Graphic Reportage in Georgian London

Two days ago the latest issue of European Comic Art appeared in the post, within which can be found some words written by me. This article occupies a peculiar position in my (short) life as a researcher. Academically speaking it is in the archetypal PhD side project. But personally it is a testament to individual sanity.

I shall explain. Sometime in May 2010 I embarked on the dreaded thesis edit. Presented with around 140,000 words to select from and prune, I had by late-June reached a dispirited state. Day-to-day life was one big edit, with little novelty or room to love what I do. Films, literature and socialising seemed empty. I need a distraction I thought. Something peaceful. Something invigorating. Something renewing.

I chose to write an article, and having settled on a deadline – my viva – I set about researching newspaper responses to the Covent Garden Old Price riots of Autumn/Winter 1809 (the so-called ‘OP War’) to compliment the knowledge of reportage in graphic satire I had already extensively explored. I was revitalised. Not only did ‘The Edit’ improve, but my moonlighting project quickly took shape. The result, now published, is a work I am rather proud of.

European Comic Art was my immediate choice as a location for publication. And I was pleased to find on receiving my complimentary copy the editors restating their desire for ECA to remain a diverse forum for scholarship – the feature of the journal I have always admired.

The thrust of my argument, which combines this fresh research with the methodological apparatus established in my thesis, goes thus.

Processes of reportage in Georgian London differed from one printed form to another. In particular the discrepancies in volume and temporal space between event and publication exhibited by newspapers and graphic satire mean we must read their responses differently. This statement, though hardly revelatory, is worth foregrounding in its particulars – namely that graphic satires were produced in considerably less volume than newspapers and could not respond to events on a daily basis as newspapers could. And these difference, I argue, can be explained by the restraints imposed on graphic satire by the technological apparatus required to produce each print.

Thus, I write:

What this discussion suggests then is that rather than existing as unproblematically dissimilar modes of reportage, the differences between newspapers and graphic satires were fundamental to their coexistence as modes of communication, and thus the meaning and impact of their numerical and temporal idiosyncrasies require exploration. Moreover, it is clear that these modes of communication require nomenclature – newspapers operated in ‘real’ time; graphic satire on a ‘virtual’, spectatorial plane. (p.85)

Using the OP War (which began on 18 September 1809) as an example, I examine reportage in respect to first placards and second the narratives of events presented in these communicative forms. What I find is that graphic satire tended towards reporting the use of stock placards by old price rioters (‘OLD PRICES’; ‘No Catalani’; ‘John Bull against John Kemble’; ‘No Foreign Sofas’; ‘No Italian Private Boxes’), whilst newspapers (note: I focused my research on The Times as they took a largely neutral position with respect to the riots) reported a diverse and creative array of slogans and motifs. Similarly the narratives of events presented in graphic satires were far more general in scope than those found in the newspaper press.

An interesting example of this, and one which I am expanding on in my current research, is located in the retrospective application of stereotypically Jewish characteristics to the behaviour of the management. From early-October 1809 Jewish pugilists were employed by the Covent Garden Theatre management in order to suppress the riots. Though he denied direct involvement, part-owner and lead actor John Philip Kemble quickly became branded as Jewish. Graphic satire took this one step further, using the rhetoric of Jewishness as a metanarrative of the riots in toto. As I write:

[In graphic satire] real narratives of Jewish entry into the OP war collapse and are replaced by a virtual narrative where Kemble was ‘a Jew’ before not only the rebuilding of Covent Garden theatre, the ensuring OP riots and the pugilistic contests of 6 October, but before his entry into the London theatric scene. (p. 95)

These counter-factual narratives do not however disqualify graphic satirists from the title of ‘reporters’. Graphic satires were published by businessmen, and as they were expensive to produce the capital investment involved required an expectation that a particular print would sell. Thus their artistic content was sensitive to the expectations of likely consumers, a business model I have described here in the same terms as during my PhD thesis – as the ‘artist/publisher/consumer nexus’. Thus I write:

OP prints therefore contained virtual narratives, which paid but loose attention to fact and time, not only because publishers were keen for their prints to offer a universal representation of the Covent Garden theatre experience (so as not to become obsolete) but also, as evinced by the continued association of the management with Jewish identity in placards and letters after 20 October, because consumers demanded such virtual narratives. (p. 96)

This I see as the novelty of my research. There is some evidence to suggest that graphic satires were an active agent in the OP riots (if of significantly lesser importance than the newspaper press), yet the scholarly orthodoxy is to frame arguments that satires reported on the mood of their likely consumers within discourses of popular lawlessness and liberalism (or deference and conservatism). In sum to research from the prints (and the representations therein) down. The revision I explore in this piece is to analyse the representations in these prints from the business realities of their production upwards, which (I hope) allows for an enriched analysis of the representations found in the graphic satires of the period. In sum, I read every satirical print with two questions in mind – ‘who made this?’ and ‘who was the artist/publisher hoping to sell this to?’ – in doing so allowing my work to make concluding remarks with resort to less speculation I see in so much work in this area. Therefore:

It is this accessible relevance that ensured that during this period of libertarian protest, which, as The Times feared, threatened to spill into wider disturbances over perceived divisions of law and liberty, graphic satires rather than hanging onto the coat-tails of events and opinion used instead the apparent disadvantage of their distance from events and their virtuality of representation to enter themselves into the process of reportage. (p. 104).

It is my hope that an emphasis on technology, production and business exigencies will prompt a thorough revision of the motivations underpinning visual culture in the Georgian metropolis.

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