Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003, ISBN: 1840142685; 452pp.; Price: £57.50
University of Leicester
Date accessed: 28 August, 2015
The period between 1760 and 1820 was the golden age of British pictorial satire. But only in the last 20 years have the artists and their work attracted serious study in their own right. Rather than being seen as attractive but essentially incidental illustrations for the study of British society and politics, political and social caricatures are now analysed in depth as both a reflection of, and sometimes a formative influence upon, public opinion. Increasingly their propagandist role as tools in the hands of national government or opposition is recognised. The creators of what are often highly sophisticated and intricate images are now regarded as serious artists, and the importance of their place in the political and social world of the time recognised.
The setting up of a national centre in Britain for the study of cartoons and caricature at the University of Kent at Canterbury (see http://library.kent.ac.uk/cartoons) and the major James Gillray exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 2001 (see http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/gillray/) have set the agenda, while Diana Donald's The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996) is currently the seminal text. So Tamara Hunt's new study is timely and welcome as a detailed exploration of the political prints and their importance in the British polity of the late eighteenth century.
Her study also builds on recent research into the growth of national and regional identities, especially Linda Colley's Britons (London and New Haven; Yale University Press, 1992). In British caricature this is nowhere more clearly seen than in visual representations of Britannia, John Bull and the British lion alongside the use of symbols like the cap of liberty or the scales of justice. The representation of historical figures such as Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, and events like Magna Carta, the Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights provide the context. In exploring these connections, the author has drawn upon the extensive collections of British caricatures in the British Museum and the Public Record Office, and the Library of Congress and the Henry E. Huntington Library in the USA. Together these provide the most comprehensive coverage available of a source material, the full extent of which is unknown.
There are seven chapters dealing thematically with the prints in a broad but overlapping chronological sequence. In this context the study's title is rather misleading, since only three of them deal centrally with John Bull and national identity. Other chapters look at political and constitutional developments between 1760 and 1788, and then, under the heading 'Dissenters, Levellers and Revolutionaries' events between 1776 and 1793. A chapter on the monarchy ranges over the whole of George III's reign up to 1820. This study is really an overarching study of the place of political caricature in the politics of George's reign, but in consequence it lacks a clear focus overall. The overlapping of the chapters sometimes leads to repetition and awkward cross-referencing. For example, Gillray's Voluptuary and Temperance prints of 1792, usually taken as a pair contrasting the excesses of the Prince of Wales with the frugality of his parents, are discussed individually in separate chapters.
There is also an ambivalence about national identity which needs clarification. There is no clear distinction in the text between what is British and what is English. John Bull is treated as complementary to Britannia, but as the book's title suggests is an essentially English creation, whose counterpart in Scotland was the tartan-clad Sawney Scot. No doubt these figures shared many attitudes towards government, and joined in national resistance to Revolutionary France and Napoleon, but they were nevertheless separate icons.
Nevertheless, the chapters on Britannia, John Bull and the emergence of national identity are much the best, with a good deal of valuable analysis and pertinent comment. The image of Britannia was one of the oldest of national icons, which had become standardised by the eighteenth century, with her classical garb, helmet, spear, and shield bearing the arms of Britain. In George III's reign she was depicted as being victimized by the king's corrupt ministers, notably a Bute or a North, as well as by radical reformers and national enemies. Less convincing here is the ascription of a softening Britannia image, one more feminine and maternal, to the canvassing activities of the Duchess of Devonshire and her 'Bakewell tarts' in the Westminster election of 1784, and their copious representation in the prints. An alternative explanation could be the change in style adopted by many artists in the early 1780s, notably Sayers and Gillray, away from a largely symbolic type of representation to one that was more life-like, albeit with exaggerated features. The image of Charles James Fox is perhaps the best example. In his early life depicted as a fox, his image by 1784 was the familiar stocky one with a mop of black hair and bushy eyebrows. This change was true also of Britannia. In Gillray's Britannia's Assassination of May 1782 (BM 5987) the new Rockingham Whigs (with an animal Fox) force their way into power and decapitate Britannia, who is in traditional pose, despite losing her shield. By March 1784 in Rowlandson's Brittannia Roused (BM 6403), a very human and animated Britannia, with breasts bared, hurls Fox and North into oblivion.
The difference between Britannia as a representation of the official British state, and John Bull of the long-suffering British people, is not sufficiently emphasised. The image of John Bull, rare in the early eighteenth century, gradually became more popular as a symbol of the British people when monarchical power could be seen to decline in the 1780s, giving way to a growing 'democracy'. By the 1790s Britannia had become a helpless female, aloof and no longer involved in political affairs, but she still remained an important symbol in prints as a representation of the state.
