Queen Caroline in Caricature – October 1820

Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton

Figure 1: Hand-coloured cover of The Queen’s Alphabet. Horrida Bella! Pains and Penalties versus Truth and Justice (October/November 1820). Published by George Humphrey, printed by William Benbow. Lewis Walpole Library. Author’s photograph.

In October 1820 the trial of Queen Caroline drew towards a close and the political tensions of the nation reached a fever pitch. For over two months, normal parliamentary business had been paralysed by the daily spectacle of Caroline’s procession to the House of Lords. As George IV and Prime Minister Lord Liverpool became increasingly nervous about the verdict, Caroline’s supporters grew ever more vocal. They massed in huge numbers outside parliament and made weekly journeys on foot to Caroline’s residence in west London where they would present Addresses from all corners of the kingdom (Figure 2). The ritualistic recitation of the Addresses and Caroline’s replies were acts of political theatre with roots in popular carnival, revolutionary fêtes, and the mass platform. This was the vox populi at its most resonant and effectual: it was a literal utterance which used high-minded constitutional discourse to demand social and political justice, and it was a sublime spectacle of deafening volume and collective force. The sheer din of popular protest contrasted strikingly with Caroline’s mute role in her trial,[1] and this disjunction redoubled the value of press reportage which recirculated and editorialized these direct exchanges between the queen and the people. This triangular communication-circuit (monarch-press-people) was at the core of the Georgian understanding of the political efficacy of public opinion. The free press was the guarantor of liberty as it provided a conduit of expression between the rulers and the ruled and, in theory at least, ensured mutual accountability.[2] But how did caricature fit into this model? The Caroline affair has been consistently celebrated as one of the first great triumphs of public opinion in British politics, but far less attention has been given to the contribution of visual satire to this achievement.

Figure 2. Addresses to Her Majesty Queen Caroline Presented at Brandenburgh House 30 Oct. 1820. British Museum.

To explore this issue further, we can turn to one of the more ambitious caricatures of this phase of the controversy: The Queen’s Alphabet. Horrida Bella! Pains and Penalties versus Truth and Justice. This satirical pamphlet was a cross between old and new styles. It clearly owed an allegiance to the format pioneered by William Hone and George Cruikshank, particularly in its parodying of a child’s primer, but it was twice the usual size, comprising 25 images across 51 pages. The use of copperplate engraving, rather than cheaper woodcuts, made it expensive, retailing at 2s 6d compared to the standard one shilling. This implies that it was designed to sell at the luxury end of the market for this new populist genre. Even though the printer was the radical William Benbow, the publisher was George Humphrey, nephew of Gillray’s Hannah Humphrey, and this pedigree may explain the decision to put some commercial distance between himself and Hone.[3] Although Horrida Bella! is avowedly pro-Caroline, there is a shift away from triumphal images of the queen towards more conventional, masculinist Whig ideals of heroic press freedom and statesmanship.[4] The cover design (Figure 1) shows Caroline’s lawyers Brougham and Denman symbolically slaying their government opponents Gifford and Copley with the legal weapons of Truth and Justice. The mock-epic slapstick is engaging but has an underlying gravitas which is buttressed by two allusions to Virgil’s Aeneid. The well-educated (assumed male) reader with a knowledge of the classics would recognise the epic’s opening sentence ‘Arma virumque cano’ (‘Arms and the man I sing’) and the title phrase ‘Horrida Bella’ (‘horrid wars’) which marks the moment when Aeneas is told by the sybil that he will have to fight to achieve greatness. The reader without this education could still be familiar with ‘Horrida Bella’ as it was a widely used catchphrase and had been incorporated into several earlier caricatures.[5]

This reassertion of male control over Caroline’s fate is also evident in the ensuing narrative. Caroline figures prominently in only three scenes, two of which rehash her wedding and her refusal of the government bribe. Most of the plates are focused on the very podgy king’s farcical antics, and this comic display is in stark contrast to the real George’s disappearance from public life during the course of the trial.[6] For the omniscient caricaturist, there were no safe hiding places, no invisibility, and no invincibility. George is made to perform his shameless and shameful shenanigans like a circus clown. Caricature was an iconoclastic medium, hijacking and repurposing the elevated symbols and imagery of power. But in order to influence public opinion, this radical aesthetic had to mesh with other cultural and political institutions. One of the ways caricature did this was hardwired into it: by reacting to topical news stories, it functioned like a phantasmagorical extension of the press.[7] But it also, intriguingly, built representations of freedom of expression into its narratives. In Horrida Bella! there are some vivid imaginings and idealizations of Georgian democracy in action. The absence of Caroline and female agency from most of these images exposes the entrenched gender conservatism of the public sphere, though many other caricatures did celebrate Caroline’s power and elevated her to a sublime symbol of liberty, truth and justice.[8]

Horrida Bella! draws on a range of satirical techniques. In addition to its use of bodily distortion (the root meaning of caricature) to demean and deflate the king, it deploys both naturalistic and fantasy modes in its alternative depiction of actual events. Taking realism first, some of its scenes seem at first glance like straightforward reportage. Figures 3 and 4, for example, show two facets of crowd power: intimidation and adulation. Figure 3 depicts the Duke of Wellington fleeing from his London home Apsley House as a gathering of angry protestors pelt him with brickbats. Wellington was indeed regularly booed when he arrived at the House of Lords, but the relocation of his unpopularity to Apsley House rubs salt into former national hero’s wounds. Apsley was acquired by Wellington from his older brother in 1817 and transformed into his London base during his honeymoon period after Waterloo. But this also made the house a convenient target for the radical protest, and Figure 3 captures powerfully the turning point in Wellington’s public reputation and celebrity (in later conflicts such as Reform Bill crisis, crowds would regularly break the windows of the house).[9] Nothing could be more humiliating for the ex-general than to be shown in retreat, and his equestrian flight parodies portraits of mounted conquerors and kings (most famously, perhaps, Napoleon, whose nude statue was a prize exhibit inside the house).[10] The barely visible line of soldiers inside Hyde Park hints at retaliation and eerily anticipates the tragic denouement of the Caroline affair in the summer of 1821. The canny reader-viewer would also know that just beyond the frame of the image was the site of the recently unveiled and much-ridiculed statue of Wellington as Achilles.[11] The text explains why Wellington deserves this mock-heroic deflation and charivari: he is one of ‘Tyranny’s Fags’.

Figure 3. ‘N’, from Horrida Bella! Lewis Walpole Library. Author’s photograph.

Figure 4, on the other hand, shows the majesty of the people and Her Majesty with the people. Again, the image seems to be unsullied reportage, a visualization of Caroline’s mobbed public appearances which had been a dominant feature of her story from the moment she reappeared on British soil. In fact, the image utilizes artistic conventions of spectacle pioneered by William Hogarth in The March to Finchley and other works, namely the presence of spectators within the scene (especially at upper storey windows, but also on the edges of the canvas), the motley assortment of assembled social types (here, importantly, both men and women are gesticulating and cheering, though the women retain their bonnets), and the immersion of the central figure within the crowd.[12] The deafening sound of acclamation which all press reports highlighted is registered in the open mouths of Caroline’s adoring fans, though here there are no speech bubbles (another unique feature of caricature) to reinforce this effect. The text reveals that V stands for ‘Virtue displayed’, and although this encomium refers primarily to Caroline, it also encompasses the moral agency of the crowd and even the elevated function of visual satire.

Figure 4. ‘V’, from Horrida Bella! Lewis Walpole Library. Author’s photograph.

While it was relatively easy for caricature to spectacularize the crowd by appropriating established visual tropes, the glorification of the press proved more of a challenge. There was limited satirical mileage in the material form of print culture, and even less scope for visualizing and dramatizing the internalized processes of reading. This explains why most caricatures appropriated the heraldic and allegorical devices which newspapers themselves used to elevate their mission. The most important of these symbols was the hand-operated printing press which embodied the ideals and heritage of press freedom.[13] This humble piece of technology retained its revolutionary symbolic value, particularly for radical movements, long after the introduction of steam-printing. This temporal disjunction is apparent in Horrida Bella!’s slightly awkward representation of the heroic press in Figure 5. The use of a naturalistic style means that other visual means have to be found to animate the power of the inert technology which dominates the scene, hence the reliance on human drama (the four cowering officials on the left), the oratorical posture of the printer (a cross between street crier, political agitator and Caroline devotee) and the large wall posters which display standard eulogies to press freedom and Carolinite propaganda. The incongruous choice of the Times (which was actually printed by steam press, unlike more radical newspapers which clung zealously to the hand-operated icon) would seem to accord with Humphrey’s cautious politics, but there is more to this tableau than meets the eye. Perhaps unintentionally, the framing of the stentorian printer by the pasted pages of the Times alludes to one of radical print culture’s most aesthetically impressive interventions into the Caroline campaign.

Figure 5. ‘P’, from Horrida Bella! Lewis Walpole Library. Author’s photograph.

