The British sense of humour. It makes sense, right? Satire, the satirical print, that biting wit in visual form which so characterises the Eighteenth Century forms the basis of the Ashmolean Museum's latest small exhibition 'Love Bites'. James Gillray is the focus, one of Britain's most famous caricaturists celebrated 200 years after his death. The caricature is its own form of political art, and this exhibition saturates you in some of its finest British examples. Where modern posters, buzzfeed articles and soforth play their own games with images to poke fun at celebrities, eighteenth-century England had a print culture which saw gentlemen rushing to shops for the latest issue. This collection gathers some enduringly touching examples.
Gillray Love Bites poster (copyright Ashmolean Museum)
The room is organised into themed areas, all pertaining to the oxymoronic idea of painful, biting, twisted, warped or otherwise problematic love. Sometimes obvious, sometimes more creatively brought to be relevant to the theme, this exhibition offers an array of caricatures which will both provoke thought and occasionally have you laughing out loud.
Particularly pertinent to today's consumerism, the section on 'The Collectors' reflects on obsession with things, with material acquisition. 'Connoisseurs examining a collection of George Rowlands' shows men gazing at farmyard pictures while another pig picture is put up, mocking people's fascination with the 'noble savage' and countryside themes, potentially with a whiff of the Emperor's New Clothes about the experience.
In the Assimilation section one print stands out, 'Doublines of character: - or striking resemblances in Phisiognomy - 'If you would know Mens Hearts, look in their Faces', from November 1798. In this scene, a range of Whig leaders are shown with warped 'ghost' doubles, drawing comparisons between them and negative characteristics and characters. By using the doubles, the print not only pokes fun at the characters, but it also pokes fun at Physiognomy, the idea that one's character can be read in one's face; if this were so, the doubles would not be needed. This clever print is picked up in one of the two newly commissioned ones, which represents the politicians of today in a similarly acerbic style.
Some prints are much simpler. In the section 'Bites, swallows, strikes', 'Gout' represents that physical ailment, so common in the age, as a biting monster inflaming one's foot with its fangs. There's nothing particularly erudite about it, but it shows well how love of one's victuals and vices leads to disaster.
Classical allusions are rife, and foreigners are just as vulnerable to Gillray's pen as Englishmen. In the section 'Couples', the Prince of Orange, a known narcoleptic, is shown being led, ashen-faced, by his attendant Nesslin, depicted as Pylades and Orestes. Pylades, the companion of Orestes with notably little to say in ancient literature, used to highlight how the 'sidekick' can become important.
The monarchy itself comes in for close attention. In the section 'Three in a dynastic bed', for example, a series of prints depict the illicit relationship between the Prince of Wales and Lady Jersey. Marriage in general is one theme, with musical harmony used to depict the rosy world of courtships (Harmony before Matrimony) paired with the stark reality of marriage (Matrimonial Harmony). This pairing, or grouping of prints helps give a sense of narrative to parts of the collection, stopping it being isolated instances of humour rushing through attempts to group by theme.
The Prince of Wales, often a controversial figure (in each generation), is further satirised in the 'Kisses Political' section, where he is shown in an 1804 print entitled 'The Reconciliation', returning to his father (George III) as the Prodigal Son. Shocking at the time for its ragged portrayal of royalty, it shows how even the Bible can be used to satirical ends. This section is paired with 'Kisses Private', where 'The Beauty' shows Lady Celia Johnson enamoured of the Welsh ambassador, who is depicted as a sheep - the stereotypical association runs deep.
There's a small shop where you can buy postcards of the main prints. Even seeing which ones the organisers think were sufficiently significant to merit postcards is an interesting reflection on contemporary attitudes towards Georgian satire. We might not be able to go to our local print shop, but these will do!
All the caricatures are on loan from New College, Oxford, and we have to hope that something further is done with them once the exhibition closes. It may only be one room, but it's an absorbing exhibition and well worth attending.