the artist and engraver William Blake before being apprenticed to a calico-printer. He entered the Royal Academy in 1779 and went onto establish himself as an engraver of contemporary and historical portraits. He also occasionally dabbled in publishing, producing Love in a Coffin as well as a somewhat-caricatured portrait of the radical Whig MP Charles James Fox (of whom Trotter himself was a supporter). We also know that he was resident at a variety of different addresses in and around Westminster, including Grosvenor Place (1788), Arabella Row (1790) and 15 Palace St, Pimlico (date unknown). The latter was described in an advertisement of 1829 as “brick built dwelling houses, desirably situate[d]…, each house contains eight rooms, with closets, cellarage, and garden.” .
Sometime around 1800 Trotter was involved in an unfortunate accident which brought his career as an engraver to an abrupt end. His obituary records that “he received a hurt in his eyes by the fall of a flower-pot from a chamber window” and from then until his death he was “employed in making drawings of churches and monuments, in various parts of the country, for Sir Richard Hoare and other gentlemen.” The notice also sadly observes that he left “a widow, and one daughter, totally unprovided for, to lament a good husband, a good father, and in every respect a worthy and honest man.” His engraving tools and other possessions were auctioned off in order to raise funds for his family in March 1803. .
- J. McCabe, The Triumph of Men: Reassessing Gender in Fragonard’s Progress of Love, (Boston, 2015), p. 27. For a lengthier description of the print see R. Godfrey, James Gillray, The Art of Caricature, (London, 2001), p. 62.
- BM Add. MS 46120: Capt Edward Thompson RN, Journal, 1783-85, 1st January 1785, . Thompson’s remarks disprove Dorothy George’s theory that the young lady at the centre of the print was a member of the Charlemont family. James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont, did not have any daughters and his wife would have been well into middle age by the time this print was published. George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville, had two sons and two daughters. His youngest daughter Elizabeth was born in 1760 and would have been about 24 years old. She was later married off to the Irish MP and landowner Henry Herbert (1756 – 1821)
- Suffolk Advertiser, 27th December 1784, Leeds Intelligencer, 28th December 1784. A copy of the print can be found in the British Museum’s online catalogue (HERE).
- W. Wilson, History & Antiquities of the Dissenting Churches, Vol. 4, (London, 1808), pp. 49 – 50.
- Morning Advertiser 2nd March 1829. The addresses at Grosvenor Place and Arabella Row appear in the Westminster Poll Books for 1788 and 1790 respectively (available online at London Lives). The Poll Books show that Trotter voted for the Tory candidate Sir Admiral Hood in 1788 before casting his vote for the radical Charles James Fox in 1790, which suggests that he may have been caught up in the initial burst of egalitarian enthusiasm which followed the outbreak of the French Revolution. The address in Pimlico appears in the publication line of his portrait of Fox which can before in the British Museum online catalogue (HERE). Trotter is referred to as Blake’s apprentice in a number of modern sources but I’ve been unable to find a contemporary source to corroborate this claim and it is entirely contradicted by his obituary. I have therefore speculated that if an association did exist then this is more likely to have been one of acquaintance or that perhaps Blake – who worked as a drawing master – was employed to tutor Trotter at some point during his youth.
- Trotter’s obituary was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 73, Part 1, (February 1803), pp. 199 – 200. The advertisement for the auction of his tools and remaining stock appeared in The British Press, 22nd March 1803.