On 11 October 1820, a deputation of 138 compositors and printers presented to Caroline an Address ‘From the Letter-Press Printers of London and its Environs’ with 1,345 signatures. As was usual, the Address and Caroline’s reply were published in full in the Times a few days later, and this is the report to which Horrida Bella! may be alluding. But this was only one step in the remarkable story of this particular Address. Caroline was tremendously popular with skilled workers, and the different trades pulled out all the stops to make their tributes distinctive and memorable. During October, the streets of London teemed with thousands of workers displaying their wares. The capital was transformed into an open-air gallery of radical artisanal beauty. Carpenters and bakers displayed decorative banners showing Caroline crowned by Fame and guarded by the British Lion, while glass workers sported superlative hand-finished glasswork including stars and medallions.[14] Not be outdone, the printers presented not one, but three increasingly sophisticated versions of their Address. The first version was engraved on parchment, probably to evoke the gravitas of official documents and parliamentary legislation. The second version was altogether more aesthetically pleasing, printed on white satin edged with white silk (an echo of Caroline’s penchant for dressing in white to emphasise her purity and virtue), and mounted on an ivory roller. The third version took the craft of the compositor to new heights by mounting the text in an elaborate mosaic frame comprising over 26,000 moveable pieces of metal. In December 1820[15] William Hone reproduced the third version as a print, bringing the whole reprographic process full circle, and making this impressive ‘Specimen of the Typographic Art’ available to the wider public (Figure 6). The design reworks familiar architectural and heraldic conventions but adds two significant features: Caroline’s radiant crown which caps the triumphal arch of Truth and Justice, and – even more importantly – the Stanhope printing press which adorns the massive, ornate pediment. This is a potent visual restatement of the Address’s sonorous appeal to ‘the irresistible force of public opinion, directed and displayed through the powerful medium of a FREE, UNCORRUPTED, AND INCORRUPTIBLE, BRITISH PRESS’.

Figure 6. William Hone, The Printer’s Address to the Queen (December 1820). Special Collections, Adelphi University. Author’s photograph.

Tracing the evolution of the Printers’ Address alongside Horrida Bella! shows us that the iconic symbol of the free press was at the forefront of the popular political imagination. The image of the hand-operated printing press privileged the labour of production over the more genteel skills of journalism and editing, and in this respect it could function as a symbol of popular sovereignty and the ‘incorruptible’ national character of the British people. Its staunch materiality and reassuring fixity provided an antidote to the bulging, fetid green bag of Old Corruption. Unsurprisingly, the emblem figured in many pro-Caroline caricatures, including Hone’s stunning transparency of her victory in November 1820 (to be considered in next month’s post). But what these satires reveal is that the sacrosanct printing press could only convey the full emancipatory force of freedom of expression though dramatic heightening and the assistance of other symbols or narratives of unfettered public opinion. A good example of this can be found in Horrida Bella! The pamphlet was published just days before the House of Lords verdict, and the air was thick with expectation. For Caroline’s supporters the legal outcome was morally and politically irrelevant, but in order to exert some last-minute pressure on public opinion, Horrida Bella! staged its own conclusion to the trial (Figure 7).

Figure 7. ‘Z’, from Horrida Bella! Lewis Walpole Library. Author’s photograph.

This scene goes way beyond the triumphal cover design and shows the Tory cabinet and their tainted Italian evidence being blasted out a giant green bag by the searing beam of the ‘Lens of Truth’. The comic violence mitigates the seditious imagery of a revolutionary overthrow – these victims of justice are, after all, ‘Zanies, in frantic despair/ Their bag of combustion blown into the air’ – but the more interesting aspect is the giant lens which substitutes for Caroline’s presence. Combining the traditional emblem of the Mirror of Truth with Enlightenment devices such as the divine eye and torch, all of which were widely used in caricatures,[16] the huge, autonomous magnifying glass stands for what Caroline, in her reply to the printers, calls the ‘accelerating power’ of the free press: ‘Public Opinion is the concentrated force of many enlightened minds, operating through the medium of THE PRESS. Hence the Public Sentiment has been directed, and the Public Feeling excited, till the People have risen up like one man, in vindication of my rights’. Truth may be ‘irresistible’, but ‘without some adventitious aid’ it ‘moves with a slow pace’. Once it is propelled by the press, however, it achieves more ‘in a day, than mere oral teaching could in a century’, and its power can even make the Holy Alliance ‘turn pale with dread’. These are stirring sentiments and the language is finely tuned for Caroline’s supporters, but the declamation still occludes the specifically visual agency of the ‘lens’ of Truth. Caricature literalizes the optical metaphors of enlightenment and political justice: as seen in Figure 6, what the Lens of Truth allows its audience to see is not in fact the ‘truth’ but a populist fantasy of retribution. Like a raree-show, the public is treated to an entertaining visual performance which riffs on the high-minded radical principles of free expression.

One further example from Horrida Bella! will demonstrate how visual satire ‘excited’ the popular political imagination through its unique animating power. The image for ‘S’ (Figure 8) shows George cowering before a radiant automaton made up almost entirely of slabs of the queen’s Addresses, except for the feet which are labelled ‘Feeling’ and ‘Sense’ and the head which is inscribed ‘Queen’. This comic robot is a parodic Frankenstein’s monster confronting its master with the fruits of his misdemeanours: ‘S, for the shaking he felt in his nerves,/ That told what a cowardly action deserves’. For the viewer, however, this is a delightful, pantomimic enactment of the return of the repressed. The emanation is a paper prodigy that connects the (true) monarch to ‘Public Sentiment’ through the material operations of print culture.[17] The juvenile theatricality is perfectly attuned to George’s ‘cowardly’ antics. Having refused to listen to the pleas of his wife and the people, he now faces a phantasmal archive of protest: as the text declares, ‘Vox Populi is now Vox Dei we know’. His nemesis is the allegorical figure of Caricature itself, and he is no match for its ‘irresistible’ blend of ‘fantasy, frivolity and rage’.[18] George started the ‘horrida bella’, and reaps the satirical whirlwind.

Figure 8. ‘Z’, from Horrida Bella! Lewis Walpole Library. Author’s photograph.

Ian Haywood and Cristina S. Martinez have curated an exhibition on the Queen Caroline affair for the Wilhelm Busch Museum of Caricature, Hannover, Germany. For further information, see the museum website: https://www.karikatur-museum.de/en/

[1] Thomas Creevey drew a comparison between the Wednesday processions to Brandenburgh House and the mass gathering at Peterloo: ‘the scene which caused such alarm at Manchester is repeated under the very nose of parliament and in a tenfold degree more alarming’ (cited in Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 283).

[2] William Wickwar, The Struggle for the Freedom of the Press 1819-1832 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1928); J. Ann Hone, For the Cause of Truth: Radicalism in London 1796-1821 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 307-19; Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Chapters 1-2.

[3] Humphrey would later produce a string of anti-Caroline satirical prints as part of the loyalist counter-offensive of 1821. These will be looked at in future posts.

[4] See Tim Fulford, Romanticism and Masculinity: Gender, Politics and Poetics in the Writing of Burke, Coleridge, Cobbett, Wordsworth, De Quincey and Hazlitt (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 161-8.

[5] For example: William Dent, The City Champion, or the Guildhall Merry Uproar (6 October 1785; British Museum Satires 6813); James Gillray’s Effusions of a Pot of Porter; Or Ministerial Conjurations for Supporting the War (29 November 1799; British Museum Satires 9430).

[6] The satirist had a field day with this error of judgement on the king’s part. One response was a series of handbills offering a reward of £0, 000 (in other words, nothing) for the return of a missing ‘infirm elderly gentleman’ who has abused his wife and gone ‘astray’ (several examples are in the Special Collections at Adelphi University). This idea first originated as a mock advertisement at the end of Hone and Cruikshank’s pamphlet Non Mi Ricordo (September 1820)and it was an instant hit.

[7] For a fuller exploration of this, see my book Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[8] See previous posts for an exploration of this theme. In October 1820, a good example of the glorification of Caroline’s power is Queen Caroline: Britain’s Best Hope!! England’s Sheet-Anchor (John Fairburn, 29 October 1820; British Museum Satires Undescribed; Lewis Walpole Library).

[9] See Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Chapter 3.

[10] I refer of course to Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801-5).

[11] See George Cruikshank, Making Decent —-!! (George Humphrey, 8 August 1822; British Museum Satires 14383).

[12] See Ronald Paulson, Hogarth. Volume 2: High Art and Low 1732-1750 (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1992), 357-82.

[13] Gilmartin, Print Politics, 24, 69-70.

[14] Times, 27 October 1820.

[15] The design was copied with slight variations for two additional Addresses from the printers: see BM 1868-8-8-13717 (18 December 1820) and BM 1868-8-8-13717 (29 May 1821).

[16] See, for example, The Triumph of Innocence over Perjury, Persecution and Ministerial Oppression (S. W. Fores, 5 November 2020; British Museum Satires 13974). This print will feature in the November 1820 post.

[17] A similar automaton consisting of an upright, radiant printing press with human legs can be found in Hone and Cruikshank’s The Political Showman – At Home! (1821). Its design may have been influenced by Horrida Bella!

[18] The phrase is used by Marcus Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture 1790-1822 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 263.

Queen Caroline in Caricature – August 2020

Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton

Figure 1. William Hone and George Cruikshank, The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder: A National Toy (15 August 1820). Wilhelm Busch Museum.

