We now know that the late-Georgian satirical print shop, at least in the form we have often conceived it, did not exist.
This print shop sold satirical prints, ‘caricatures’, and appealed to a broad cross-section of Londoners: whether those gawking at the latest prints in the shop window or those stepping inside to purchase something for themselves, their master, their friend. This print shop, or at least its exterior, was a site of egalitarian camaraderie, social critique, and carnivalesque. And it was one of the sites of London, bemoaned by conservative commentators, adored by the average Londoner: be he (and I say ‘he’ quite deliberately, this was a homosocial kind of fun) a weaver, publican or lord of the realm.
Of course it is a little disingenuous for me to say we ‘now know’ all this to be at best problematic, at worst plain wrong. Diana Donald’s still essential Age of Caricature reminded us some years ago that for all print shop window scenes, prints depicting print shop windows, purported to tell us about the print shop, both exterior and interior, they were also advertisements, puffs, quite literally façades. Print scholars – Tim Clayton, Anthony Griffiths, John Ford, Tony Dyson- have traced for some time the rich interconnections between book sellers, print shop owners, and satirical print publishers. From cultural history too there have been naysayers. Having bought the ‘print shop window scene as print shop window as print shop’ bait a little in City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell’s most recent work, the exquisite The First Bohemians, places the satirical print – and by association those artist-engravers and publishers who together brought these prints to market – into a vibrant, supportive network of metropolitan creatives who gravitated around the ad hoc, chaotic, shifting geographic intersections between the City of London and the Town, the West – or ‘Worst’ – End of London. And Brian Maidment, in his attempts to revive the reputation of experimental satirical work published in the 1830s and 1840s – a period that has hitherto, and erroneously, been seen as a lull in the history of comic art – examines the print shop window scene at length, exposing in so doing the purposes, narratives, and meanings of this genre of comic art.
If the satirical print shop disappears from view, then what replaces it? For of course businesses did publish and sell satirical prints in Georgian London, and some of those businesses did almost exclusively sell satirical prints: Hannah Humphrey‘s St. James’s Street print shop, the home for many years of James Gillray, being one. Humphrey’s collaboration with Gillray was successful and spawned many imitators. But those imitators, lacking as they did the clout of a Gillray, imitated Humphrey only to varying degrees: her’s was a model if not the model for making money from this trade. And so those businesses that did sell satirical prints in late-Georgian London fit uncomfortably under the ‘satirical print shop’ umbrella for they were individual businesses embedded within particular communities, servicing particular types of Londoner (or visitor to London). A brief roll call illustrates the point. Rudolph Ackermann (Strand) sold books, periodicals, art, prints, classes, framing services, and some satirical prints. Thomas Tegg (Cheapside) mixed commissioning new satirical prints and reprinting tired copper plate satires with selling books, typically of the cheap variety, often multi-model. Samuel Fores (Piccadilly) styled himself as a ‘Stationer’, and though he sold satirical prints at some volume clearly felt it unwise to limit his business to one product. And Laurie & Whittle (Fleet Street) continued the work of their late master James Sayer by selling a variety of fine prints with a speciality in maps: the satirical print, and in their case only satirical work of the apolitical, social droll variety, was a secondary consideration.
The point is that late-Georgian satirical art was part of something much bigger: the commercial culture of The Great Wen. And once that culture shifted as the 19th century progressed, once new opportunities came along, satirical art changed to exploit those new opportunities. The experiments with size and form documented by Maidment are part of this story, a story of how comic image and text gradually fused, assimilated, coalesced. One of the most pleasing discoveries of our recent release at the British Library of 1 million images from eighteenth, nineteenth and early-twentieth century books onto Flickr, and into the Public Domain for unrestricted use and reuse, has been the number of comic images hidden in those pages, images which help inform, improve, nuance this story. But many, if not most, remain hidden, because apart of the title of the book each image came from, the location of each image on the page, and the size of each image, we knew very little about these images when we pushed them out on 13 December last year. Since then the public have added over 50,000 tags to those images making them more discoverable, breaking them down into meaningful, usable categories. And comic art uncovered is only a fraction of this figure, so whilst I’ve found and tagged some, there are many more to be found and tagged. This is where you come in. For by digging around and using the tag ‘comic_art‘ we have the opportunity to create an unrivalled collection of comic book illustration that just might transform our understanding of the history of comic art, of data that could be mined in novel and unexpected ways, of resources that have the potential to bring the unseen to new eyes.