Charles Petzold

“City of Laughter”

March 25, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Two years ago, Deirdre and I saw a wonderful exhibit at the New York Public Library, Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era. (The library's web site still maintains information about the exhibit here.) Among the artifacts on display were a number of satirical prints by artists James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, and George Cruikshank. These prints were often gleefully wicked and blatantly misogynist, but seemed to portray the conflicting attitudes of that era with an odd and revealing perspective.

Last October at the exhibit Napoleon on the Nile at the Dahesh Museum we saw a few more Gillray prints that savagely mocked Napoleon and his Egyptian aspirations. I blogged about the exhibit here and expressed thanks for the helpful summaries that "decoded" these prints for the modern audience.

I wanted a better understanding of these fascinating prints and the culture that produced them, and for satisfying that desire I can't imagine a better book than Vic Gatrell's City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (Walker & Co., 2007). Gatrell is a professor of British history at the University of Essex and a member of the Cambridge history faculty. (His previous book is a history of public executions in England entitled The Hanging Tree.) City of Laughter is ostensibly a history of London between the years 1770 and 1830, but largely seen through the perspective of the 20,000 satirical prints produced during this era. Almost 300 of these prints are reproduced in the pages of this book, many in water-colored versions. Gatrell skillfully discusses the content and meaning of the prints themselves, but also the cultural and social milieu that both fostered these prints and were influenced by them.

The years 1770 through 1830 in British history are sometimes called the "late Georgian" period because they encompass most of the 1760-1820 reign of George III — he's the "Tyrant" referred to the United States Declaration of Independence who through "repeated Injuries and Usurpations" is "unfit to be the Ruler of a free People" — and his son, George IV, who served as Prince Regent from 1811 due to the insanity of George III, and then was king from 1820 through 1830. (More about George IV shortly.)

For most people, the big name is British prints is, of course, Hogarth, but Hogarth's major work dates from the first half of the 18th century and he died in 1764. Hogarth's influence certainly hangs over this later era, but while Hogarth tends to be moralistic and glum, the artists of the late Georgian period revel in a London characterized by drinking, raking, gambling, brawling, and debaucheries. Almost no-one smiles on Hogarth (Gatrell, pg. 38); in the late 18th century prints are filled with delighted laughter and salacious leers. The sexual content ranges from the merely bawdy to the pornographic; nudity is pervasive; the scatology is downright juvenile and shocking. The number of chamberpots in these prints is astonishing; in one print, radical MP Francis Burdett is portrayed awakening from a dream in which he had been crowned king, and wearing the now-empty chamberpot as a crown.

The prints that Gatrell discusses in City of Laughter were very much a phenomenon of London, at that time becoming a very large and teeming city. Gatrell carefully dissects the city into its various subdivisions of class, politics, and morals, and vividly describes the printshops, around which people would gather to view the latest masterworks. Many of these prints were political; others focussed on the latest celebrity scandal among the artistocracy. That modern viewers often find these prints difficult to decode is not surprising considering that people at the time often puzzled over them. It helps us today that buyers of these prints often pencilled in the names of the actual people portrayed in them. The practiced obscurity of these prints is also what helped keep them out of libel court.

Although the moral laxity of the era might suggest a liberal government, this was not the case. Except for two stretches that totalled fewer than 36 months, for the 60 years from 1770 through 1830 the Tory party ran England, and for the most part the prints reflect Tory prejudices. The French Revolution is seen as the most pernicious event of the era, and the works of Tom Paine are considered particularly dangerous. Part of this attitude was patriotism, but it was also a political fear of liberalism and reform. And then there was money: From 1797 through 1801, James Gillray was paid an annual pension of £200 to create prints partisan to the Tories.

Scandals were a vital source of grist for the printmakers. Perhaps the "perfect storm" of a scandal involved the courtesan Mary Anne Clarke (born c. 1776), who in 1803 entered into a relationship with the commander-in-chief of the army, Frederick, Duke of York. This in itself would hardly have raised any eyebrows, but Miss Clarke took money from officers seeking promotion within the army, and through her wiles and alcohol, persuaded the Duke of York to oblige. Gatrell reports that the British Museum lists 121 satirical prints on the scandal, 76 by Thomas Rowlandson alone. (Gatrell, pg. 498)

I was well prepped for understanding the longest running scandal of the era by my reading last fall of The Trial of Queen Caroline: The Scandalous Affair That Nearly Ended a Monarchy by Jane Robins (Free Press, 2006). (Just to confuse everyone, the book was originally published in England under the title Rebel Queen: The Trial of Queen Caroline and the British paperback version is Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution.)