Queen Caroline’s eagerly anticipated trial for adultery began in the House of Lords on 17 August 1820. It is no understatement to say that the eyes and ears of the nation were focused on this bizarre but compelling spectacle. The event generated an unprecedented degree of publicity, media attention and public scrutiny. A few days before the proceedings opened, newspapers published an open letter from Caroline to the king (which was probably penned by William Cobbett) in which she denounced the Bill of Pains and Penalties as ‘a perversion and mockery of the laws’ (Times, 14 August 1820). She condemned the government’s ‘unprovoked and unparalleled persecution’ as the culmination of a ‘malignant and unrelenting’ campaign which began when the king (then Prince of Wales) followed his own ‘inclinations’ and abandoned her in 1796 after less than a year of marriage. Any follower of her story would know that the word ‘inclination’ was a reference to the king’s separation letter which had also been widely reproduced and which anchored this controversy in an earlier, foundational period of political and social unrest, the revolutionary 1790s. Seen in this longer framework, the trial was a highly symbolic illustration of the British state’s ‘unrelenting’ resistance to democratic reform. Caroline’s supporters sensed that the tide of history was on their side,[1] and their leverage over popular public opinion went into overdrive. The scale and intensity of the campaign increased dramatically, with daily massed protests outside parliament and constant reporting of the trial in a range of formats including newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, and whole books.[2] Significantly, caricature also stepped up a gear.

Two days before the trial opened, William Hone and George Cruikshank published their illustrated pamphlet The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder (Figure 1).[3] Hone and Cruikshank had invented this new satirical genre the previous year when they responded to the Peterloo massacre with the phenomenally successful Political House that Jack Built. To broaden the appeal of caricature, they borrowed the populist visual style and reprographic technique of emblem books and fairy tales, using wood-engraving to enable the simultaneous printing of image and letter-press text. This also kept the price down to the relatively inexpensive one shilling, and although this was beyond most working-class consumers, the new format was a smash hit with the middle classes who could now enjoy up to twenty vignettes for the price of one single-sheet caricature. As we shall see, the textual element of the new genre was also deceptively complex and multi-layered, comprising a sub-title, a literary epigraph, and a playful, parodic narrative. For the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder, Hone and Cruikshank went one step further (pun intended) and provided at no extra cost another, simplified version of the satire they called a ‘toy’ (Figure 2). This was a small, stiff, cardboard ladder which resembled in every respect a children’s plaything, though its cultural allusiveness was, as we might expect, decidedly more nuanced.

Figure 2. The ‘toy’ version of the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder. Special Collections, Adelphi University. Author’s photographs.

The delightful cover design of the pamphlet was firmly in step (forgive the second and last pun) with the defiant public mood. It shows a triumphal Caroline sitting cross-armed on top of a stepladder, the rungs of which are inscribed with 14 different stages of matrimony. She looks down on the pitiful figure of George who has tumbled backwards after breaking the penultimate downward step called ‘Coronation’. The clear message is that George will get his comeuppance (come-downance?) for his misdemeanours: in other words, moral and satirical logic dictates that justice will prevail, even if this means comically flirting with seditious iconography. In advance of the trial opening, the image not only declares Caroline’s innocence but exacts its own populist punishment on the errant monarch. In the event, the conclusion of the controversy was far less sanguine, but that could not have been foreseen in the summer of 1820. In cinematic terms, the design is both a trailer and a spoiler as it gives away the (happy) ending. With this reassuring denouement in place, the reader-viewer could enjoy this refreshing satirical review of what was by now a familiar, hagiographic story of an injured, elevated woman.

The use of the step ladder as the central symbol shows Cruikshank’s brilliance in revitalising and repurposing familiar visual motifs. He drew on two well-known precedents. The most obvious precursor was the Matrimonial Ladder, an existing genre in polite Georgian culture which reminded the middle classes about the pitfalls of marriage.[4] Cruikshank was almost certainly parodying decorous versions of this moralistic device such as a greeting card sold by Rudolph Ackermann which shares some of the same ‘-tion’ suffixed abstract nouns on the rungs (Figure 3).[5] But the more important point is that the pyramidal structure of the step ladder provided a symmetrical, bathetic, two-stage narrative: a rise and fall of the fortunes of the protagonists with a pivot point at the apex. For this schema to work, one has to imagine walking up one side of the ladder and down the other, an unlikely procedure in reality but nevertheless one that distinguished the step ladder from the regular, linear ladder which requires a reverse or backward motion to descend. In its non-satirical guise, the turning point is not especially dramatic (‘Dissension’, ‘Rumination’) and the squabbling wife and husband are kept separated in the borders. When the genre was transferred to caricature, Hone and Cruikshank abandoned such polite restraint.

Figure 3. This greeting card depicting a Matrimonial Ladder was sold by Rudolph Ackermann from his Repository of the Arts shop on the Strand, c. 1814-18. Victoria and Albert Museum.

To adapt this format for Caroline’s more tempestuous, tendentious, and cyclical story, Cruikshank moved the players centre stage where they could confront each other directly. This is most clear in the redacted ‘toy’ version where Caroline and George inhabit the rectangular black spaces of the Ackermann design. The incremental rise and fall of the original sequence (from ‘Admiration’ to ‘Separation’) is also disrupted to take account of the more complex, iterative, and confrontational structure of the royal marriage in which Caroline suffers at least three separations (from husband, daughter and country) on the upward slope. Contrastingly, her fortunes are in the ascendant on the downward side after she returns to Britain. It is this moment, the switch from ‘Emigration’ to ‘Remigration’, which forms the apex of the ladder and her transformation from victim to heroine. It is also the beginning of the end for George who suffers one humiliation after another, terminating in an empty coronation and the ‘Degradation’ of a becoming a national clown chastised by Britannia. Unlike the even-handed symmetry of the Ackermann ladder in which both participants suffer equally, Cruikshank’s partisan narrative has a clear winner and loser.

The other source that Cruikshank drew on was the political ladder, a motif used in numerous satirical prints from the late eighteenth century onwards.[6] In Popular Frenzy; or, the Demolition of St Stephs Chapel (1784), for example, we see the House of Commons under attack from William Pitt and his Tory ministers (Figure 4). In their bid to unseat the Fox-North Coalition, the Tories use a siege ladder whose rungs are inscribed with the word ‘Address’, a reference to the popular national support for this constitutional coup. In this pro-Whig print, the clear implication is that populism is a manipulative political tool which whips up public opinion into reactionary hysteria, anarchy, or ‘Frenzy’, but it is also important to remember that Addresses were one of the main levers of support for Caroline: one political party’s unruly ‘mob’ is another’s democratic base. The print also evokes a key moment in British political history when the Tories began their long period of rule, the consequences of which were still being unravelled in 1820. In this respect, Cruikshank’s ladder may also allude to another recent injustice which he helped to expose: the execution of hundreds of people for unwitting banknote forgery.[7] The cover design for a satirical pamphlet called Satan’s Bank Note (1819) shows Castlereagh as a hangman standing on a step ladder (Figure 5). The devil sitting on the gallows echoes Caroline’s position atop the matrimonial ladder, and the parallel provides a wittily diabolical analogy for her power over a king who mistreats his subjects.

Figure 4. Popular Frenzy; or, the Demolition of St Stephs Chapel (1784). British Museum Satires 6438.
Figure 5. Satan’s Bank Note (c.1819) British Museum Satires 14206.

Like the Political House that Jack Built, the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder spawned a host of imitations by supporters and opponents, and Cruikshank was even paid handsomely enough to produce an anti-radical response to his own design, The Radical Ladder.[8] The huge success of the illustrated pamphlet genre shows that the public appreciated this new, rich interplay between satirical image and text. Illustration was not yet regarded as subservient or secondary to the text, and its evolving status can be seen in the subtitle of the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder which refers somewhat confusingly (for modern eyes) to ‘scenes’, ‘illustrations in verse’ and ‘cuts’. The phrase ‘illustrations in verse’ implies that the primary appeal of the satire was visual, but another aspect of the cover design shows the importance of textual agency. The dominant visual image of the ladder is flanked by two quotations which embed the pamphlet in both reportage and literary tradition. The first is taken from one of the Queen’s widely disseminated replies to the thousands of Addresses sent to her and stresses the radical unity between her cause and the British people. The second is from Act 3 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in which the disreputable Pompey Bum is about to be sent to jail for visiting a brothel. The two quotations amplify and deepen the image’s depiction of heroinism and villainy. As the queen is elevated to a national icon of political justice, the king is further degraded and humiliated by the national bard.

On the inside pages, this textual interplay is enhanced by the addition of the main narrative. There is no knowing if readers consumed the images or texts first, though my hunch is for the former, especially as we know that hand-coloured versions of the pamphlets were available. But regardless of which way round the page was read, the process of decoding each component and fitting the whole together like a puzzle must have provided hours of illuminating entertainment. ‘Accusation’ and ‘Publication’, the two most up-to-date scenes, are particularly rewarding in this respect. Unlike the depictions of these two stages in the ‘toy’, which are limited to exquisite slapstick confrontations between Caroline and George, the pamphlet scenes are much richer extrapolations of government’s machinations against Caroline. Though reduced in scale, the sophistication and detail of these designs comes close to evoking the virtuosity and spectacular effects of single-print caricatures.

Figure 6. William Hone and George Cruikshank, ‘Accusation’. From The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder.

