The Shocking Case of Count Fig

The summer of 1789 heralded the arrival of dark days for many in Britain: revolution in France, the Russians were on the march in the east, and the swearing in of an American president seemingly confirmed that the former colonies would not, as had been widely predicted, collapse into anarchy. But for the residents of the Poultry in London, the long summer of 1789 brought a new terror: the threat of a disturbed night’s sleep. Throughout June of that year the occupants of this oddly-named thoroughfare had been woken by the sound of someone knocking loudly at their doors during the dead of night. Inevitably this mysterious caller would always vanish before the householder had chance to answer the door, and speculation about his identity quickly became rife throughout the area.

After being awoken on several occasions by the sound of someone ringing his front doorbell during the small hours, Thomas Ribight of 40 Poultry hit on a novel idea for unmasking this nocturnal nuisance caller. Ribright was an optician and manufacturer of scientific instruments of some renown; he was also a keen amateur scientist and had recently completed a number of experiments on the conductive properties of different metals when exposed to a strong electrical current. Before retiring to bed one evening he sprinkled a large quantity of tin filings over his front doorstep and connected a length of copper wire to handle of his doorbell. The other end of the wire was connected to a Leyden Jar, a sort of primitive battery, which Ribright had charged with a large charge of static electricity. With his trap set, he duly took himself to bed and fell into a fitful sleep. 

Sometime later he was awoken suddenly by the sound of a loud scream at his front door. Running downstairs, he threw the door open and saw the figure of Peter Wheeler, a neighbour, slumped in the doorway clutching his hand in agony. Wheeler was a well-known figure in the Poultry; a successful grocer and tea-dealer who had been nicknamed ‘Count Fig’ by his neighbours on account of both his wealth and the affected airs and graces he had adopted since coming into money. Wheeler had subsequently quarreled with several of his neighbours, including Ribright, and decided to get his own back by sallying forth at nights to knock them from their beds. The little grocer eventually managed to stumble to his feet and, assuming that he had been the victim of some lethal assault, yelled “What! You shoot people eh?! Damn ye!” before staggering off in the direction of his home. The noise alerted a number of passersby, including members of the city watch, but on learning the reasons for Wheeler’s predicament, they too decided to enjoy a laugh at the hapless Count Fig’s expense.

The story quickly spread across London and was reported in the Times 29th June 1789. It is presumably from this account that a number of caricaturists took their inspiration, as prints relying the incident soon began to appear in the window’s of the city’s printshops.  Animal magnetism on an improv’d method or Count Fig in a trance, published by W. Price of Tower Hill on 2nd July 1789 is the only one of these prints to carry a publication line and date. It shows Wheeler being blasted away from Ribright’s door, much to the amusement of two watchmen and a drab who happy to be passing by. The image is accompanied by the following limerick:

…The Count attack’d the Inchanted Wire
Unconscious of the latant Fire,
Which hurld him prostrate on the Stones
Screaming aloud my bones – my Bones
The Watch approachd & bear the Wight
Home on their Shoulders all be Sh[i]te

Two other prints, almost certainly both the work of by the same artist and publisher, were also produced anonymously around this time. The first of these was The downfall, of Peter Ficus, commonly called Count Fig, the little grocer, which also shows Fig in the moments after being electrocuted. The second, Peter Fig the little grocer, commonly call’d Count Fig, has been more carefully engraved and was presumably produced at a slightly later date in order to capitalise on the on-going interest in the subject. It shows Wheeler striking a rather ridiculous pose in his shop and contains a rhyme which compares his features to those of a baboon.

The public’s interest sparked a rash of increasingly fanciful accounts of the incident which Ribright himself eventually felt compelled to correct. On the 8th July 1789 a letter appeared in the Times, stating the facts of the matter as relayed here and stating that the author was willing to swear an affidavit to that effect if needs be.

 

Print for sale: An Emblematical view of the Constitutions of England & France c.1793

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I’m offering this unusual little print for sale via my listings page. Click on the link at the top of the page for further details.

It provides an allegorical comparison between the political affairs of France and Britain during the early 1790s. On the left, the British constitution is depicted as a rock surrounded by the symbols of constitutional monarchy and engraved with the word ‘unanimity’. The silhouettes of King George III and Queen Charlotte can be seen on either side of the rock.

France meanwhile is represented by a fearsome hydra, whose writhing limbs crush the old French flag and the scales of justice. Four of the creature’s heads are consuming crowns and fleur-de-lis representing the members of the French Royal family, whilst the fifth breathes fire towards Great Britain. Within the body of the serpent it is possible to pick out the silhouettes of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Princess Marie Thérèse and the Dauphin Louis Charles.

There’s no date or publication information but the subject matter is consistent with numerous prints which were published in England following the execution of Louis XVI and the outbreak of war with France in early 1793.

The print is small, measuring approximately 3 x 4½ inches and was possibly intended to by pasted into pocket book, diary, snuff box, or other similarly-sized item.

Romeyn de Hooghe, l’Europe Allarmee pour le fils d’un meunier, 1688/89

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The Dutch artist and engraver Romeyn de Hooghe (1645 – 1708) has been described as the “first great modern graphic satirist” by the historian Simon Schama, who credited him with a leading role in the creation of a satirical trope which juxtaposed the boisterous libertarian Protestantism of the Northern European states with the stultifying absolutism of the Roman Catholic monarchies. It was a theme which was adopted wholeheartedly by English satirists in the early eighteenth-century and was to a remain common refrain in British graphic satire for the next 150 years, underpinning caricatures such as William Hogarth’s O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) (1748) to James Gillray’s End of the Irish farce of Catholic emancipation (1805) and beyond.