In 1794, when George III's eldest son (also named George but more formally known as the Prince of Wales) was 32 years old, it was decided that the future King George IV would marry his first cousin (George III's sister's daughter) Caroline (1768-1821), Princess of Brunswick. Interestingly enough, George was already married. In 1785, he had married a widow, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. Mrs. Fitzherbert was a Catholic, which meant that marrying her would prohibit George from becoming king. But that wasn't really an issue: The Royal Marriages Act required that George obtain the permission of his father before marrying, and he had not. The marriage was legal in the eyes of the Church of England but not in the eyes of the state. (Robins, pg. 14)

The match between George and Caroline was doomed from the start. The actual choice of Caroline for George's bride was apparently made by one of George's mistresses, Lady Jersey. (Robins, pg. 15) Caroline was under-educated, a bit crude, and inordinately lively — not considered good qualities for a future queen. Even by this time, the gluttony and womanizing ways of George were well known, and he was often the object of ridicule in the press. In honor of his obesity he was known as the "Prince of Whales."

The marriage between George and Caroline was consummated (a girl named Charlotte was born almost exactly 9 months after the wedding) but soon broke down. George and Caroline seem to have really hated each other, and they both pursued other relationships. It was actually quite dangerous for Caroline to have affairs: If she were caught in actual adultery, she could be executed. For over 20 years the drama between the Prince of Wales and Princess Caroline played out in the public sphere, with public opinion largely on Caroline's side. Here is Jane Austen in an 1813 letter to a friend commenting on one chapter in the affair:

Everything came to a head in 1820 when George III died and Caroline returned to England for the coronation and to be queen. To prevent that, George sued her for divorce on grounds of adultery, and Caroline was tried before the House of Lords, a trial that featured loads of prurient testimony involving sleeping arrangements, party outfits, kissing noises, hands in inappropriate places, and — brace yourself — wet white stains on the bed sheets (Robins, pg. 213).

The Prince of Wales is a favorite subject in the prints shown in City of Laughter, and to a very real extent these prints have since defined how he is remembered. Perhaps the most damning is also in some ways the simplest: James Gillway's 1792 print A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion shows the obese Prince surrounded by "empty wine bottles, gnawed bones, purgatives and pills for venereal disease, ... dice, unpaid bills, ... gambling debts" (Gatrell, pg. 216) and, of course, the ubiquitous overflowing chamberpot, while picking his teeth with a fork.

Several chapters of City of Laughter describe how the savage nature of these prints softened during the watershed years of the 1820s and pretty much faded away by 1830. (Graphical art did not approach the same level of sexual raucousness until the American underground comics of the 1960s.) Gatrell identifies several influences at work: Once George IV came into power in 1820, he began actively suppressing a great deal of what he found offensive by bribing the printmakers. By the end of 1821, Caroline was dead and so was Napoleon. Libertinism had certainly declined as a philosophy and practice, an evangelical movement crusaded against vice, and the aloof and superficial upper-class "politeness" of the previous era was being replaced with a new middle-class "respectability." (Gatrell, pg 421) Some rebelled against the "cant" they seemed to perceive all around them — Gatrell frequently quotes Lord Byron's protests — but they're the ones who lost the culture war of the 1820s.

In retrospect, the turnabout in social attitudes was dramatic. When the Whigs finally got into power for a few years, they passed the first Reform Act of 1832, the first major step to a series of reforms that were to increase English male suffrage during the 19th century. Five years later, in 1837, the 18-year old daughter of a younger brother of George IV became Queen Victoria, beginning a 64-year reign in which bedsheet stains were never publicly mentioned in connection with the royal family.

One complaint I have about The City of Laughter: The glossy paper necessary to reproduce the full-color illustrations has a bit too much glare for comfortable reading.

Otherwise, City of Laughter is a spectacular achievement — an always fascinating history of London during 60 years of producing prints that still seem outrageous, indecent, and blasphemous, but above all, very funny.