‘Accusation’ (Figure 6) reimagines George as a watchman standing outside the door of one of Caroline’s residences. He holds a pole on top of which is a green bag entitled ‘Beware of the Report of a Bad House’; in other words, this is a house of ill-repute and Caroline is little better than a prostitute. On the other side of the king is his lantern containing a leech, a reference to Sir John Leach who led the ‘Milan Commission’ into Caroline’s guilt. George’s pole bisects the scene and gives an antithetical emphasis to the right-hand side of the image which contains Caroline’s defiant response. Backed by her two lawyers Henry Brougham and Thomas Denman, she leans out of an open window and puts a torch marked ‘Defence’ to the green bag. Although her face is stern, her reticule or string-drawn purse which dangles over the window sill has a face which smiles at the viewer. This minor detail is the punctum of the cartoon as it is a self-reflexive nod towards the power of satire which simultaneously condenses and rebuts the sexual slurs against Caroline. The grinning visage, reminiscent of Momus the god of mockery, hints at the presence of a mischievous pun on the idea that reticules or ‘ridicules’ were evidence of loose morals. As the text declares, with lashings of genital innuendo, ‘his wife held her ridicule at his “Report”’ – a witticism that gains added force and poignancy from the obscene slang term ‘Burning Shame’ that hovers prominently over the image.[9] The spry purse also evokes her refusal to be bought off with a £50,000 allowance. For all his attempts to perform masculine authority, George is upstaged by an assertive woman who wields the torch of justice and the carnivalesque weapon of ‘ridicule’.

The two quotations from Cymbeline add further levels of irony and interpretation to this already rich melange. The first, ‘I will kill thee, if thou dost deny/Thou hast made me a cuckold’ is spoken by Posthumus Leonatus in Act 2 Scene 4. He is reacting to Iachimo’s claim that, in response to a bet, he has slept with Leonatus’s wife Imogen. Leonatus’s Othello-like credulity and rage about his wife’s alleged infidelity is a subtle comment on George’s calculating and hypocritical determination to discredit and dishonour his wife. As he admits to himself, the church will not grant a divorce ‘If my own hands are dirty’ – which of course they are, stained indelibly by filthy lucre (the original, mercenary reason for the marriage, as shown in ‘Qualification’ and ‘Declaration’) and serial adultery (as shown in ‘Alteration’). In other words, he does not even ‘qualify’ to be a Shakespearean wife-killer. The other quotation, from Act 3 Scene 2, links to the xenophobic attacks on the Italian witnesses who were called to testify against Caroline. The stereotype of the avaricious, shifty and treacherous Italian achieved prominence in the first few weeks of the trial when her ex-servant Theodore Majocchi repeatedly answered Brougham’s questions with ‘Non mi ricordo’ (I don’t remember), a refrain that became the unofficial logo of the proceedings and the title of another Hone-Cruikshank pamphlet.[10] To rub in the point, the lines in Cymbeline are spoken by the loyal servant Pisanio who refuses to believe the allegations against Imogen. Pisanio’s next words can easily be applied to the idealized Caroline: ‘Disloyal! No:/She’s punish’d for her truth, and undergoes,/More goddess-like than wife-like, such assaults’.[11]

Figure 7. William Hone and George Cruikshank, ‘Publication’. From The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder.

The theme of disloyalty is given a startling new twist in the next episode, ‘Publication’ (Figure 7). The scene shows George as a pantomime Guy Fawkes figure, breaking into a building which houses Caroline and planting a huge green bag of allegedly explosive evidence. He is accompanied in his nocturnal skulduggery by a disabled and demoralized Cupid, and he carries a conspiratorial dark lantern containing a leech (Leach) and a bunch of matches. Caroline peers down at him through a lorgnette from a window above the door. She does not appear distressed as the building is protected by Albion Life Assurance (a real company founded in 1805, but the allegorical significance of its patriotic name is what counts). She is also protected by the celestial eye of knowledge which encloses a printing press, the cherished symbol of freedom of expression and, according to the text, the ‘MORAL SUN’ of the nation. This motif echoes earlier satirical depictions of the Gunpowder Plot in which divine beams of light expose Fawkes’s treachery.[12] And even though Fawkes’s reputation shifted in the Romantic period from arch national traitor to heroic (if over-zealous) martyr for religious and political rights, the king’s self-interested motives hardly qualify for this liberal reinterpretation.[13] George is a danger to the nation and the enemy of the free press. Although the epigraph from a well-known speech by Sheridan points a finger at the ‘venal House of Peers’, the image targets the king alone.[14]

The final point to note about this scene is the punning title. To begin with, there are two conspicuous but antithetical references at play: the first is to the discredited ‘publication’ of the secret inquiry into Caroline’s affairs; the second is to the elevated mission of the ‘fearless’ free press which ‘guards, alike, the people and their throne’. There is also a third meaning waiting in the wings: the threat of Caroline’s legal team to publish the ‘recrimination’ or evidence of the king’s sexual indiscretions, including his first marriage. As Ben Wilson notes, although the word ‘recrimination’ is ‘conspicuously absent’ from the named rungs of the matrimonial ladder, the satire itself stands in for the judicial process and bares all.[15]

This takes us to a fourth connotation, the publication of the pamphlet itself. Satire was not routinely associated with the free press, even though it was clearly an important constituent, and the inviolable symbol of the hand-operated printing press evokes text rather than visual image. This is one reason why caricature was so self-reflexive, constantly defining, exploring, and promoting its unique brand. To be sure, some of this rhetoric was self-puffery, but in Hone and Cruikshank’s case there is little doubt that their success was the result of a self-propelling innovation in form.[16] By the end of the first week of its publication, according to the Examiner (20 August), the Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder was already in its 12th edition. The Examiner was full of praise for ‘another of Mr. Hone’s happy illustrations of public feeling’. The language is revealing: ‘illustration’ here can mean both visualization and enhancement. In an advert for the pamphlet in the same issue, the key word is ‘embellished’: ‘The most extensively embellished, and most rapidly selling production ever issued from the press’. In addition, ‘Orders from the country…will be punctually executed, and Placards for doors and shop-windows enclosed’. Exposure was key to the success of caricature: it relocated high politics to the ‘shop window’ and the gaze of the viewing public.


[1] One polemic argued that ‘the millions who compose the civilized and unbiassed part of mankind’ must ensure ‘the destruction of the prevailing system, by an adequate reform of parliament’ (Charles Maclean, The Triumph of Public Opinion (T. and J. Allman, 1820), 2).

[2] The free borrowing of newspaper text made the recirculation of news stories easier. Caroline’s trial could be followed on a daily, weekly, or monthly cycle, depending on the type of publication, or a combination of all three. Less ephemeral modes of publication also proliferated, including bound, serialized and multivolume trial reports, though it was not always clear where the initial information came from. Radical publishers seized their opportunity to cash in: see, for example, John Fairburn’s Whole Proceedings on the Trial of Her Majesty, originally in weekly parts, then 2 volumes, then 3 volumes with a reprint of the 1806 Delicate Investigation.

[3] The full text is reproduced with a useful introduction in Benjamin Colbert, ed. British Satire 1785-1840: Collected Satires III: Complete Longer Satires (2003; London: Routledge, 2016).

[4] Hone claimed that he got the idea for the pamphlet after seeing a toy Matrimonial Ladder in the window of a ‘little fancy shop’, and that he was offered £500 by the government to suppress it. See Frederick W. M. Hackwood, William Hone: His Life and Times (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912), 236-7.

[5] For example, ‘Acceptation’ and ‘Declaration’. For an eighteenth-century example, see Hymen’s Ladder (c.1770-90), British Museum 1983, U.2187. The genre remained popular will into the nineteenth century: a mid-1820s print by the caricature publisher Thomas McLean is also in the British Museum collection, and Cruikshank collaborated on a Matrimonial Ladder as late as 1843 (British Museum 1859 0316 804). See also Marcus Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790-1822 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 172-6.

[6] In addition to the examples discussed here, Gillray’s Apotheosis of Hoche (1798; British Museum Satires 9156) is one of the more audacious parodies of Jacob’s biblical ladder.

[7] See Hone and Cruikshank’s Bank Restriction Note and Bank Restriction Barometer, British Museum Satires 13198, 13199. I cover this topic in Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter 2, ‘Lethal Money’.

[8] British Museum Satires 13895. The radical publisher Thomas Dolby was a prolific producer of these pamphlets: some of my favourites are The Queen and Magna Charta and A Total Eclipse (both illustrated by Robert Cruikshank), and Jack and the Queen Killers. The main loyalist publisher was W. Wright: see, for example, The New Pilgrim’s Progress.

[9] According to Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: S. Hooper, 1795), the term refers to ‘a lighted candle stuck into the private parts of a woman’ (23).

[10] Hone’s peddling of anti-Italian xenophobia was probably tactical and commercial as, like most liberals and radicals, he was a supporter of the European revolutionary struggles that were taking place in Italy and Spain in 1820, and in radical analysis a degraded national character was attributed to a corrupt political system. On the wider picture, see Will Bowers, The Italian Idea: Anglo-Italian Radical Literary Culture 1815-23 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). The Caroline controversy was actually cited by rebel leaders to aid their cause (Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 144-45).

[11] There is no space here to pursue the Shakespearean parallels further, but the ironies proliferate depending on the allocation of roles. For example, anti-Carolinites could have focused on Cymbeline’s treacherous queen rather than the victimized Imogen; on the other hand, Iachimo’s seedy spying on the sleeping Imogen evokes the trial’s lubricious obsession with Caroline’s love life.

[12] See: The Guy Faux of 1770 (British Museum Satires 41); James Sayers, A New Leaf for an Old Book of Common Prayer 1807 (British Museum Satires 10739); James Gillray, The Pillar of the Constitution 1807 (British Museum Satires 10738).