John Bull first appeared in 1712, and like other figures was portrayed mostly in animal form, as a bull or sometimes a bulldog, until around 1784, when he too took on human form as a downtrodden and helpless member of the disfranchised masses, suffering under heavy taxation and the burdens of government expenditure. Later, during the war against revolutionary France, he developed into a figure who could also represent the interests and aspirations of the middle classes. He became the national symbol of loyalty to king and country, and of resistance to French aggression. He was the ordinary man in the street, who would fight Napoleon with his bare hands, if necessary. By the 1800s he was a more assertive figure in domestic politics as well, prepared to criticise the royal family and the government, giving those outside the traditional political process a voice.
Alongside John Bull ran the traditional concept of the rights of Englishmen: based on the idea of the free-born Britons, the legitimate heirs of Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, fighting against high prices, unfair taxation and repressive legislation, often under the banner of Liberty. The use of these images is here effectively traced throughout the period, demonstrating the strength of feeling over the effects of wartime taxation, the property tax of 1815, and the repressive legislation of both Pitt in the 1790s and Lord Liverpool between 1816-20. However, the contention that caricatures directed against taxation began in the 1780s cannot be sustained, for there were certainly a number of prints attacking Walpole's excise tax in 1733; and such prints were by the 1780s part of an honourable tradition among the satirists and the country gentlemen in parliament.
After an introduction on the production and circulation of prints, the two early chapters covering political developments up to 1793 are largely descriptive and chronological. There is much useful detail, but the early political background is shaky, and the main issues not very clearly identified or explored in depth. John Wilkes's career is well covered, but the issues of general warrants and the Middlesex Elections are not fully explained. Strangely, Hogarth's famous portrait of a very shifty, cross-eyed Wilkes, although mentioned is not illustrated, yet it represents a major change in the style of caricature in its exaggeration of actual physical features.
The long struggle between George III and the Whig opposition, led first by Rockingham and then Fox, which culminated in the stormy politics of the period 1782-4, is also largely ignored. Yet this was a major constitutional struggle over the preservation or restriction of royal prerogative, and it largely dominated the caricaturists' output. The Fox-North coalition of 1783 and the election that followed in 1784 were the subject of over 450 caricatures, more than in any other comparable year. Many were part of a coordinated government campaign and almost all were anti-coalition. Fox remarked that they had done more damage to him than parliament or the press, and was in no doubt that they were largely responsible for the coalition's downfall. This is a serious omission. On the other hand the over-lengthy account of the Dissenters campaign for greater toleration in the 1780s, which precedes the discussion of the relevant prints, seems over-indulgent. There is good coverage of the French revolution, clearly illustrating the change in symbolism used to depict the parliamentary opposition. Thus the use of English antecedents (Cromwell, Guy Fawkes, Jack Cade) to put the Foxites in context changes after 1791, to one where they take on the image of foreign enemies (Parisian sans culottes) who threaten John Bull with their revolutionary ideas and intent.
A further chapter is devoted to the representation of the monarchy - its majesty and morality. By the late 1780s there was a shift away from attacking the king's political activities, to criticising his moral standards as an increasingly aloof head of state. The king and queen were models of domesticity and personal virtue, but caricaturists focused on their lack of dignity, general dowdiness and parsimony. 'Farmer George' was the simple country bumpkin, and not at all what people expected from their monarch. On the other hand, the scandalous behaviour of other royals was an obvious target. At first, political satire largely ignored the marital exploits of George III's brothers, the dukes of Cumberland and Gloucester, in the 1770s, although these troubles did occasion the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. Henceforward the king's consent was required for the marriage of any of George II's descendants, an obstacle that was to cause difficulties for the Prince of Wales in the 1780s.
The Prince of Wales, with his string of affairs, his illegal marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert and permanent indebtedness, received most attention, but some of Gillray's most savage and telling satire was reserved for the king's younger sons, the dukes of York and Clarence. The Devil to Pay of 1791 (BM 7908) shows Clarence in bed asleep with his mistress, having 'forded the Jordan', while Fashionable Contrasts (1792: BM 8058), with devastating simplicity and innuendo, reveals the duke of York's large feet and shoes face down on top of his tiny duchess's dainty feet and exquisite footwear. Neither print is referred to by Hunt. Although contemporary coverage of the Regency years, with its contrasting pictures of royal extravagance and nationwide depression, and of the trials of the regent's wife, Princess Caroline, receives admirably extensive attention, the chapter's overall impression is one of a rather breathless race through the royal escapades of George III's reign.
In the end this volume has tried to cover too much; the golden age of caricature is a vast canvas, with literally thousands of prints. It also betrays its origins as an academic dissertation, especially with its 90 pages of dense footnotes. There is a great deal of detail, much of it useful and interesting for students and researchers, but it would have been better to have concentrated on the themes of John Bull and national identity, where the author has something to contribute to the debate.
