City of Laughter

Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London

by Vic Gatrell

Walker, 695 pp., $45

Judging by his expression, of all of suffering humanity, the Prince of Wales may be the one who suffers most. He cannot for the life of him understand why the papers are so beastly to him. Here he is, speaking on weighty matters such as the plight of the inner cities, the joys of organic gardening, or the need to accommodate Islam in Britain, and all the hacks are interested in are rumors from valets of how his toothbrush is preloaded with toothpaste for him, or how six differently cooked eggs are set out for breakfast so he can choose according to his royal mood.

Well, Prince Charles can take comfort from the fact that his trials seem trite compared with the abuse heaped upon his predecessor, King George IV, when he was Prince of Wales and most unhappily found himself living in the heyday of British graphic satire. As the Cambridge historian Vic Gatrell reminds us in his magnificent book, this was a very elegant time, as the portraits of Rey-nolds and Gainsborough testify. It was also a very robust age, determinedly scatological and obsessed with chamber pots, which derived its entertainment from watching executions or the insane at Bedlam. The prevailing mindset was one of "tough-minded cynicism," and very amenable to satire. Cruelty and satire do tend to go together.

London was very much a man's world, where the pugilist was a revered figure and the libertine's code of conduct ruled in the clubs, with their drinking and gambling. As Gatrell notes, there were certain shared traits between society's top and its bottom, notably a lack of responsibility and self-restraint: At night, aristocratic rakes--"savage nobles"--would be on the prowl breaking shop windows with their riding whips. He cites Boswell for gleefully dressing up as "a blackguard" when going out in search of strumpets. Satire, writes Gatrell, was preeminently regarded "as a manly art form, deeply opposed to gushing female sensibility."

Much of what was produced was not really satire, as the term was understood by Dr. Johnson, the purpose of which (in his definition) was to expose "wickedness or folly" in generalized terms for the improvement of mankind. Indeed, it is hard to discern any deeper didactic purpose in many of the illustrations reprinted here. Rather, they fall under the heading of lampoon, or "personal satire," the aim of which (again, according to Johnson) was "not to reform, but to vex." Gatrell sees it as a kind of "celebrity voyeurism," where the satirist enjoyed the position of licensed jester, tolerated as long as he did not become subversive to the established order.

The print shops where fashionable people met were Fores in Piccadilly, Hannah Humphrey in St. James Street, William Holland in Oxford Street, and Ackermann in the Strand, which would display the latest specimens in their windows. Some shops had discreet sidelines in pornography. Some 20,000 prints were published during 1770-1830, and they were expensive. (This was before lithography and steel engraving made huge print runs possible for a broader audience.)

Three names stand out: Rowlandson, Cruikshank, and Gillray. Of these, the most original was James Gillray, a manic-depressive with a fondness for flagellation. His favorite topics were the Napoleonic wars and everything French. The greater the threat, the smaller Napoleon became in his huge boots and scraggly feathered hat. And the ragged Parisians were cannibals who feasted on aristocrats' livers and hearts. His other great theme was the aforementioned Prince of Wales who, in an unforgettable caricature, indolently cleans his teeth with his fork, surrounded by unpaid bills, rolling dice, and, not to forget, an overflowing chamber pot.

According to Gatrell, great satire is fueled by anger and hatred, and Gillray's caricatures possess a feverish intensity and inventiveness reminiscent of Brueghel or Bosch. His loathing is all-encompassing: Tories, Whigs, the aristocracy, the rabble--all are subjects of his wrath. All, that is, until he was bought off by the Tories, which induced him to ease off on them.

Despite his inventiveness, Gillray's savagery could be excessive as it dipped into sheer misanthropy. It is no wonder that, in the last years of his life, he went insane and had to be cared for by his publisher, Hannah Humphrey. He would furiously engrave on the copperplate without removing the metal shavings, with the result that his hands were covered with bleeding sores.

Gillray's colleague Thomas Rowlandson was of a more genial disposition. His areas of expertise were the human appetites: food, booze, and sex. As Gatrell notes, while the father of British pictorial satire William Hogarth never seemed to enjoy the London he depicted, Rowlandson celebrated the city and its vitality. He had a keen sense of the ridiculous, and relished disaster and disorder. He possessed a friendly "rotund" line, capturing what Gatrell calls his "ironic, but life-affirming fascination with accident."

What gives Rowlandson's prints their special flavor is the fact that he is very much a participant in what he satirizes and, as Gatrell drily notes, parents would be unwise to leave the moral edification of their offspring to Rowlandson. But even his more pornographic efforts cannot be called misogynist, as the girls always look sweet and alluring while the men invariably are the butt of the humor, as it were. What detracts from his stature, in Gatrell's judgment, is an "absence of highs and lows in his work." The basic mood in his prints is one of even-handed jollity. He is one of those artists whose gift came a little too easily.

George Cruikshank was very much a drinking man who would "turn up at his friends' houses at unseasonable hours in the morning, unkempt and unwashed and smelling of tobacco, beer, and sawdust," in Charles Dickens's disapproving words. Cruikshank was often taken in by the police after having passed out in the street. As one would expect, many of his scenes are from London taverns, where high and low mix in sensuous pleasure.

After Gillray's death in 1815, Cruikshank took over as the chief scourge of the Prince of Wales, who had become prince regent in 1811 when George III's madness became rampant. Of 230 prints of the prince that appeared during 1812-19, Cruikshank was responsible for 94, with the result that, during the Regency, the future George IV hardly showed his face outside his palace. As king, he finally managed to buy off Cruikshank with a hefty bribe, who then turned respectable and went on to become a book illustrator, among others of Dickens's Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist. In time, he even became a teetotaler.

By the 1830s, satire was fast becoming endangered, though there are, of course, still elements of it to be found in Dickens when he sets out as a novelist in 1836. But the mood had changed. The emphasis was now on respectability. The new middle class did not want to be reminded where it came from, and with the emergence of an industrial proletariat, low life was no longer seen as charming or jolly; the underclass was perceived as threatening. This was the age of the harmless humor of Punch where, in Thackeray's words, "the comic muse has been washed, combed, clothed, and taught good manners."

What was lost, according to Gatrell, was a certain candor and incorrectness, as opposed to the new "age of cant," cant having been originally defined (yet again, by Dr. Johnson) as "a whining pretension to goodness," and now associated with Victorian feminine blushing and excess piety.

Satire has never regained its pride of place. The closest anyone gets today to satirical anger in Britain is found in the jagged and spiky line of the Sunday Times's Gerald Scarfe, with its savage depictions of Mrs. Thatcher as a meat cleaver in heat or Tony Blair as a snarling little rat face. But impressive artwork notwithstanding, Scarfe's trite pacifism and facile Third World sympathies become tiresome in their vegetarian fury.

Henrik Bering is a journalist and critic.

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