In L’Europe Allarmée pour le fils d’un Meunier [Europe alarmed for the son of a miller], de Hooghe shows James II of England engaged in a plot to forcibly impose Roman Catholicism on his own subjects. The satire takes its cue from rumours that James’s son, James Edward Stuart, was a lowborn changeling who had been smuggled into the royal maternity bed to provide the childless monarch with a means of establishing a permanent Catholic dynasty. James and his wife are shown standing around the royal crib with a motley collection of allies, courtiers and Catholic priests. The Queen is deep in conversation with the despised Cardinal d’Adda, who is flanked by Louis XIV and the Dauphin offering support for a proposed invasion of England. James stands behind the Queen and carries a sheaf of Parliamentary papers and copies of the charters of the English corporations. He appears to be distracted by a Jesuit scholar whispering furtively in his ear, presumably offering advice on the best way to dispense with these institutions and establish an absolute monarchy along similar lines to that of France. A mob of Catholic priests performs an impromptu mass for the phony prince, while the baby’s real mother, the wife of a miller, sits beside the crib and chats with the Queen’s Catholic priest. The priest’s arm rests across hers in a manner which suggests intimacy and hints at the prospect that he is the child’s real father. Behind the crowd of spectators a band of Irishmen caper about manically, blasting trumpets to celebrate the prospect of a resurgent Catholic monarchy. The archways at the rear of the scene opens onto a naval vista showing an invasion fleet disgorging French soldiers onto English shores.

The print is undated and it’s unclear whether this was published before, during or immediately after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Edward Hawkins, curator of the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings in the mid nineteenth-century dated it to 1689, but this copy is annotated 1688 in what appears to be a contemporary hand. At least two different version of the print were published, one in Dutch and another with French text. The latter was presumably intended for sale beyond Holland (although not necessarily in France), where French typically served as the lingua franca of the educated upper classes. The image was later reworked by an anonymous Dutch artist who changed it into a satire on Britain’s decision to abandon the War of Spanish Succession and conclude a separate peace treaty with France in 1712. Although the image is substantially the same, the royal crib has been replaced with a copy of the proposed peace treaty and the principle characters have been re-purposed as allegorical symbols of peace, victory and war. This version was also issued in Dutch and France (this time combined in a single sheet) and titled Het Hof van Vreede onder de Roos, met de Leli verzoend [The Solitary Court of Peace Between the Pink Rose and the Lily].

The Brother to the Moon’s Visit to the Court of Queen Vic, 1842

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Here’s another item that falls outside of the period with which this blog normally concerns itself but is nevertheless interesting enough to warrant a closer look. The Brother to the Moon’s Visit to the Court of Queen Vic is a set of 24 lithographic etchings by Richard Doyle which tell the story of an official Chinese delegation to London. It was published in March 1843 by H.P. & G.T. Fores of Piccadilly (the sons of the famous Georgian printseller S.W. Fores) and printed by William Kohler of Denmark Street.

The plates depict an elaborate procession of Chinese diplomats, courtiers, soldiers and entertainers, wending their way towards an audience with Queen Victoria. Turning the pages we come across members of the ‘Celestial Guard’ and the Imperial Band as well as a troupe of performing acrobats, all skillfully engraved and finished with delicate hand-colouring. It almost goes without saying that these images are not informed by modern standards of political correctness and they play on stereotypes of Asian culture which were already well-established in British visual satire by the 1790s. In this case however the idea that the Chinese pose any real threat to Britain has been utterly overthrown and the members of the delegation are depicted a diminutive grotesques surrounded by laughably antiquated accouterments. This is hardly surprising as, six months before the prints were published, Britain had used modern weaponry to flatten the Chinese army and impose a humiliating peace treaty which ended the First Opium War.

Unusually we may know exactly when the idea for this caricature first occurred to the artist. Doyle was writing to his father, the famous caricaturist John Doyle (HB), on Christmas Day 1842 and concluded by mentioning several items of news that he thought may be of interest:

…The names of the Pantomimes are announced. The Chinese Ambassador is coming (may his shadow never be less), a great fall in the price of bread, numerous families are roaring out Christmas hymns in the streets, and the latest mail conveys the intelligence that the plum pudding is in a forward state [1]. 

He then added a quick drawing of a fat mandarin his gaggle of servants to the margins of the letter along with several other doodles.doyle

The first advertisement for the prints appeared in the Literary Gazette of 11th March 1843. It states that the folder of prints was available from the Fores’ shop at a cost of 5s plain or 10s coloured. You’ll notice that the cover of this copy has the abbreviation “Col[oure]d written on the top, presumably for ease of reference when the folios were stacked together on the shop’s shelves. There is also an interesting flyleaf stuck to the inside of the front-cover, advertising other prints which were being sold by the Fores’ brothers at this time. Whilst many of the titles would not have looked out of place in their father’s day, there is a notable move towards the serial publication of sets or collections of caricatures, as well as the encroachment of French prints onto the English market.

  1. G.F. Scott (ed.) The Illustrated Letters of Richard Doyle to His Father, 1842 – 1843, Athens OH, 2016.

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