If the printseller William Holland was still abed at six o’clock in the morning on Friday 27th May 1796, then he may well have been woken by the sounds of commotion on the street outside. A few hundred yards from Holland’s shop, close to the spot where the porticoed entrance to the Pantheon ballroom jutted out above the pavement of London’s Oxford Street, a fight was breaking out. The unlikely instigator of this early morning street brawl was a young clergyman. His would-be opponent was a somewhat bemused coachman, who had been driving a cart of Oxford Street when he saw the carriage ahead of him pull over and a post-boy leap down to ask directions of a pedestrian. Seconds later the clergyman leapt from the back of the carriage and began beating the boy viciously as he admonished him for his poor sense of direction. The spectacle prompted cries of censure from several bystanders, including the coachman, who pulled up in order to remonstrate with the vicar for his mistreatment of the child.
The man in question was the Reverend Lord Frederick Townshend, son of the Marquis of Townshend who was a distinguished military leader, former Viceroy of Ireland and amateur caricaturist. And unfortunately the coachman now found himself on the receiving end of his lordship’s rage. Townshend cursed the coachman, accusing him of concealing the whereabouts of the Bishop of Bristol’s London residence in order to keep him from an important meeting. The coachman protested that he’d never met the Bishop but this only drove the young clergyman to further paroxysms of rage. Flinging his coat to the ground and tearing his waistcoat and shirt off, the Reverend Lord demanded that the coachman step down from his wagon to fight. Sensing that the young curate had lost his mind, the coachman declined the offer, upon which Townshend gathered up his belongings and sauntered off down Oxford Street as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
A few seconds of silence may have hung over the small crowd of spectators as all eyes followed Townshend’s retreating form, but this was broken suddenly by the sound of a cry. One of the onlookers had taken the liberty of peering through the window of his carriage and saw a blood soaked body sitting within. The corpse was that of Lord Charles Townshend, the Reverend Lord Frederick’s brother and at 27 years old the newly elected MP for Great Yarmouth. The pair had been returning to London together after campaigning to secure Charles’s victory in a by-election. The back of Charles’s skull had been blown open, showering the interior of the carriage with blood, bone and brains. His mouth lolled open on his chest, revealing a second gunshot wound that had discharged a torrent of blood over his clothes. A surgeon would later concluded that the presence of two wounds and the lack of damage to the victim’s teeth indicated that a pistol loaded with two balls had been placed in his mouth before being fired. The post-boy admitted to having seen Lord Frederick throw a gun from the carriage an hour before they arrived in London but confessed that he hadn’t dared stop to ask the reason for this. A number of people now took off in pursuit of Frederick Townshend. Overtaking him at the junction of Swallow Street, they escorted him to the Marlborough Street Police Office where he was placed in custody. Townshend was later declared insane. The reasons for the murder remained a mystery but the press generally attributed it rumours that Townshend repeatedly indulged in heavy bouts of drinking whilst on the campaign trail with his brother and that this had left his mind in a disordered state by the time they left Yarmouth early that morning.
Of course we do not know whether William Holland actually witnessed this incident but it was certainly in keeping with the theme of a series of prints he published a little over a month later. Newton’s Dances of Death! consists of 24 small caricatures in which Death unexpectedly appears to strike down his victims. As the name implies, the images were the work of the young caricaturist Richard Newton (1777 – 1798), who would be visited by the Grim Reaper himself only two years later. Holland was responsible for adding text to the images (as was his habit). However, the text is absent from the version shown here. This suggests that this plate is either a test pressing of some kind, produced to check the engraving of the image before text was added to the plate, or that the text was added retrospectively in order to add interest to the design at a later date. Exerts from the edition published with text can be found in the BM collection. Surviving examples appear to be quite scarce.
Although representations of The Dance of Death date back to the early medieval period, Newton’s images owe more to Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1538 version in which Death has a well developed sense of irony and often dispatches his victims with an ironic quip. In one of Holbein’s engravings, Death sneaks up behind a judge, who is ignoring a poor man to help a rich one, and snaps his staff, the symbol of his power, in two. A chain around Death’s neck suggests he is taking revenge on corrupt judges on behalf of those they have wrongfully imprisoned. In contrast, Death seems to come to the aid of the poor ploughman, by driving his horses for him and releasing him from a life of toil; the glowing church in the background implying that this humble but virtuous man is on his way to heaven. Newton’s caricatures continue in a similar vein; with a miser, a greedy parson and a grave robber being amongst those whom the Grim Reaper is shown laying claim to. Although the images are perhaps difficult for modern viewers to relate to – few today would regard the prospect of infant mortality as a subject for humour – they reflect the cultural mores of a time in which premature death was a feature of everyday life and seems to have been dealt with in a much more matter of fact way.
Derby Mercury, 2nd July 1796