[13] See Frederick Burwick, ‘Staging Protest and Repression: Guy Fawkes in Post-Peterloo Performance’, in Michael Demson and Regina Hewitt, eds. Commemorating Peterloo: Violence, Resilience and Claim-Making during the Romantic Era (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), 100-119.

[14] Sheridan’s speech occurred in 1810 during a debate about proposals to restrict the reporting of parliamentary proceedings (Annual Register (1810): 37-8). In the full speech, Sheridan praised the power of the free press to ‘shake down corruption from its height, and bury it beneath the ruins of those abuses it was meant to shelter’, an apt sentiment for the Caroline controversy.

[15] Ben Wilson, The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 326.

[16] See the article ‘Political Publications in Wood-Cuts and Verse’ in the Examiner (24 December 1820) which celebrates Hone’s pamphlets as ‘a new feature in the history and publication of English politics’.

Queen Caroline in Caricature: June 1820

Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton

Image: Robert Cruikshank, The Secret Insult (Museum Wilhelm Busch)

On this day (5 June) exactly two hundred years ago, one of the most high-profile political and sexual scandals in British history burst onto the cultural scene. The focus of this unprecedented media storm was Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the new king George IV, previously the Prince of Wales and Prince Regent.[1]

The pair had married in 1795 when George agreed a deal with parliament to pay off enormous gambling debts – amounting to millions of pounds today – in return for reforming his rakish ways. The marriage was a disaster: George was drunk during the wedding ceremony, and there were rumours that Caroline’s standards of hygiene were not of the highest (though typically, this criticism did not apply to the Prince). Moreover, George was already illicitly married to Maria Fitzherbert, and his mistress Lady Jersey was appointed as Caroline’s bedchamber lady. Though Caroline conceived her daughter Charlotte, George insisted on a separation, a decision that would come back to haunt him.

From 1796 until 1820, the royal couple led independent lives, but George launched several undercover investigations to try to expose Caroline’s allegedly promiscuous lifestyle, and he restricted her access to Princess Charlotte. In 1814 Caroline want into exile and only discovered the news of Charlotte’s death in 1817 by accident. When George III died in January 1820, Caroline asserted her claim to be the lawful Queen of Britain and announced her intention to return to England. The king was horrified and determined to stop her. But how to manage this dilemma? The country was in a state of political unrest, and the Queen was already regarded by many people as an injured wife and mother. Her cause was an ideal opportunity to rally anti-government protest in the wake of the Peterloo massacre, the draconian Six Acts against freedom of speech, and the executions of the Cato Street conspirators. Undeterred, and against the advice of his ministers, George had Caroline’s name struck off the Church of England liturgy and demanded a solution.

Just as their relationship had begun with a royal bribe, George assumed Caroline could be bought off and sent a delegation to intercept her journey through northern France. During the weekend of 3-4 June 1820, Lord Hutchinson and the rising Whig star Henry Brougham met with Caroline in the town of St Omer. They offered her an allowance of £50,000 per annum (an increase of £15,000 on her existing stipend) in return for the renunciation of her claim and permanent exile. If she refused, she was threatened with prosecution for adultery. Caroline rejected the offer, resumed her journey to Calais, and arrived at Dover on 5 June 1820. Huge crowds of ecstatic fans welcomed her return and she was mobbed all the way to London.

For the remainder of the year, her story dominated the press and Romantic print culture. The media explosion was unprecedented: millions of words appeared in newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, trial reports, Addresses, prayers, poems, broadsides and placards.[2] Caroline’s persecution seemed to capture the imagination of the whole country. The Times summed up the public mood in its report of her homecoming: ‘The Queen of England is at present every thing with every body’ (7 July 1820). Caroline represented a new force in British politics: public opinion.[3] Though the vast majority of the population had no vote, they were able to express their views through the ‘fourth estate’ of the press and traditional ‘out-door’ methods of agitation such as petitioning, Addresses, rallies, processions, charivari, threat-letters, window-smashing and effigy-burning. The flagrant hypocrisy and double standards of the accusations against Caroline’s sexual morality revived feminist arguments which had been dormant since the ‘Jacobin’ 1790s,[4] and the dubious legality of the trial was seized on by liberals and radicals as a prime example of political corruption. Lacking any independent access to the corridors of power, Caroline knew that her only chance of success was to appeal directly to the power of the people and the vox populi.

The mobilization of a popular front of oppositional Romantic politics and print was remarkable in its scale and intensity, and central to its success was the contribution that visual culture played in Caroline’s rise to political celebrity. In addition to the wide circulation of engraved portraits, medallions and other visual memorabilia, her story was a field-day for the caricaturists. Hundreds of satirical prints and illustrated pamphlets appeared in her favour, and after the collapse of her trial in late 1820 her opponents also turned to caricature to enhance their counter-offensive.

There were numerous reasons for the popularity and efficacy of Georgian caricature. It was a unique art form which combined political reportage with unbridled and entertaining fantasy; it was able to respond quickly and memorably to political events and it operated outside of conventional aesthetic and ethical norms. This imaginative freedom created a parallel visual universe in which public figures re-enacted and reconfigured newsworthy incidents according to a satirical logic of inversion, irony. allusion and parody.[5] The result was a compelling debunking of official ideology and the stripping away of polite codes of reverence and respect that frequently shielded and mystified social and political power. This anarchic tendency was often balanced by an apparent championing of an identifiable cause or faction, though on closer inspection this advocacy could prove to be unstable, and the consumer of caricatures had to be on their guard for surprises and traps.

The power of Carolinite caricature can be illustrated by looking at the response to her arrival in Britain. Within days of her spectacular ‘remigration’, Robert Cruikshank’s The Secret Insult; or Bribery and Corruption rejected!!! was published by the radical activist William Benbow. This collaboration reflected the significant role that radical publishers played in defining Caroline’s satirical identity. The field was led by the formidable partnership of William Hone and Robert’s more famous brother George Cruikshank, closely followed by the now-forgotten John Fairburn, Thomas Dolby, Benbow and John Cahuac.[6] The Secret Insult is a striking, proto-feminist idealization of Caroline’s authority, presence and prowess. In order to make her homecoming more mythic and symbolic, Cruikshank transplants the St Omer incident to a reimagined arrival on the shores of Britain. Instead of the cheering crowds of Dover, the scene fantasizes a stand-off between the forces of good and evil which is more reminiscent of an invasion tableau, except that the usual roles are reversed and it is the defenders who are in the wrong. The confrontation is semiotically and sartorially polarized into two trios: on the right side we see the proud, stern, virtuous, magisterial and upright figures of a modestly-attired Caroline, her advisor Alderman Wood in Roman armour and (not to be ignored) a patriotic frigate; on the left side, the compromised, obsequious, cringing, untrustworthy, cowardly and evasive figures of a cowed Hutchinson and a Brougham who has his back to the viewer and is confessing his discomfort to the devil.

The textual components of the print indicate its political sympathies and typically bring into play a range of allegorical, cultural and topical allusions: Wood’s ‘Shield for the Innocent’ and fiery sword of justice are stock emblems which glorify (even to the point of being tongue-in-cheek) Caroline’s elevated and iconic status; ‘The Wooden Walls of England’ inscribed on the frigate refers to a popular patriotic naval song and reflects Caroline’s alarming popularity with the rank-and-file of the armed forces;[7] the scroll of ‘Lawful Claims’ in her left hand countermands the forthcoming ‘Bill of Pains and Penalties’ against her; and the speech bubbles reduce the fastidious press reports of St Omer and Dover into populist soundbites. In response to Hutchinson’s fawning offer to ‘change your name & livery & retire to some distant part of the earth w[h]ere you may never be seen or heard any more; & if 50,000£ pr annum will not satisfy you, what will?’  – the latter an example of the ‘excessive profligacy of the age we live in’ according to the Times – Caroline simply replies ‘Nothing but a Crown!’[8] The retort gains added, if ironic force, from the echo of Proverbs 12.4: ‘A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband;/ But she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness in his bones’.[9] This sums up the opposing sides of her case and highlights how she is forced to defy patriarchal norms in order to conform to them and achieve her rightful place as the king’s consort.

Compared to the emissary’s flaccid money bags, she has the same columnal, phallic solidity as her (ludicrously classicized) protector Alderman Wood. Brougham’s embarrassed and unchivalrous back-turning suggests a radical mistrust of ‘secret’ Whig motives and backroom deals. In this respect the title of the print is actually something of a self-referring or self-cancelling misnomer as the whole ‘secret’ escapade was widely reported in the press, including the publication of supposedly confidential documents. Indeed, Caroline demanded to see the offer in writing and thereby initiated a recirculating paper trail that rebutted the notorious obscurity of the government’s Committee of Secrecy and its much-lampooned Green Bags of evidence. As the only uncaricatured figure in the scene, Caroline embodies the open, masculine qualities of civic republicanism: even though her motives are self-aggrandising and ambitious, it is clearly her duty to re-enter Britain and restore its moral and political fibre, sweeping away Old Corruption and its disreputable practices. She is the new broom (Brougham) of British politics. In the words of John Fairburn’s broadside On the Return of Queen Caroline to England,

Not fifty thousand pounds, nor fifty more,
Nor all the wealth that Britain has in store,
Could tempt the mind, in conscious virtue bold,
To barter innocence for sordid gold.[10]

The tension between the legal and moral definitions of ‘innocence’ would eventually prove to be Caroline’s undoing. Her controversy raised but could not resolve the protracted issues of women’s rights and freedoms in a patriarchal society. But for all its limitations and blind spots, the gender politics of the campaign was one of its enduring legacies. As the Examiner opined, ‘adultery is either a crime in every body, or it is not’ and the paper even hinted that a guilty verdict would expose the double standard: ‘men, generally speaking, indulge themselves as they please, and yet demand all the while fidelity from the women’ (11 June 1820). The controversy politicised many women and gave a voice to their concerns. This is the reason why the St Omer episode is so important, as it set the stage for female defiance, resistance and self-assertion.

