London’s Caricaturists: Sex and Satire

Robert Cruikshank, 1819, Going to a Fight

Robert Cruikshank, 1819, Going to a Fight

© Cheryl Bolen

Cheryl wrote a variation of this article for the Quizzing Glass in 2011.

Between 1770 and 1830 some 20,000 satirical or humorous engravings were published in London’s print shops. The three most prominent artists (whom we think of as caricaturists) were, chronologically, James Gillray (1756-1815), Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), and George Cruikshank (1792-1878).

Because these dealt with politics, international affairs, and scandals and satire of London’s social elite, those who figured in the graphic satire and those who flocked to the print shops to purchase them for a shilling or more came from the middle and upper class.

The Caricature Shop, 1801, Anon. Most of these were located on The Strand. Rowland's shop was at 52 Strand; Ackermann's print shop was at 101 Strand.

The Caricature Shop, 1801, Anon. Most of these were located on The Strand. Rowland’s shop was at 52 Strand; Ackermann’s print shop was at 101 Strand.

British historican Vic Gatrell uses his study of the 60-year era of graphic satire to show that before the Victorian era, London was a city of sex and laughter. The result of his interest is the stunning City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, a nearly 700-page tome featuring 289 of these “cartoons” published (in the U.S) in 2006.

Man, how these illustrations demonstrate sex and satire! Many of these illustrations have never before been reprinted, partly because of the bawdy subject matter.

Since many of the social situations which inspired these satirical illustrations are unknown to most of us, Gatrell has kindly provided text to explain the background. His research and knowledge of Georgian London are astonishing.

These 700 pages are crammed with interesting tidbits. Some examples:

  • Bachelor Prime Minister Pitt (the younger) “was stiff to everyone except a woman.”
  • Public hangings were moved from Tyburn to the gate of Newgate prison in 1783.
  • Piccadilly was the first street to be lit by gas—in 1809.
  • Sedan chairs did not go out of fashion until 1820.
  • Women wearing powdered wigs washed their heads every three months.
  • Bagnios (public baths/brothels) were located in the Charing Cross area near Charles I’s statue.
  • Doors to Haymarket opened at five.
  • Drury Lane boxes cost 5 shillings, and upper gallery seats could be had for a shilling.

Because the artists slightly changed the actual names or omitted letters, the artists and printers did not get sued.

One print, for example, shows Lady Worsley washing her naked body in the bathhouse at Maidstone while her husband, Sir Richard Worsley,  stands outside, hoisting a man up to the small window near the roof to get a peek. The story goes that Sir Richard tapped on the bathhouse door to notify his wife he was going to give Bissett a peek. Apparently, Sir Richard was an accomplice in his wife’s many adulteries. The text on the drawing reads:

Sir Richard Worse-than-Sly, Exposing his Wife’s Bottom – O Fye!

cartoon 7

Gillray, 1796. Fashionable Jockeyship. This caricature depicts Lord Jersey carrying the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent) to his wife's bed. The horns the prince is depicting are the sign of cuckold.

Gillray, 1796. Fashionable Jockeyship. This caricature depicts Lord Jersey carrying the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent) to his wife’s bed. The horns the prince is depicting are the sign of cuckold.

Cuckolds were popular scandals for the caricaturists. Here’s one on the notorious affair between Lady Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson while her husband, Sir William Hamilton turns a blind eye.

cartoon 6

Isaac Cruikshank. A Mansion House Treat – or Smoking Attitudes! Lady Emma Hamilton, dressed in one of her attitudes costumes, smokes with her lover Lord Nelson as her husband, Sir William, has his pipe lighted by a sailor as he sits between Lord Mayor of London, at left, and Prime Minister Pitt. Their conversations are full of double entendres. The sailor tells Sir William his pipe is too short. Emma says, “Pho, the old man’s pipe is always out, but yours burns with full vigor.” Nelson replies, “I’ll give you such a smoke. I’ll pour a whole broadside into you.”

Many of the illustrators accepted bribes. George Cruikshank (whose father, Isaac, was also a noted caricaturist) accepted £100 from the regent to strop satirizing him. Gillray earned a £200 annual pension from George Canning in 1797 to produce propaganda against the Foxite Whigs.            

