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Stephen Copley Research Report: Katie Snow at the Gillray Collection

For more information on how to apply for a BARS Stephen Copley Research Award, visit the BARS website.

Stephen Copley Research Report by Katie Snow

House of Lords Library: The Gillray Collection

This May, I visited the Parliamentary Archives in Westminster, London. Thanks to the generous support of BARS, I was able to undertake some key research for my PhD thesis, which explores representations of the breast in eighteenth-century visual satire. As a massive satirical print enthusiast, I’ve had my eye on the House of Lords Gillray collection for a while. Bequeathed to the library in 1899, this beautiful compilation of caricatures belonged to Sir William Augustus Fraser (1826-1898). Excitingly, some of the prints within the eleven volumes do not appear in the British Museum’s catalogue of prints and drawings – the go-to source for scholars of visual satire. The House of Lords Gillray collection is precious, and I’m grateful to the library for granting me access.

The intention of my PhD project is to progress understanding of the way in which ideological narratives of femininity, and especially motherhood, were (and still are), forged around the breast. Previous scholarship has overlooked the significance of the breast within visual satire, and my research seeks to rectify that. As expected, a lot of the prints within the eleven volumes feature bared breasts, and I collected numerous new sources. Viewing the satires in person also allowed me to notice previously missed details within familiar digitised prints. For example, a mother with an infant to her breast appears in the top left hand corner of Gillray’s famed Shakespeare Sacrificed;-or-The Offering to Avarice(1789) – an important feature that’s passed me by until now.

 

James Gillray, Shakespeare Sacrificed; – or – The Offering to Avarice, published by Hannah Humphrey, 1789

 

Detail of Shakespeare Sacrificed 

 

The image depicts a woman seated upon a cloud, cradling an infant. Her right breast is exposed, and the baby grasps her left nipple as she glances down. Two other figures huddle close, and the baby either urinates or passes wind into the disgusted face of the figure in blue. Every detail included in a satirical prints is significant, and I’m looking forward to digging deeper into the social, political and cultural inferences behind this representation.

Fraser was a meticulous collector, and his (huge and very heavy) volumes are almost perfectly preserved. Pasted upon blue paper with gold gilding, the prints are vivid in colour. The hobbyist habits of Fraser are interesting; he arranged his prints chronologically, inserted markers to indicate the prints that he was unable to secure, and most often devoted a double page to each print, presumably to prevent the colours rubbing off on each other. There are also occasions where Fraser has pasted in a black and white copy of a print and later added its colour equivalent, as below. This implies a preference for coloured satires, and/or for the latest version/all versions of a single print.

 

James Gillray, National Discourse. Published by Hannah Humphrey, 1780.

 

One of the highlights of the visit was the stunning print below. The Installation Supper (1788) unfolded like a concertina and stretched across the room, eliciting low whistles of appreciation from fellow reading room comrades. Depicting a dinner party given by the Knights of Bath on the 19 May 1788, The Installation-Suppercaricatures key social and political players including the Prince of Wales, Edmund Burke, and Maria Fitzherbert.[1]

 

James Gillray, The Installation-Supper, as given at the Pantheon, by the Knights of the Bath on the 26th of May, 1788. Published by S. W. Fores, 1788

 

Detail from print. The British Museum, BM Satires 7330.

 

Additionally, I was able to spend some of my time in London at the British Library. Here, I found sources for an upcoming chapter about the breast and discourses of social corruption, damage and disorder.

I would like to extend my gratitude to BARS for the generous Stephen Copley bursary, which supported an inspiring and productive visit to London. Further thanks are owed to the archival staff at the Parliamentary archives and the House of Lords librarians, who were most helpful, knowledgeable and kind.

[1] Further details of the guests within the print can be found in Mary Dorothy George’s description of the piece for the British Museum Catalogue. Mary Dorothy George, ‘Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum’, VI, 1938.