An engraving of a Caricature Shop, 1801
Recently I finished reading City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell’s exploration of the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of Georgian London, vividly illustrated for us now through the popular prints of the time. Gatrell begins as he means to go on, with an examination of Lady Worsley’s bottom. The story provides a well-chosen introduction to the contrasts and contradictions of the period.
One view of 18th century Britain will emphasise the emergence of Enlightenment values as reflected in neo-classicism, rationality, moderation, and balance. Lady Worsley’s portrait, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1776 shortly after her marriage to Sir Richard Worsley, reflects the image which polite, aristocratic society wished to project.
Lady Worsley, Joshua Reynolds, 1776
But there was something else going on. Between the 1780s and the 1820s, Londoners grew inordinately fond of ridicule and bawdiness, and of prints that revelled in satirising politics and international affairs or portraying scandal, debauchery and sexual goings-on in high places. The more scurrilous they were, and the more obsessed with farts and bums, so much the better. It was a no-holds barred culture that rejected the unwritten rule of early 18th century satire never to name names (such as in Hogarth’s engravings which ridiculed a type of person). By the 1780s, as Gatrell observes, this reticence was obsolescent. The boundary between public and private dissolved, as high-born sexually promiscuous adulterers or adultresses were explicitly lampooned – even including the heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales.
So, a mere six years after the Reynolds portrait, Lady Worsley was rudely caricatured by James Gillray. In one print he shows her taking a bath while her husband hoists one of her many lovers to peep at her naked behind. Remarkably, this incident was not a figment of Gillray’s imagination. All was revealed in open court when Sir Richard Worsley brought a suit against one Captain Bissett for ‘criminal conversation’ (ie, adultery) with his wife. Worsley had indeed hoisted Bissett onto his shoulders so that the captain could gaze through a bathhouse window on his wife’s nakedness.
James Gillray, ‘Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife’s bottom; – o fye!’, 1782
Gillray didn’t leave it there. Further revelations from the courtroom had told that ‘thirty-four young men of the first quality’ had enjoyed her favours. Gillray’s response was wicked, depicting nine impatient gentlemen queueing on a staircase, waiting for their turn with Lady Worsley in bed.
James Gillray, ‘A peep into Lady W!!!!!!y’s Seraglio’, 1782
The case made the married couple the laughing-stock of London, and Worsley refused to pay Reynolds for his wife’s elegant portrait (which now hangs in Harewood House in Yorkshire). For Gatrell, though, the case provides a perfect illustration of the bawdy, scurrilous, subversive humour that is the subject of his book.
Vic Gatrell is a serious historian (University of Cambridge) and though his subject may be lewd and comedic he sets out to probe some pretty serious questions. City of Laughter is a highly enjoyable, gloriously illustrated, but seriously academic study of the art of the print at the end of the 18th and into the first two decades of the 19th century. Gatrell seeks to understand why Londoners in the period from the 1770s to the 1820s were so fond of ridicule and scurrility. The salacious images of Lady Worsley circulated widely among London’s upper-crust (the prints were not cheap). Aristocrats – even the endlessly-lampooned Prince of Wales – sent out their manservants to queue at the printshops and buy the latest scandalous engraving.
Gatrell is interested in how the refined Londoners who bought and enjoyed these engravings squared their taste with politeness. Around 20,000 satirical prints were published between 1770 and 1830, reflecting a culture that laughed openly and heartily about sex, scandal, fashion and drink, suggesting to Gatrell that Gillray’s glimpse of Lady Worsley might reveal more about the times than paintings like Reynold’s portrait hanging on gallery walls. He quotes JH Plumb, historian of the period, who wrote:
An exceedingly frank acknowledgement, one might almost say a relish, of man’s animal functions was as much part of the age as the elegant furniture or delicate china.
Gatrell makes the claim that in this period London, despite the disease, hunger and thievery that haunted its streets, was indeed a ‘city of laughter’. He makes the somewhat sweeping and difficult to substantiate claim that Londoners laughed a lot in those days, as they walked the streets assailed by the oddities of life. I particularly relished this vignette from a contemporary observer which he quotes in support of his case:
Walking some time since in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I followed a party of chimney-sweepers, who at the turning under a gateway, suddenly met three Chinese, apparently just arrived in London. It was clear that they had never before seen chimney-sweepers, and it seemed that the chimney-sweepers had never, till that moment seen such figures as the Chinese. Each party and every spectator was in a convulsion of laughter.
