The Prodigal Son’s Teapot c.1770

The Parable of the Prodigal Son was a recurrent theme in repertoire of the publishers of satirical prints during the third quarter of the eighteenth-century. This was a period in which the overt didacticism of Hogarth’s era was seemingly giving way to a more laissez-faire mood, in which the supposed excesses of the libertine were regarded as a source of wry amusement rather than an extensional threat to the moral health of the nation.

The popularity of the Prodigal Son as a theme for print-makers presumably owed something to the fact that the early plates in the series usually allowed customers to indulge themselves in scenes of rakish excess, safe in the knowledge that they were framed against the broader backdrop of a Christian morality tale and therefore remained within the bounds of contemporary notions of politeness. One only has to look at the two most famous examples of Prodigal Son prints from this period – published by Robert Sayer and Carington Bowles respectively – to note that the scenes of the wayward youth “Reveling with the Harlots” always seem to be rendered with far more enthusiasm than those of inevitable reconciliation that marks the son’s return to clean and sober living.

This Liverpool porcelain teapot indicates that the theme was popular enough to make the leap from print into other forms of material culture. It’s decorated with a transfer print adapted from Richard Purcell’s mezzotint’s after an original work by Sébastien Leclerc II which was published by Robert Sayer c.1765. The original print is one from a series of six engravings that tell the complete story of the Prodigal Son. As usual with pottery transfer printing, the design has been altered significantly to reflect the size and shape of the vessel and the comparatively limited skills of the engraver (who may have been a potter rather than trained draughtsman). I’ve provided an image of the original engraving from the British Museum collection below for comparison.


A Merry Tale of the Jealous Weaver c.1745

This weeks ‘random item spotted in an auction catalogue’ is a mid-eighteenth-century satirical broadside which offers some truly awful advice on how to build a successful marriage.

Two columns of rhyming couplets tell the tale of a jealous weaver who disguises himself as a friar in order to trick his wife into unwittingly revealing her alleged infidelities. The wife duly confesses to having slept with a young man, an old man and a friar, only to later reveal that she was aware of the ruse and that three men she claimed to have slept with were the weaver at different stages of his life.

It is accompanied by two engraved images showing the despairing weaver at work at his loom and then dressed as the monk taking his wife’s confession. Whilst the quality of the engraving leaves a lot to be desired when considered against the elevated standards of the period, the artist has included some nice touches, such as the lounging cat, which liven up the composition somewhat.

What is perhaps unusual, or at least unexpected, given that this print was likely to have been published sometime during the 1740s, when Britons were vociferous in expressing a loathing of Popery, is that both the weaver and his wife are obviously Catholics (because the Anglican Church doesn’t practice confession and doesn’t have friars) and therefore not characters we would expect to see portrayed sympathetically in caricature. So it’s possible that this may have been a reworking of an earlier European print, or perhaps the artist simply couldn’t make the joke work without casting his two principle characters as practicing Catholics?

The publication line reads “Printed and Sold by Samuel Lyne Map and Printseller at the Globe in Newgate Street. The BBTI lists Lyne as active from 1741 to 1748. The British Museum has a small number of his prints and other items listed in its catalogue and it would appear as though he specialised in the publication of humorous prints and other ephemera (including trade cards and watch faces). The paper contains a large “Pro Patria” watermark suggesting it was probably manufactured in Holland especially for export to Britain (Britain’s own paper industry being virtually non-existent in this period). It’s valued at £400 – £600, which seems like a plausible hammer price given its age and apparent rarity.

‘Old Q’ Snuff Box c.1800

This snuff box was the latest caricature-related item to catch my eye whilst browsing through sales catalogues. It’s decorated with an engraved copy of Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of the Duke of Queensburry (1725 – 1810). Queensbury was the archetypal dirty old man and his sexual exploits became the stuff of legend in late eighteenth-century London. By the 1790s he had become the subject of mocking caricatures, most notably Robert Dighton’s 1796 effort Old q-uiz the old goat of Piccadilly, which shows the elderly Duke, laden down with rejuvenating tonics (the contemporary alternative to Viagra), sidling up to a young prostitute on the street.

Interestingly, Rowlandson’s image of Old Q is only known to exist as a original work entitled A Worn Out Debauchee which now resides in the Paul Mellon Collection. The artist is thought to have produced his original version sometime during the first half of the 1790s. Given that Rowlandson sold his original works to the great and the good of late-Hanoverian London, and that it’s highly unlikely that a humble brassware manufacturer would have had access to the drawing room of A Worn Out Debauchee‘s first owner, there surely must have been a printed version from which this image was copied? If that was the case then it appears as though this printed edition is now lost, as I’ve been unable to locate any reference to it.

The Political House that Jack Built on Creamware



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.


New Book | The Politics of Parody — Enfilade

From Yale UP: David Francis Taylor, The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760–1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 320 pages, ISBN: 978-0300223750, $50. This engaging study explores how the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and others were taken up by caricaturists as a means of helping the eighteenth-century British public make […]

via New Book | The Politics of Parody — Enfilade