There are some errors of fact. John Dunning's famous resolution in April 1780 sought to reduce 'the influence of the crown' not its 'power'.(cf. p. 50). It was an attack on the crown's use of patronage to secure parliamentary majorities, and it was this, rather than parliamentary reform that was the initial and primary focus of the county petitioning campaign of 1779-80. In June 1782 Fox, Shelburne and Richmond were not in opposition but were government ministers in the second Rockingham administration (cf. p. 72). The Hibernia print is wrongly ascribed to 1785, when it clearly refers to the Fox-North coalition of 1783 (cf. p. 129). In 1808 Pitt had not 'died several years earlier', but rather only two years previously (cf. p. 143), and his memory was very much alive in the ministries of 1807-12, which were composed of his colleagues. These errors are not in themselves important, but they undermine confidence in Hunt's depiction of the broader political scene.
More serious in a general survey of the prints is the absence of any discussion of the artists - the illustrations for the most part are unattributed - or their careers and the changes in style adopted in the course of 60 years. There is no attempt to establish the artists' political and social standpoints, and whether they were sponsored or employed by governments or oppositions. James Sayers, who almost single-handedly brought down Fox in 1783, was a committed supporter of Pitt, whereas Gillray worked primarily for money. Without this sort of information, the caricatures are treated mainly at face value; the illustration captions are usually descriptive, and often repeated in the text. 131 prints are reproduced in black and white, a broad and helpful selection, although many are reproduced too small for any detailed appreciation.
Finally, despite the useful introduction setting the prints in the context of their production, sale and audience, there is no assessment of their impact upon contemporary politics or the public. This is undoubtedly a difficult area in which to be decisive; we rarely know how many copies of a print were made, let alone circulated and seen. But there is some evidence to suggest that pictorial caricature struck home more often than might be thought. Fox certainly felt that his treatment in the prints between 1782 and 1784 influenced public opinion against him, contributing to the rout of his candidates in the 1784 election. Napoleon, though amused at times, did all he could to restrict their circulation in France. Together with political pamphlets and a growing press, the body of satire in this period reached considerable proportions, and there is a valid comparison to be made with modern times, with our world of propaganda and spin, of Private Eye and television satire. Modern cartoonists frequently acknowledge their debt to Gillray and his fellow artists. Then, as now, 'victims' of their satire often kept extensive collections of their own cartoons. They were an important part of the fabric of politics and society, and deserve to be studied as such. In the final analysis, despite a wealth of verbal and pictorial illustration, this volume does not advance the debate a great deal.
Before discussing Johnson's review, it is necessary to summarise the book's contents. It uses caricature to examine specific 'controversies of the era [that] forced ordinary people to define an identity which they believed embodied the ideal of "Britishness" to which they could adhere in this period of uncertainty.'(p. 1) Chapter 1 analyses caricature production, distribution, consumption, audience, and possible influence on public attitudes. Chapter 2 studies caricatures that reflect the constitutional debate that emerged from various political crises between 1760 and 1788, including George III's personal involvement with politics, the Wilkes controversy, the American conflict, and the bitter political contests of the 1780s. Graphic satires reflected the growing perception that 'something was seriously amiss in the structure of government' (p. 23) but there was no clear consensus about whether the greatest threat was oppression by royal tyranny, parliamentary factions, or demagogic politicians. Chapter 3 analyses satires resulting from the widespread public controversy in 1789-90 over efforts to pass legislation giving nonconformists full civil liberties. These frequently portrayed Dissenters as the heirs of Civil War regicides, and this became linked with the French revolution in late 1789, when leading Dissenters praised French reformers. The result was
a new iconography for reform that combined elements of older traditions with a new symbolism [from the French revolution] . [that would] reflect the religious and class prejudices of the caricature audience, suggesting that loyal Britons were synonymous with respectable Anglicans. (p. 68)
Chapter 4 examines the iconographical contest that took place during the French revolution, which attempted to 'identify the best way to symbolise the national values for which Britons sacrificed, fought and died.'(p. 121) Britannia's image was affected by ongoing debates about women in politics, and John Bull ultimately emerged as the best symbol of middle-class ideals, one that could symbolically oppose foreign enemies and legitimately call for domestic reforms. Chapter 5 posits that the expanding use of John Bull as a figure critical of the government mirrored the debate over the extent to which all Britons had the right to protest, vote, and exercise the other rights of Englishmen. Caricatures show that 'this conflict reflected the larger question of political legitimacy: whose interest, desires, and values best represented the British ideals of the people's rights.'(p. 170) Chapter 6 argues that this developing ideal of 'Britishness' was expressed in graphic satire that demanded 'a regal monarch who also exemplified the private respectability and morality which was deemed characteristic of - and essential for - the British nation.'(p. 230) The conclusion, Chapter 7, suggests a theoretical approach for understanding caricature's role in developing British national identity in the reign of George III.
