A lady of pictures: the connoisseur in caricature

May 11, 2009
A lady composed of pictures

A lady composed of pictures

This female connoisseur holds her lorgnette at the ready, poised to prove her aesthetic sensibility and fashionable taste. Yet her own body is composed of the very miniatures, prints and portraits upon which she would train her quizzical gaze. On her broad skirts hang an assortment of landscapes, cameo portraits, popular prints of romantic figures such as Byron and Napoleon, and animal paintings, while she is crowned with a number of intimate miniatures in place of a hat. Even her feet appear to have been replaced by prints.

The image plays light-heartedly with ideas of what it means to be an individual, and about the power of things to represent the self. Teasingly, the paintings bestow meaning and animation on the connoisseur even as she pretends to define their own worth. They make up her identity; without the art there would, quite literally, be no connoisseur.

A composite picture, ‘The connoisseur’ lies in the tradition of Giuseppe Arcimboldi (1527-1593), the Italian painter best known for his curious portraits composed entirely from fantastical arrangements of vegetables, fruit, fish and beasts. Designed by George Spratt, she belongs to a series of whimsical lithographs called ‘Twelve original designs’, published c. 1830 by Charles Tilt (1797-1861).  Her unusual companions include, amongst others, an ‘Antiquarian’, his body made up of medieval fragments and pieces of stained-glass window, a ‘Conchologist’ composed from her collection of rare and beautiful seashells, a ‘Mineralogist’ constructed from a selection of polished crystals, marbles and other minerals, and an ‘Entomologist’ with limbs formed from a living tangle of beetles, butterflies and grasshoppers. – Amanda Flynn

Image:

The connoisseur. John Johnson Shelfmark: Trade in Prints and Scraps 2 (1).  ProQuest durable URL

Copyright © 2009 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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Bitter pills and blood-letting: 19th century medicine in satire

May 6, 2009
A patient undergoes bloodletting, or the euphemistically termed 'breathing a vein'.

A patient undergoes bloodletting, or the euphemistically termed 'breathing a vein'.

Medicine, in the early nineteenth-century, was not a pleasant experience for the patient. It was an age of “heroic” medicine that consisted of “copious bleeding and massive doses of drugs.” In 1804, James Gillray produced this series of satirical etchings that brilliantly charts the progress of disease in one unlucky patient…

In ‘Breathing a vein’ the patient stoically begins his treatment with a course of bloodletting, or phlebotomy. Beloved by both physicians and quacks in the early nineteenth-century, it was a standard medical practice (and, indeed, one of the oldest, dating from classical antiquity). It entailed drawing blood from one or more of the larger external veins, such as those in the forearm, in order to ‘cure’ a disease and restore the body’s natural balance —frequently physicians would take so much blood in one sitting that the patient would be left faint and swooning. Gillray plays with cruel wit upon the contrast between the title, ‘breathing a vein’, which suggests a light and pleasant experience, and the reality, as indicated by the fountain of blood gushing from the patient’s arm and his glum expression.

The patient awaits the effects of his purgative emetic...

The patient awaits the effects of his purgative emetic...

His condition not having improved, the patient is shown in the second print trying a ‘Gentle emetic’ instead—a dose intended to cause a bout of (anything but gentle) vomiting. The pale-looking patient sits beside a waiting bowl, while the physician holds his head in readiness. 

The patient swallows his bitter tasting medicines.

The patient swallows his bitter tasting medicines.

In the third of the series, ‘Taking physick’, the patient—looking ever more wretched—screws up his face against the sour taste of his medicine. Few effective drugs existed, and those that physicians did prescribe were sometimes more harmful than helpful—and the effects they produced were ripe for caricature. In this case the man is probably taking a laxative intended to purge the system of deletrious material. A labelled bottle is clutched in his hand, and two others stand waiting on the mantelpiece. Physicians would often prescribe drugs to be taken repeatedly, many times over in a day, and the patient’s unshaven, dishevelled state suggests that he has been subject to this treatment for some time. Indeed, Gillray’s sly depiction of the man’s unbuttoned trousers and trailing shirttails suggests that he has spent much of his treatment in close confinement with his chamber pot.

In celebration of his recovery, the patient joyfully tucks into dinner.

In celebration of his recovery, the patient joyfully tucks into dinner.

In the fourth print, ‘Charming well again’, the patient is finally recovered (probably despite rather than because of his treatment), and beams with delight. His relief seems due not just to feeling well again, but also to having exchanged his noxious doses for a hearty meal of roast chicken. Clearly, he hasn’t wasted a moment of his recovery on such trifling matters as changing out of his sick clothes and nightcap; having paused just long enough to tuck a napkin under his chin, he has launched straight into dinner.  – Amanda Flynn         

1Lois N. Manger, History of Medicine, New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 1992, p. 205.

Images:

Breathing a vein. John Johnson Shelfmark: Trade in Prints and Scraps 8 (64). ProQuest durable URL

Gentle emetic. John Johnson Shelfmark: Trade in Prints and Scraps 8 (70). ProQuest durable URL

Taking physick. John Johnson Shelfmark: Trade in Prints and Scraps 8 (73). ProQuest durable URL

Charming well again. John Johnson Shelfmark: Trade in Prints and Scraps 8 (67). ProQuest durable URL

Copyright © 2009 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.


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.