William Hone hoped that ‘the answer of her Majesty were put into the hands of every man and woman in England – never was a finer compliment paid to the English nation’.[11] This was a vision of a democratic public sphere which Hone himself went some way to achieving through his own cheap publications, including his phenomenally successful illustrated satirical pamphlets. Though the popularity and social reach of caricature is still hotly disputed by scholars, visual satire made a unique contribution to the formation of public opinion in the Caroline affair. The sheer volume of prints that appeared, and their remarkable resourcefulness in creating new iterations of the key episodes in the controversy, is a fitting ‘compliment’ to the Golden Age of British caricature.

For more information, see the History Hub’s video on the Queen Caroline affair, presented by Dr Katie Carpenter in the Parliamentary Archives:


[1] A good recent biography is Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[2] According to Thomas Lacquer, the Caroline controversy was ‘popular as no previous political movement had been…the sheer volume of propaganda was staggering…[and it]  saturated the whole country’ (‘The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV’, Journal of Modern History (September 1982): 417-466, 429-30. Malcolm Chase agrees: ‘Queenite literature arguably constituted the greatest publishing phenomenon of the early nineteenth century’ (1820: Disorder and Stability in the United Kingdom (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 179.

[3] For Dror Wahrmann, public opinion in the Caroline controversy was regarded as ‘the ultimate key to the political process – an omnipotent, infallible, supreme arbiter’ (‘Public opinion, violence, and the limits of constitutional politics’, in James Vernon, ed. Re-Reading the Constitution: New Narratives in the Political History of England’s long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 83-122, 90).

[4] Anna Clarke, Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), Chapter 8; Kristin Flieger Samuelian, Royal Romances: Sex, Scandal and Monarchy in Print, 1780-1821 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Chapter 4.

[5] Ian Haywood, Romanticism and Caricature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); David Francis Taylor, The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760-1830 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[6] In subsequent posts I will look at prints and publications by all these figures.

[7] A version by Henry Green was printed in 1773: see http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?&action=GET&textsid=34845 Accessed 3/6/20. The irony of course is that the vaunted British navy’s function was to keep invaders out. On 15 June, just four days after The Secret Insult was published, the Third Regiment of Guards mutinied in Caroline’s favour. The Duke of Wellington declared: ‘Thus, in one of the most critical moments that ever occurred in this country, we and the public have reason to doubt in the fidelity of the troops, the only security we have, not only against revolution but for the property and life of every individual in the country who has anything to lose’ (cited in Robins, Rebel Queen, 128).

[8] According to the Times (6 June), Caroline replied, ‘My determination is soon formed: I shall set out instantly for England — it is in London, and London alone, that I shall consent to consider any proposals.’ William Hone added an even more defiant flourish: ‘Go – inform your Master  – that in London, and in London alone, I will consent to consider of any proposal of the King of England’ (The King’s Treatment of the Queen Shortly Stated to the People of the England (London: William Hone, 1820), 20).

[9] The Bible: Authorized Version (London: British and Foreign Bible Society,1963) 520.

[10] A copy is pasted into a collection of Carolinite broadsides in the British Library.

[11] Hone, the King’s Treatment of the Queen, 20.

George Cruikshank, Ah! sure such a pair was never seen so justly form’d to meet by natutre (Museum Wilhelm Busch)

Michael Brown on the War Paintings of Charles Bell, Surgeon

Reposted from the Surgery & Emotion Blog

WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES OF WOUNDS AND INJURIES

Pity and Pride: Picturing the War Wounded in the Work of Charles Bell

November 2019

 

Dr Michael Brown of Roehampton University considers the emotional content of the famous war paintings of the surgeon Charles Bell.

I recently had an article accepted for publication by the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies which explores the relationship of the Scottish surgical siblings John Bell (1763-1820) and Charles Bell (1774-1842) to war, especially their imaginative and professional investment in military surgery and their complex emotional reactions to the experience of treating the wounded. Drawing on Yuval Noah Harari’s argument that the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw war configured as an increasingly transcendent emotional event, it considers the difficulties of translating both professional identities and emotional experiences across a widening civil-military divide.[1]

In this regard, what is particularly interesting about both John and Charles Bell is that neither man was a military surgeon.  While Charles wrote in 1807 that ‘of all things I should like to be kept and sent to the armies as a surgeon’ and while John agitated for a role in the training of military surgeons, neither had served in the army or navy and neither had any direct experience of battle.[2]   And yet, in their work, both men imagined themselves as battlefield surgeons, harnessing the emotional and cultural capital of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to shape their identities as surgeons.

While John Bell’s engagement with the war wounded is not especially well known outside of specialist circles, his younger brother’s experiences are far more widely discussed.  This derives, in part, from the emotionally expressive letters that he sent back to England from Brussels in the aftermath of Waterloo. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) said that reading one of Charles’ letters to his brother George (1770-1843) ‘set me on fire’ and it served as inspiration both for his own trip to the Continent as well as his semi-fictional account of Waterloo, Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk (1816).[3] But even more than his letters, it is Charles’ paintings of the war wounded that have excited academic attention, and it is revealing that, outside of medical history, interest in Charles Bell has largely come from art historians such as Anthea Callan, Aris Sarafianos and, most notably of all, Philip Shaw.[4]

There is much more to be said about Charles’ experiences of the effects of war and how his emotional self-reflection fits within the wider affective cultures of what I call ‘Romantic surgery’.  This aspect, which is frequently overlooked by those who view him predominantly as an artist, rather than a surgeon, is what my article seeks to do.  But even in terms of his art, which has been subject to far greater critical scrutiny, there is still more to be said. In the main, scholars have been attracted to his images of the wounded of Waterloo and have emphasised his representation of pain and suffering, as well as his evocation of sublime pathos. By contrast, they have said rather less about his earlier paintings of the wounded from the Battle of Corunna (1809), men whom he encountered during his trip to Halsar Hospital in Gosport and, later, at York Hospital in Chelsea.

These paintings exhibit certain similarities to his later sketches from Brussels, particularly in their visceral quality.  This is certainly true of his images of gunshot wounds to the skull, thigh and testicles (Figs 1, 2 and 3).

Fig. 1 – Charles Bell, ‘Musket Ball Wound of Skull’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 1 – Charles Bell, ‘Musket Ball Wound of Skull’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 2 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Thigh’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 2 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Thigh’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 3 - Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot wound of testes’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 3 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot wound of testes’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

But, in other respects, they differ. For one thing, they are more obviously painterly, since they are finished in oils. For another, they are just as enamoured of male beauty as they are concerned with bodily disfigurement. Take, for example, his three images of chest and abdominal wounds (Figs 4, 5 and 6).

Fig. 4 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of the Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 4 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of the Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 5 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Abdomen’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 5 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Abdomen’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 6 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 6 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

In Fig. 4, in particular, the pose, though no doubt calculated to display the wound, resonates with the poses of other male models, especially boxers, who were regular subjects of the anatomical and artistic gaze.   Meanwhile, in other instances, the men’s display of their wounds evokes the traditions of Christian iconography, notably the stigmata (Fig. 7) and religious ecstasy (Fig. 8), as well as contemporary neoclassical subjects such as Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793) (Fig. 9).

Fig. 7 – Giacomo Galli, Christ Displaying his Wounds (c.1630). Perth and Kinross Council.
Fig. 7 – Giacomo Galli, Christ Displaying his Wounds (c.1630). Perth and Kinross Council.
Fig. 8 – Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 8 – Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 9 – Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 9 – Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Wikimedia Commons.

That Charles should have conceived of his sitters in this way is hardly surprising. He was well schooled in art theory, having published a book on the expression of emotion in painting (1806) and competed (unsuccessfully) for the chair of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1807. Moreover, his interest in the male form and its representation is well documented in his letters. In 1808, for example, he wrote to George that he ‘had been grumbling for some days that comparisons of the modern athletes and the antique had been making, and exhibitions of Jackson, the boxer, etc. without my presence [sic]’.  However, ‘On Saturday when I came home I found that Lord Elgin had called, and written a note requesting me to come and see an exhibition of the principal sparrers naked in his museum. I went, and was much pleased’.[5] Furthermore, when writing to his bother about the ‘his gun-shot men’, he told him how he sought to learn from the ‘best old masters’ how to convey a ‘faithful’ representation that is ‘full of character’, as opposed to the ‘modern’ style in which the individual was ‘shaded off and indistinct’.[6]

At the same time, the ambivalence of Charles’ Corunna paintings, torn as they are between beauty and horror, pride and pity, can be ascribed to Charles’s complex affective response to Haslar. As he wrote to George, concerning his experiences with the wounded, ‘I have muttered bitter curses and lamentations, have been delighted with the heroism and prowess of my countrymen, and shed tears of pity in the course of a few minutes’.[7] In this way, Charles’ paintings can be seen to exemplify a range of emotional responses that were utterly in keeping with contemporary cultural norms, namely the religious (‘bitter curses and lamentations’), the patriotic (‘heroism and prowess of my countrymen’) and the sentimental (‘tears of pity’).

