A brief guide to broadsides

August 22, 2008

From the 16th to the mid-19th centuries, the general public looked to the broadside for news of the latest sensational crimes, murders and executions. As one of the most popular forms of street literature, broadsides were the tabloid newspapers of their day, selling near the gallows on execution days for just a penny. Public hangings were virtually a form of entertainment, attracting large crowds eager for a grandstand view of the proceedings, and the broadside vendors were ready to shout their news the moment the accused was “launched into eternity.”

  

The execution of John Akrill

This example, entitled Some particulars of the execution of John Akrill, is typical of the broadside format. A single sheet of paper printed on one side, the broadside usually included an account of the crime, a woodcut illustration (in this example, a scene depicting the execution), a description of the convict’s final hours and his last dying confession. The latter was often given in the form of a cautionary verse, emphasising the sorrow of the convict and warning readers of the dangers of drink and bad company. John Akrill, the unhappy subject of this particular broadside, was sentenced to death in 1827 for the crime of horse stealing, one of nearly 500 offences at that time punishable by death.

 

While many thousands of broadsides were printed, the market was dominated by only a few printers. Profits depended on the printer’s ability to produce and sell broadsides quickly and cheaply, and production costs were kept to the bare minimum. Woodcuts could be reused as the occasion demanded, and stock illustrations of the gallows even had a removable section designed to accommodate the required number of hanging bodies!

The gallows

 

Broadsides were often prepared far in advance of the execution date and were notoriously unreliable, containing numerous printing errors and inaccuracies of all kinds. Many, if not all, of the gallows speeches and confessions reported were completely fictional, while some printers even reused entire texts, changing only the names.

 

 The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera contains several hundred crime broadsides, all of which are being catalogued and digitised as part of the joint Proquest and Oxford University project, The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera. – Ken Gibb

 

Images:

Some particulars of the execution of John Akrill. John Johnson Shelfmark: Crime 1 (4) (ProQuest durable URL)

 

The last dying speech and confession of Thomas Howard. John Johnson Shelfmark: Crime 1 (97) (ProQuest durable URL)

 

Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest.  Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.

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Image magic: the lure of the print shop

August 22, 2008
'Very slippy weather indeed!' Hand-coloured etching by James Gillray (1808).

'Very slippy weather indeed!' Hand-coloured etching by James Gillray (1808).

Gillray’s depiction of an elderly gentleman losing his footing on an icy street is highly comic. Yet, apart from one yapping dog, his spectacular tumble goes entirely unnoticed by the crowd on the pavement; all eyes are fixed instead on the paper drama of the print shop window.

Print shops really did draw every eye in this manner in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Apart from the cheap woodcuts in chapbooks and broadsides, and the odd painted signboard, there was little accessible imagery in day-to-day life; the affluent might attend art exhibitions, or possess their own collections, but the print shop window was free to crowds of all ranks. It effectively doubled as a picture gallery, showcasing the latest portraits, caricatures of fashionable follies and biting satires for an audience hungry for the magic of the visual. One tourist to London observed that outside the most popular shops the ‘enthusiasm is indescribable when the next drawing appears…it is a veritable madness. You have to make your way in through the crowd with your fists’. Outside this particular shop a dandy with a monocle, a footman, an army officer, an errand boy and a coachman jostle for best position, whilst inside two clergymen pore over an impression titled ‘Catholic Emancipation’.

The print shop window in closeup

The print shop window in closeup

The shop depicted is the West End business of Hannah Humphrey (c. 1745-1818), the leading caricature print seller of her day. The prints that can be glimpsed in the windows are all earlier etchings by Gillray, for Humphrey had a profitable monopoly on the sale of his satires, and this print doubles as an advertisement for his work and her shop. Among the prints on view are medical satires (‘Taking physick’, ‘Breathing a vein’, ‘A gentle emetic’, ‘A brisk cathartic’ and ‘Charming well again’), political satires (‘A kick at the Broad-Bottoms!’, ‘The King of Brobdingnag, and Gulliver’, ‘Tiddy-doll, the great French-Gingerbread Baker, drawing out a new batch of Kings’) and personal caricatures (‘Two-Penny Whist’, which cheekily depicts Hannah Humphrey herself).