The laughter of Londoners was free in more senses than one: ‘No other city was so dynamic, free and uncensored, and nowhere else were the comedies of snobbery and emulation played out and ridiculed so determinedly, writes Gatrell. The excesses of the rich, the corruption of the political elite and the absurdities of fashion (did you know that in the 1790s fashionable women of the aristocracy went bare-breasted? I didn’t) provided rich material for the print culture that flourished in this ‘golden age of graphic satire’. The libel laws were virtually non-existent, allowing artists such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank to get away with outrageous depictions of a kind rarely seen since. Nothing was sacred, and no one was safe from satire and scorn, least of all the royal family.
James Gillray, ‘Fashionable Contrasts’, 1792
Take, for example, James Gillray’s print Fashionable Contrasts, or The Duchess’s little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot published in January 1792, a few months after the marriage of Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia to George III’s second son Frederick, Duke of York. The British press had been charmed by the daintiness of her tiny feet, usually clad in exquisite footwear. Copies of her tiny shoes became all the rage and fashionable ladies wore their own little shoes in an attempt to emulate her. Gillray’s print, in which the tiny feet of the Duchess of York in jewelled slippers are caught in a compromising position with the large and ungainly feet of her husband, the Duke, skewered the way in which the press and high society had slavered over celebrity. Sales of tiny shoes collapsed as a result.
Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Miseries of London’, 1808
London under George III and George IV was an economically and politically vibrant city with a rapidly-growing population in which a chasm separated the upper classes, who enjoyed enormous luxury, from the lower classes who lived precarious lives in poverty and squalor. Nevertheless, in the first part of his book, Gatrell argues that the gulf that divided rich from poor was not unbridgeable. In a detailed analysis of the streets and avenues of the West End and Covent Garden – ‘worlds apart in terms of wealth, privilege and manners’ – he reveals how the boundaries between Londoners of differing sorts were regularly crossed:
If the journeyman settled disputes with punches, the gentleman settled his with duels. In the sexual or sporting demi-monde high and low met promiscuously. And both found the comedies of booze, sex and body funny.
This was reflected in a hunger for graphic, explicit imagery as the new print culture expanded rapidly, the result of rapidly growing demand from sophisticates as well as lower professionals and craftsmen. An older,tradition, rooted in classicism and epitomized by the work of William Hogarth gave way to ‘commercial products [rooted] in the realities their purchasers recognized’. Make way for the politically no-holds barred, scatological and sexually scandalous prints produced by artists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank.
Gatrell shows how the print culture grew to be increasingly bawdy and unrestrained. Thomas Rowlandson’s series of London Miseries – each of which describes the vexations that a gentlemen might encounter on the streets of London – are gentle in their commentary on London’s disorder, compared to what would come towards the end of his chosen period. Soon there were debauchery prints which depicted young aristocratic clubmen and prominent political figures in compromising circumstances at table or tearing up the town. These prints feature copious vomiting, urination, erotic play and bad behaviour of every conceivable description. As Gatrell points out, such scenes were offered as comic spectacles rather than moral lessons, as they had been in Hogarth’s prints. Women were assumed to be just as hungry for sex as their male pursuers. Prostitution tended to be depicted in a comic or even sympathetic manner, rather than judgementally.
James Gillray, ‘The Whore’s Last Shift’, 1779
A good example is Gillray’s The Whore’s Last Shift in which a woman stands in a sordid and poverty-stricken room, naked but for shoes and ragged stockings, washing her ‘last shift’ (pun intended) in a broken chamber-pot. A broadside ballad is pinned in the window recess: The comforts of Single Life. An Old Song. On the wall is a torn print, Ariadne Forsaken. Gatrell questions whether the print is contemptuous of the woman, or whether it seeks to disclose the poignancy of her plight? The answer, he suggests – as never in Hogarth – is left to the viewer.
Reading Gatrell’s account, you sense that he is describing a phenomenon that, although suppressed for long periods, has remained a rich undercurrent in English culture: a stream of satirical humour full of improprieties and bawdry. Gatrell argues that many if not all of Georgian England’s educated men – and not a few of its fine ladies – relished the bums-and-farts, no-holds-barred satirical frankness of these prints, whether the subject was life’s great sexual comedy, fashions, scandals, French revolutionaries, or the political class.