Charles’ images of the Waterloo wounded share certain qualities with his earlier paintings. The faces of the men, in particular, speak to his interest in the representation of intense emotion, approaching on occasion to what Sarafianos and Shaw have identified as sublime pain.  But, in other respects, they are more ragged, less obviously aestheticized and perhaps more shocking.  No doubt, this owes something to the medium: watercolours after pencil sketches done at the bedside.  It also owes something to the severity of the wounds themselves, which in a number of cases are particularly extreme (Figs 10 and 11). But, as with his Corunna images, they also reflect Charles’ emotional experiences in Brussels.

Fig. 10 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 10 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 11 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity), Voultz, King’s German Legion’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 11 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity), Voultz, King’s German Legion’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.

Much of Charles’s surgical work was with the French wounded, who had been ‘brought from the field after lying many days in the ground, many dying, many in the agony, many miserably racked with pain and spasms’.[8] While at Haslar his emotional equipoise had been tested, but in Brussels it was almost overwhelmed, as he was confronted by the ‘most shocking sights of woe’.[9] In this regard it is interesting that, where one might expect his French patients, or even those members of the King’s German Legion whom he treated, to be ‘othered’, his sketches largely preserve the names of his Waterloo subjects, whereas those of his British subjects from Corunna remain anonymous. Despite referring to the French troops as a fierce, cruel and bloodthirsty ‘race of banditti’, he was deeply moved by their ‘plaintive cries and declarations of suffering’.[10]  It is almost as if he wished to preserve, in their names, a testament to the humanity of those whose suffering he witnessed and sought to relieve (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 – Charles Bell, ‘(Abdomen) Peltier, 3rd French Lancers’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 12 – Charles Bell, ‘(Abdomen) Peltier, 3rd French Lancers’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, Charles’ graphic images from Waterloo might even be regarded as a kind of emotional catharsis, an expression of sensations that were so intense as to defy language. After his return to London he wrote a letter to his friend, the Whig MP Francis Horner (1778-1817); following a lengthy description of his experiences, he apologised for ‘falling into the mistake of attempting to convey to you the feelings which took possession of me, amidst the miseries of Brussels’. Acknowledging the ineffability of what he had seen, he concluded by suggesting that ‘I must show you my notebooks, for as I took my notes of cases generally by sketching the object our remarks, it may convey an excuse for the excess of sentiment’.[11]

 

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[2] Letters of Charles Bell (London: 1870)  Charles to George Bell, 21st May 1807, p. 96.

[3] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: 1837), p. 347-50. See

[4] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Aris Sarafianos, ‘Wounding realities and “painful excitements”: real sympathy, the imitation of suffering and the visual arts after Burke’s sublime’, in Thomas Macsotay, Corneils van der Haven and Karel Vanhaesebrouck (eds), The Hurt(ful) Body: Performing and Beholding Pain, 1600-1800 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 170-201; Philip Shaw, Suffering and Sentiment in Romantic Military Art (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). Shaw is not an art historian in the conventional sense, but his book is largely concerned with visual representation.

[5] Letters, Charles to George Bell, 26th July 1808, pp. 125-6.

[6] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 23rd May 1809, pp. 147-8.

[7] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 3rd February 1809, p. 139.

[8] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 1st July 1815, p. 241.

[9] Ibid., Charles to Francis Horner, July 1815, p. 248.

[10] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 1st July 1815, pp. 242-3.

[11] Ibid., Charles to Francis Horner, July 1815, p. 248.

Image of the Month: Caricature of Darwin and the crew of the Beagle

painting-depicting-charles-darwin

Lot 10, ‘English Literature, History, Childrens’ Books and Illustrations’ Sale, 15 December 2015, Sotheby’s London. Earle, Augustus (attrib.) CARICATURE GROUP PORTRAIT ON BOARD HMS BEAGLE Watercolour, entitled “Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery [sic] or interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage”, depicting Darwin together with ten other figures, all crew members of HMS Beagle, including Robert FitzRoy and three other officers, shipboard with fossils, botanical and mineralogical specimens, some with captions, several figures with nautical and surveying instruments, each figure with a speech bubble with words written above in black ink, single sheet (340 x 205 mm), watercolour and ink on paper (Whatman Mill watermark, undated), [Bahía Blanca, Argentina, on or around 24 September, 1832]; some creasing and light staining, mounted. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/english-literature-history-childrens-books-illustrations-l15408/lot.10.html

Last month, Sotheby’s in London sold for £52,500 the only known painting of the naturalist Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle.

The watercolour, painted by Augustus Earle (1793–1838) was offered in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale in London. Darwin (giving a long-winded description of an insect), Captain Robert Fitzroy, and various officers and sailors are all depicted: it captures the bustle of Darwin’s historic expedition, while the speech bubbles hint at in-jokes and standing jokes from the voyage. An officer, thought to be 1st Lt John Clements Wickham, complains: “There is no such thing as walking the deck for all these cursed specimens!”

zoomable digital image of the caricature is available on Sotheby’s website, along with an article on the caricature on Sotheby’s rare books blog Bibliofile.

 

 

Image of the Month: ‘Edward the Black Prince; or, the Battle of Poictiers’ (Mariana and Arnold) 1791

Illustration to William Shirley's 'Edward the Black Prince', scene 3, from Bell's 'British Theatre' series; at the door of a tent, a girl kneels in pleading with a knight turning from her to right, another girl standing behind in round frame with elaborate frame; sheet trimmed and pasted within platemark in imitation of an india proof. 1792. British Museum. Museum no. 1875,0710.3387 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3041464&partId=1&searchText=edward+the+black+prince&page=1

Illustration to William Shirley’s ‘Edward the Black Prince’, scene 3, from Bell’s ‘British Theatre’ series; sheet trimmed and pasted within platemark in imitation of an india proof. 1792.
British Museum.
Museum no.
1875,0710.3387
http://www.britishmuseum.org/ research/collection_online/ collection_object_details.aspx? objectId=3041464&partId= 1&searchText=edward+the +black+prince&page=1 Used under a Creative Commons License http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

This month, Anne Musset (PhD Candidate, History of Art, University of Warwick/Université Paris-Diderot) discusses an illustration to Bell’s British Theatre:

‘This image, engraved by Joseph Collyer after William Hamilton, is an illustration of William Shirley’s historical tragedy Edward the Black Prince; or, the Battle of Poictiers. It is taken from the 1791 edition of the play in the hugely popular series Bell’s British Theatre. Shirley’s play, “attempted after the Manner of Shakespear”, was first performed in 1750 and remained popular thanks to its combination of romance and heroic action.[1] It is based on the Battle of Poitiers (1356) and stages the Black Prince as a charismatic military leader and a tender friend. A second plot focuses on the tragic love between English knight Arnold and his French prisoner Mariana. The play afforded moments of heroism and of pathos, as well as opportunities for political parallelisms and medieval pageantry.

As an illustrator, Hamilton contributed to all the major literary and historical galleries of the period. In the 1780s and 1790s he realised several vignettes and portraits for Bell’s British Theatre. The passage illustrated takes place in Act III, when Mariana and Arnold have defected to the French camp, but Arnold feels remorse at betraying his country and the Prince’s friendship. He resolves to leave Mariana and return to the English camp. Mariana, whose violent passion constantly places her on the brink of madness, attempts to prevent his departure.

The costume in Hamilton’s scene evinces a combination of styles. Mariana’s dress is rather Baroque in style, but the high waists of the ladies’ dresses correspond to the fashion of the 1790s. The slashed sleeves and ruffled collar of Mariana’s attendant are historicising details commonly found in eighteenth-century theatrical costuming to signify an earlier historical period, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century.[2] For Hamilton, slashed sleeves seem to be a prerequisite to the illustration of the past. Arnold’s costume is inspired by seventeenth-century rather than medieval armour. By the end of the eighteenth century, few works on costume and armour had been published in Britain, and historical painters often sought inspiration from the armouries in the Tower of London – but none of the exhibits were older than the sixteenth century. What the image achieves is an evocation of the past as the background for the sentimental drama, rather than an archaeological reconstruction of the middle ages.

The function of referring to the fourteenth century with more precision is devoted to the image’s frame: there we find direct allusions to France and England, in the form of an elaborate display of arms, armour and standards. The display has both a decorative and a narrative function. It features the banners of England and France along with a pike, a sword and a pair of gauntlets, on either side of a helmet crowned with the three ostrich feathers of the Prince of Wales and bearing his motto “Ich dien”. The frame firmly reinforces the political drama unfolding in the background, suggesting that the situation depicted originates in the political choices of monarchs, or conversely, that individual, private decisions can affect events in the political sphere. The hangings in the picture seem to merge with the armorial display of the frame, which reinforces the connection between the sentimental and the historical plots. The gauntlets on either side of the helmet appear to be holding the picture, as if presenting the image to the viewer, or exerting control over the scene. The slightly ominous gauntlets, shadow under the helmet and agitated clouds (which seem a continuation of the French standard) suggest that war will get the upper hand over the lovers.

