Rethinking the print-shop window

Adorning the cover of Diana Donald’s classic The Age of Caricature is a Gillray print with which scholars of Georgian culture are all too familiar – his VERY SLIPPY-WEATHER (Hannah Humphrey, 10 February 1808). In the foreground a grotesque cit slips while traversing an icy footpath, but the eye is drawn away from this calamity to the spectacular setting of the design – the print-shop window of Hannah Humphrey and the multi-class crowd who gather to admire it.

Historians have rightly displayed caution when using such scenes as windows (no pun intended) into Georgian social life. Satirical prints are, after all, representations of urban life rather than representative recordings of metropolitan scenes. The print-shop window has, however, tended to provoke something of a methodological amnesia in scholars. Hence Donald, like M. Dorothy George before her (in Hogarth to Cruikshank), tends to see such scenes as proof of the egalitarian nature, reach, and intention of satirical prints and the trade in graphic satire.

This, I argue, is false, and the print-shop window scenes such as these are red-herrings. My reasons are as follows:

  • First. Prints representing print-shop windows published during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of graphic satire (circa 1780-1810) are almost always produced by the publisher whose shop is depicted. Hence they, first and foremost, are puffs.
  • Second. Satirical prints were luxury items, and hence the spectators depicted within such prints were for the most part not patrons of print-shops. This distinction is important. Print-shops were businesses, and although they undoubtedly benefited from the presence of crowds, the discourses within satirical prints were aimed not at a heterogeneous public but at their likely purchaser. Those who find this contention problematic need, I argue, to address more closely a simple question – why would these businesses aim their product at people outside of the likely purchasing community?
  • Third. From around the 1820s numerous print-shop window scenes appear which are not depictions of the print-shops of their publishers. Indeed they begin to mock the crowds viewing prints in print-shop windows quite viciously. However historians rarely consider that these latter prints are commentaries. Placed within the physical confines of ‘march of mind’ publications, they may look similar to their print-shop window counterparts from the 1790s-1810s but they are in fact not only a different form but an entirely different medium. The two, therefore, must be disentangled.
  • Fourth. Gillray’s VERY SLIPPY-WEATHER is brilliant. A classic example of Gillray’s ambiguous and loaded mode of communication. However rather than being an isolated print it is part of a series of designs exploring the contest between man and nature. This is usually given only a cursory mention by scholars, but surely it is the most important feature of the print over and above the framing device the design deploys?

Post-Donald the print-shop window has become a useful and largely unproblematised shorthand for the ‘popularity’ and ‘public’ reach of satirical prints in the late-Georgian period. This has, I argue, distracted us from the task of understanding the commercial, economic, material, and environmental realities within which these works were produced; from seeing that form and function shaped profoundly the process of constructing representations.

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking the print-shop window”

  1. Surely the consumption of caricature and visual satire was similar to that of other printed materials such as newspapers, pamphlets and squibs – Consumption was carried out both directly (i.e. by purchasing printed material directly from a street vendor, print shop or book-seller) and indirectly (via shop windows, ‘gratis exhibitions’ of prints and as decoration in coffee houses and other public venues for the conumption of news).

    A couple of thoughts on the points raised here;

    1. Print shop window scenes may have contained an element of advertising but one should not forget that evidence of the socially diverse nature of the crowds gathered outside print shops can be found in numerous written sources ranging from the 1760s through to the 1830s and in more conventional forms of art which were, presumably, intended to be exact visual representations of the urban landscape. 1. See; O. Goldsmith, The Citizen of the World, 1762, p. 175; The Scotsman, 2nd April 1828; W.M. Thackeray, On the Genius of George Cruikshank, 1840; B.M. Collection of Prints and Drawings item reference 0511.654.

    2. If print-sellers were only interested in attracting the attention and custom of a narrow section of the upper and affluent middle classes then one has to ask why the lower classes were represented at all in these prints? Clearly there is an element to prints such as Darly’s A Macaroni Print Shop (1772) and Robert’s Caricature Shop (1801) which seeks to celebrate and publicise the diversity of the print shop’s clientele and which legitimises the concept of indirect consumer consumption of visual satire.

    3. Equally there are also examples of later caricatures in which working class crowds are presented sympathetically and in which the print shop, like the Georgian theatre, is presented as a venue which allows for an acceptable loosening of rigid hierarchies of social class. See for example William Heath’s 1829 satire Good Humour B.M. ref 15859.

    Great blog. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you for your comments.

      I agree on all the above points (I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny the various quotes mentioning the print shop crowds) and accept that indirect advertising would have played an important role in the business of satirical printing. Why else would the window exist.

      However I guess what I am trying to do is reopen the debate on the issue of purpose. To my mind historians have argued for the ‘popular’ role of graphic satire using fragmentary evidence eagerly deployed in light of a lack of evidence. They’ve tended to assume the reasons for existence of these prints and not really joined together the process to the product (or, more precisely, the processes of each publisher to the products they sold).

      Similar assumptions were made about the book until Adrian Johns’ Nature of the Book (1998) unpacked the disconnect between the book now and the book then. Johns famously wrote, to paraphrase, that we need to forget what we think we know about the book before studying the historic book. To my mind this is not a bad starting point for rethinking the satirical print.

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