James Gillray, ‘The French Invasion’, 1793
George Cruikshank, ‘Loyal Addresses and Radical Petitions’, 1819
Certainly, caricaturists like James Gillray and George Cruikshank took great pleasure in showing George III defiantly defecating on the French in 1793, or the Prince of Wales farting at petitioners for reform in 1819. One print of 1785 with the inspired title His Highness in Fitz broadcast the latest royal scandal by depicting the Prince of Wales literally inside his beloved Mrs Fitzherbert. Although both are clothed and the penetration is concealed, the punning title makes it clear that they are enjoying orgasmic fits. Gillray’s Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot (1792) was another example.
Richard Newton, ‘Treason!!!’, 1798
An interesting question arises when looking at daring prints such as Richard Newton’s Treason!!! or his The General Sentiment, both published at the height of ruling class fears of sedition and the spread of radical ideas from the French Revolution. Treason!!! depicts a plebian John Bull farting defiance at a poster of George III, while Prime Minister William Pitt warns him, ‘That is treason, Johnny’. The General Sentiment, from a few months earlier, shows Pitt being hanged by the neck watched by his Whig opponents, Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan who are wearing revolutionary red bonnets and gleefully wishing ‘May our heaven born minister be supported from above‘.
How did print makers get away with this sort of thing when radical groups were being suppressed, meetings raided and the participants jailed, and private conversations in taverns being spied upon, reported and prosecuted? (Within a week of Treason!!! being published, habeas corpus was suspended). Gatrell’s answer is that as repression intensified the print satirists became skilful at presenting ambivalent messages:
Had Treason!!! been prosecuted, the court would have been obliged to debate whether Newton himself had the seditiously ‘wicked purpose of ridiculing the king and royal family’, or whether he was merely warning against that wickedness. […] He would also have been protected by the need to read out in court an indictment in pompous legalese that would have to describe a farting figure. This would have so punctured the law’s solemnity that prosecution would have been counterproductive.
Perhaps the most interesting question explored by Gatrell is why such irreverent and bawdy humour fall out of fashion so abruptly in the early 1820s, heralding the era of Victorian gentility and propriety. The savagery of the satirists had grown during the Regency, reaching a climax during the divorce proceedings against Queen Caroline. Then the fizz suddenly went out of satire. Gatrell demonstrates how this was largely the result of massive royal bribery of the print publishers, but also the result of the rise of respectability. Changing cultural standards stemmed from factors such as the rise of Christian Evangelicalism, the association of libertinism with Jacobinism, the beginnings of political reform, the increasing control of the poor (who ‘have no business to laugh’), and the spread of sensibility, especially among women with a ‘rampant passion for chastity’.
As a consequence, the satirical prints of the 1820s contained not a single fart or buttock. And they gave way to the insipid cartoons of Punch, whose comic muse, Thackeray noted, had been ‘washed, combed, clothed and taught… good manners’. In an article in the Telegraph, Gatrell observed:
Other nations think of us as an uptight people. Yet by and large our rude satirical tradition has beaten their equivalents hollow. Since the 18th century the British haven’t been as censored as most other peoples. You could and can say things here that you’d never get away with elsewhere. You could and can even mock royalty, up to a point. An American today would be hard put to it to lampoon a President as we lampoon Prince Charles, for instance.
Nowadays cartoonists self-consciously draw on Hogarth or Gillray as models. Steve Bell and Martin Rowson deploy scatology shamelessly. To be sure, the modern quest for celebrity has weakened the great tradition. Yet at its best, British satire can still blow raspberries at the powerful, censorious, and pontificating people who want to control us. By certain newspaper readers, John Major will never be thought of without his underpants outside his trousers, or David Cameron without a condom over his polished head.
Rudeness and mockery are subjects worth taking seriously. They have taught us cynicism, it’s true. But they have also taught us how to recognise and resist bullshit and cant.
Steve Bell on Michael Gove’s first day as chief whip, 17 July 2014 (Guardian)
- London and the Pleasure Principle: essay by Vic Gatrell for Tate Britain, 2007
- City of Laughter: Guardian review
- Rude Britannia: Britain’s history with the rude and subversive: article by Vic Gatrell (Telegraph)