An illustration of the historical tragedy, the image also participated in the construction of the genre of historical romance, balancing theatrical references and antiquarianism in a pathetic farewell scene. While the play claims to be staging historical fact, the illustration focuses on romance. At the same time, it retains a strong connection to the battle and the figure of the Prince of Wales thanks to its background and its highly decorative frame. Visually, the scene is reminiscent of other famous farewell scenes, such as Hector parting from Andromache or Regulus returning to Carthage – both subjects that had been regularly depicted by European artists in the second half of the century. Through such associations, the book illustration takes on aspects of history painting. As a consequence, Mariana, Arnold and British history are aligned with ancient Greek and Roman history, just as Shirley was aiming to align his own tragedy with the works of Shakespeare.’

Anne Musset
University of Warwick/Université Paris-Diderot

[1] See Jeffrey Kahan, Shakespeare Imitations, Parodies and Forgeries, 1710-1820 (Taylor & Francis, 2004), vol. 1.

[2] Diana De Marly, Costume on the Stage 1600-1940 (London: Batsford, 1982), pp.52-23.

Image of the Month: William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803).

Blake Sealing the Stone

William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803). Watercolor, with pen, in gray ink, black ink and graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Everett V. Meeks, B.A. 1901 Fund.

In an ‘Image of the Month’ in February, I wrote about Blake’s watercolour Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre (c.1805). In this post, I’m jumping back a bit to another of Blake’s watercolour illustrations to the Bible, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-03), which depicts a moment slightly earlier in the biblical narrative, and was probably also produced several years earlier (the exact dates of these works are not known, but they have been assigned dates based on stylistic features).

The text illustrated is Matthew 27:66 which describes the sealing of Jesus’ tomb on the day after his death and burial. The chief priests and Pharisees had heard Jesus say that he would rise again on the third day, and they feared that the disciples would try to take away the body to fabricate a resurrection. They therefore asked Pilate to secure the tomb, so he sent a watch and instructed them make the tomb as sure as they could (27:62-65).

In Blake’s illustration, the task is being undertaken very diligently. At the centre of the design is a young man balancing on a ladder, holding a palette of cement and a knife. He is turning to his right, directed by a priest standing below who appears to be pointing out a gap in the cement for the young man to seal. There are two more priests to the left of the ladder, and five soldiers are standing guard.

This is a relatively unusual subject, which is perhaps unsurprising; illustrators of the New Testament have tended to focus on the acts of Jesus and his disciples, not on those of Jesus enemies. We cannot be certain whether the subject was chosen by Blake or by his patron, Thomas Butts; either way, its inclusion in the series of biblical illustrations emphasises that the tomb was firmly shut. Thus, when Blake added The Angels Hovering over the body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805, V&A) to the series, he was giving the viewer privileged access to a scene inside the firmly-sealed tomb, and then in The Angel Rolling Away the Stone from the Sepulchre (c.1805, V&A) and The Resurrection (c.1805, Fogg Art Museum), Blake depicts Christ bursting that seal.

As a stand-alone design the subject may not have obvious appeal, but in a series of illustrations to the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch plays a key role.

Naomi Billingsley (Manchester)

Image of the Month: William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805).

William Blake, 'Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre' (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

February’s ‘Image of the Month’ comes from Naomi Billingsley, PhD Candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester, and recipient of a Bibliographical Society Studentship to assist with attendance at the third RIN symposium, ‘Literary Galleries’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of approximately eighty watercolour illustrations to the Bible produced by William Blake for his loyal patron Thomas Butts (a civil servant) between 1800 and about 1805 (several designs were added after this date but the majority were completed in this five-year period).[1] It is not clear how these designs originally functioned as illustrations: they may have extra-illustrated a large Bible or they might have been kept in their own portfolio or volume as a Bible in pictures.[2]

The design is from c.1805 and depicts Mary Magdalene at the tomb (or sepulchre) of Jesus; it is probably an illustration to John 20, because in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, there are others with Mary when she goes to the tomb, and it is John that mentions Mary seeing ‘two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain’, which Blake has included in the design (v. 12). However, Blake has compressed several moments in the narrative together in a single frame: in John’s account Mary stays ‘without’ the tomb and stoops to look inside (v. 11); she then turns around and sees Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener (v. 14). Although Blake has placed Mary on the threshold of the tomb, she is at the bottom of a flight of steps leading down to it, and so she is not stooping; Jesus stands at the top of the steps above her.

Blake has probably chosen this arrangement for compositional reasons: the design’s symmetry is characteristic of Blake’s ‘gothic’ style in this period. Indeed, this watercolour is one of six similarly symmetrical and near-monochrome designs of the death and resurrection of Christ which seem to form a sub-group within the series of biblical watercolours (The Crucifixion and the following designs – not including #499 or #503 – viewable via the Blake Archive).

Blake’s use of composition may also make a theological point. Jesus and Mary are directly aligned in the central vertical portion of the design; their arm gestures are almost identical and there is eye contact between them (see the Blake Archive’s image enlargement). This may be an expression of Blake’s idea that every person is an embodiment of Jesus – as articulated, for example, in his statement to Henry Crabb Robinson that Jesus ‘Is the only God… And so am I and so are you’[3] and his aphorism ‘The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination. that is God himself | ישע Jesus | The Divine Body | we are his Members’.[4] So we might read Mary Magdalene here as a member of Jesus’ Divine Body, making the design not only ‘mere’ illustration but also a vehicle for Blake’s own ideas.

Any readers in the New Haven (Connecticut, USA) area will be able to see this work in the exhibition ‘The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860’ between 6 March and 26 July at the Yale University Art Gallery this year.

[1] Cf. Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981): nos. 433-526.

[2] David Bindman, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977): 144.

[3] William Blake to Henry Crabb Robinson, December 1825, in G. E. Bentley, Jr. Blake Records (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2nd Ed. 2004): 421.

[4] William Blake, ‘The Laocoön’, in David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York: Doubleday, 1988): 273 and available via the Blake Archive.

 

 

Image of the Month: Mutual undermining by “Boz” and Cruikshank?

Mutual undermining by “Boz” and Cruikshank?

Helen-Frances Pilkington (Birkbeck)

Mary L. Shannon’s paper, at the recent The Artist and the Writer RIN symposium, discussed how Dickens, in the guise of “Boz”, had used Cruikshank’s established visual persona to bolster his own. This led me to think about another “Boz” – Cruikshank relationship from August 1838 in Bentley’s Miscellany, where they had engaged in some mutual under-mining. The sketch in question was the ‘Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’ which was ‘illustrated by George Cruikshank’.

Within this article is a discussion on the local beadle. “Boz” was given the chance to state his case first. Mr Sowster, the reader is informed, was a ‘fat man, with a more enlarged development of that peculiar conformation of countenance which is vulgarly termed a double chin.’ After some ‘unconstitutional proceedings’ in which Mr Sowster was employed as a bouncer for the Mudfog meeting, “Boz” announced that he had ‘procured a local artist to make a faithful sketch of the tyrant Sowster’. This likeness was ‘from the life, and complete in every respect. Even if I had been totally ignorant of the man’s real character, and had it been placed before me without remark, I should have shuddered involuntarily. There is an intense malignity of expression in the features, and a baleful ferocity of purpose in the ruffian’s eye, which appals and sickens. His whole air is rampant with cruelty, nor is the stomach less characteristic of his demoniac propensities.’ Such a description evokes terror, potentially comic, especially when considering the satirical trope of beadles.

As noted by Sally Ledger, one of the prototypes for Mr Bumble, the beadle in Oliver Twist (1837-1838), was Robert Seymour’s 1830 engraving ‘Heaven and Earth’ in which a beadle, in a cocked hat, flowing robes and staff, descends from the clouds to deny relief to starving paupers (Figure 1: bottom centre).

Figure 1: Robert Seymour, ‘Heaven & Earth’, 1830 © British Museum

Ledger noted that ‘this image of the Beadle as a pompously attired, self-important petty official that established a satirical genealogy upon which Dickens and Cruikshank would together build a few years later in Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist‘. Given the “Boz”-ian text, the date and the article title proclaiming the Cruikshank illustrations, the expectation for the first readers would have been a continuation of this trope. However, the ‘faithful’ sketch by the ‘local artist’ in Bentley’s Miscellany turned out to be quite different (Figure 2):

Figure 2: George Cruikshank, 'The Tyrant Sowster', Bentley's Miscellany (1838) © Victoria and Albert Museum

Figure 2: George Cruikshank, ‘The Tyrant Sowster’, Bentley’s Miscellany (1838) © Victoria and Albert Museum

In Figure 2, Cruikshank has depicted Sowster as a benignly comic figure, all double-chin and belly with little arms and legs attached, rather than the ferocious tyrant per “Boz’s” description or the pompous petty official of the satirical stereotype. So who is right? Is the ‘local artist’ incapable of accurate sketching or has “Boz” been carried away by his rhetoric?

Helen-Frances Pilkington (Birkbeck)

Helen-Frances is a PhD student at Birkbeck focusing on hot air balloons and railways in the early nineteenth century

Sources:

Dickens, Charles; ‘The Second Report of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’; Bentley’s Miscellany; 4; (August 1838); 209-227.

Ledger, Sally; ‘From Queen Caroline to Lady Deadlock: Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination’; Victorian Literature and Culture; 32; (2004); 575-600.