“Bums, Farts, and Other Transgressions” is the title of one of the chapters. If you ever wondered how to illustrate a fart, this is the book for you. Part of another chapter on libertines deals with the erotica Rowland illustrated from 1790 until 1810. Some of the erotica is truly graphic, even pornographic, except Gatrell explains that because they are humorous they do not meet the criteria for pornography. (Warning: Keep book out of reach of young children.)

George Cruikshank, 1819. Loyal Address's Radical Petitions, or the R---t's most Gracious Answer to Both Sides of the Question at Once.

George Cruikshank, 1819. Loyal Address’s Radical Petitions, or the R—t’s most Gracious Answer to Both Sides of the Question at Once.

Some of Rowlandson’s erotica was costly to purchase and was prized by wealthier Londoners. These prints were also shared with women.London in Regency times was the richest and most economically dynamic city in the world, and its residents were undoubtedly the most debauched.

Rolandson, 1800. Gratification of the Senses a la Mode Francois (Ackermann, 1800)

Rolandson, 1800. Gratification of the Senses a la Mode Francois (Ackermann, 1800)

Of the couple of hundred Regency research books in my library, this volume has risen to the top five in breadth of knowledge imparted. –Cheryl’s newest House of Haverstock book, Countess by Coincidence, releases on July 7 and can be purchased for half price during the preorder period.


George Romney: portraitist to rich and famous


Emma Hart (later Lady Hamilton), one of the many portraits Romney did of her

Take a look at Regency books and chances are several of the covers will feature paintings of Emma Hamilton done by George Romney (1734-1802) well over 200 years ago. In the period from 1782 to 1785, he painted some 60 different portraits of the beauty, who was at that time going by the name Emma Hart.

Romney—who is related to the former Illinois governor of the same name as well as his son, presidential candidate Mitt Romney—actually changed the family’s spelling of the name, which was formerly Rumney.

At the age of 21, Romney was apprenticed for four years to a portrait painter. The apprenticeship (paid for by Romney’s cabinetmaker father) was to have lasted longer, but George Romney was able to buy himself out of the servitude and strike out on his own. In those early days when he was painting in the provinces, he charged six guineas for a whole-length portrait and two for a three-quarter figure.

In 1762 Romney came to London to make his fortune, leaving behind his wife and son. His wife, who was of a lower social class than he, never came to live with her husband in London during the nearly 40 years he was away. He provided generously for her—as well as helping out many of his ten siblings.

In London, he raised his prices to 8 guineas for a three-quarter portrait and began to receive many commissions from members of the legal profession, then from those in the theatre.

Ten years later he was making an exceedingly comfortable income of over £1,000 a year and was therefore finally able to travel to Italy to really study his art. He stayed abroad for two years.

Upon his return, he boldly took the large house and studio located at No. 32 Cavendish Square, an aristocratic neighborhood. One of his first patrons there was the Duke of Richmond, who commissioned him to paint his portrait—along with several copies of it, as was the custom in that day—and Romney also did portraits of various members of the duke’s family.

A long procession of aristocrats began to patronize him. This included Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (whose portrait was never finished due to her unreliability); her best friend Bess, who succeeded her as Duchess of Devonshire by marrying the 5th Duke; the Duchess of Gordon; the actress Mary Robinson as Perdita; and Mrs. Fitzherbert, illegal wife of George IV when he was Prince of Wales. Soon Romney’s income grew to a lavish £3,000 a year.

It was in the summer of 1782 that Romney came under the spell of Emma Hart, when her “protector” Charles Greville (nephew to her eventual husband, Sir William Hamilton) requested that Romney paint the exquisite creature.

The 48-year-old painter was smitten. Most believe his relationship with Emma was purely platonic, more like that of a father toward a daughter. The age gap between them was 22 years.

In Emma, he had found the perfect model for his mythological works. The Prince of Wales, too, was enchanted. He purchased two of Romney’s paintings of her, one as Calypso and the other as Magdalen, paying the staggering sum of £100 for each of them.

Romney and Emma were genuinely fond of one another. When Emma returned to England in 1800 and inquired about Romney, who had chosen to spend the last two year of his life in the country with his wife, Romney said, “The pleasure I should receive from the sight of the amiable Lady Hamilton would be as salutary as great, yet I fear, except I should enjoy more health and better spirits, I shall never be able to see London again.”