Humphrey’s premises at 27 St. James’s Street, which she opened in 1797, were in the heart of fashionable London and well placed to lure in passing nobility and gentry-the exclusive gentlemen’s clubs of Brooke’s, Boodle’s and White’s (frequented by the likes of the Prince of Wales) were just up the street. According to contemporary accounts, her shop was well appointed inside, with mahogany counters and showcases. She also loaned out portfolios for the evening. The rooms above the shop were where she lived with Gillray, who had been her lodger and close friend as well as her principal artist, since 1793 (which fueled much speculation that their relationship was more than purely commercial). 

It was also here that Gillray would make his farcical suicide attempt in 1811; suffering from severe depression after the failure of his eyesight (he produced his final print in 1809), he attempted to throw himself from an attic window.  The window, however, had iron bars across it, and Gillray got his head jammed – he was spotted by a member of White’s club and extricated, looking for all the world like one of his own cruel caricatures. – Amanda Flynn

 John Johnson shelfmark: Trade in Prints and Scraps 8 (74) (ProQuest durable URL)

Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest.  Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.


Miniature theatre

August 15, 2008

Explosion at the mill

Explosion at the mill from The miller and his men

This magnificent explosion helps explain why The Miller and his Men was one of the most popular of the toy theatre plays. With twenty illustrated sheets, some paints, and a pair of scissors, a child could amass all the ingredients of a successful night at the theatre: an evil miller who doubles as the leader of a nefarious gang of thieves, a pair of lovers kept apart by said miller, and the gallant Count Friberg, who orchestrates the reunion of the lovers and the dramatic destruction of the mill. A picturesque windmill, late night smuggling scenes, and plenty of sword fighting keep the action building to the final crescendo that is the explosion.

 

This toy theatre set was published by Benjamin Pollack sometime around the end of the 19th century, but its beginnings may be traced to Covent Garden Theatre, October 21st, 1813 when Isaac Pocock and Henry R. Bishop’s stage version of The Miller was first performed to great acclaim.  Capitalising on the popularity of plays like this, theatrical print sellers first sold images of the actors and actresses in costume, but were soon selling smaller vignettes of entire scenes and then entire plays.  Accompanied by a condensed script, these miniature plays indoctrinated generations of British children into the wonders of the theatre during the 19th century. Miniature theatre enthusiasts included Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Claude Lovat Fraser.

 

Characters from The miller and his men
Characters from Pollock’s The miller and his men

Early toy theatre prints were made from engraved copper plates, the engravings often from sketches made at the theatre on the night. Sets, costumes, and even the actors’ likenesses were copied, and could often be recognised. Inexpensive lithography made the reproduction of these images even easier, and thousands of cheap litho sheets were sold “penny plain, tuppence coloured” during the Victorian era, along with paints, tinsel, card board, and an array of sundries to make as realistic a replication of the original drama as possible.   J. K. Green,  Arthur and Alexander Park, William G. Webb, Matthew Skelt and Benjamin Pollock’s father-in-law J. Reddington were only the most prolific of a host of publishers who made a living out of selling “plays and characters”.  The popularity of miniature theatres was waning by the end of the nineteenth century, although Benjamin Pollock and his daughters kept the art alive until his death 1937.  Today, when toy theatre has almost been forgotten, these vibrant theatrical documents provide us with insights into the world of early 19th-century theatre, and a glimpse into Victorian childhood. – Kathy Whalen Moss

 Images: Scene 11. Pollock’s scenes in the Miller and his men.  No. 9. John Johnson Shelfmark: Miniature Theatre 2 (61a) (ProQuest durable URL)

Pollock’s characters in the Miller and his men. Pl. 4. John Johnson Shelfmark: Miniature Theatre 2 (54a) (ProQuest durable URL)
 

Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest.  Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.