As this summary suggests, Johnson's review is inadequate and inaccurate. This is not a 'general survey of the prints', as he claims, but a study of specific topics that relate to the formation of national identity in periods of conflict and crisis. He declares that 'it lacks a clear focus overall', but the thesis was stated in the introduction, emphasised in every chapter, and expanded on and analysed in the conclusion, a chapter that Johnson never mentions. His statement that 'there is no assessment of [caricature's] impact upon contemporary politics or the public' is also untrue. Such impact is implied throughout the volume, and is discussed in relation to specific incidents (e.g. on pp. 52, 85-6, 143, 149, 160 or 211), as well as in the introduction and conclusion (see pp. 17-20 and 300-303).
Johnson's review misrepresents specific arguments in Defining John Bull. He states, 'the contention that caricatures directed against taxation began in the 1780s cannot be sustained.' But the book does not make this claim. It proposes that anti-tax caricatures of the 1780s 'differentiate between the interests of the commercial classes and the elite.' These were unique because 'instead of attacking the venality of the government who levied the tax - a standard complaint during the first twenty years of [George III's] reign - [these prints] emphasise the complaints of those who will have to pay.' (pp. 172-3). The text notes that earlier prints that specifically complain about taxes (including the attacks on Walpole in 1733) viewed taxes as political issues and did not focus on the financial burden these levies would place on ordinary citizens. Thus, these prints reflect caricature's shift of emphasis, not the introduction of a new subject.
Johnson also implies that the book's analysis is flawed in its discussion of the county association movement in 1779-80, stating that 'it was an attack on the crown's use of patronage to secure parliamentary majorities . rather than parliamentary reform that was the initial and primary focus' of the movement. But Parliamentary reform was an issue addressed by the petitioners, and this was reflected in caricature. Chapter 2 notes that the associations intended to 'petition for expanded suffrage and more frequent elections as the first step towards making politics more responsive to the concerns of citizens.' (p. 41) This is supported not only by caricature evidence, but also by reference to the memorial passed in 1780 at a general meeting of representatives of association movements that called for various reforms, including annual parliaments and greater county representation. (p. 41) But Johnson's critique is his only mention of this discussion, and he thus ignores the overall theme of this section, which was to assess the ways in which caricatures placed the movement into the broader ongoing debate about the meaning of the constitution.
Johnson also states that the book's worth is undermined by omissions and errors. For example, he claims that the
long struggle between George III and the Whig opposition . which culminated in the stormy politics of the period 1782-4, is also largely ignored . Fox remarked that [caricatures] had done more damage to him [in this period] than parliament or the press, and was in no doubt that they were largely responsible for the [Fox-North] coalition's downfall. This is a serious omission.
But the book does address these topics. Chapter 2's analysis of caricatures on various constitutional issues includes discussions of the political opposition's role in these debates (pp. 25-6, 35, 38, 39, 40, 48). It also discusses caricatures on the Fox-North coalition, its fall, and the subsequent election of 1784 (see pp. 50-52 and 135-141). Among the numerous caricatures analysed, it examines at some length James Sayers' satire, Carlo Khan's Triumphal Entry into Leadenhall Street (1783), reproduced as Illustration 13. The text notes that Sayers' nickname of Carlo Khan for Fox 'was quickly adopted by other artists and authors, with damaging results; Fox later declared that this print, and its many imitations, effectively doomed the India Bill.'(p. 52) The subsequent paragraph explains that the failure of this bill directly led to the ousting of the coalition.
Many of the other errors Johnson cites are trivial issues or not errors at all. He faults the use of the term 'several years' instead of 'two years' in a passing allusion to the year of Pitt's death, wonders why the book discussed (but did not reproduce) Hogarth's famous caricature of Wilkes, and somewhat paradoxically asks why two additional satires on George III's sons were not included in a chapter that he already describes as 'a breathless race through the royal escapades of George III's reign.' He also errs when he says that the caricature, Hibernia in the Character of Charity 'is wrongly ascribed to 1785, when it clearly refers to the Fox-North coalition of 1783.' His assumption that the presence of Fox and North must determine the date is unfounded. The caricature's publication line dates it to 31 March 1784, and Dorothy George suggests that this is a mistake for 1785, when Fox spoke vigorously on a Parliamentary resolution on Ireland.(1. M. D. George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires: Volume 6, 1784-92, (London; British Museum, 1938), p. 227.