Cruikshank & Sansom (?), St George and the Dragon or Glorious æra of 1798, Published by S.W. Fores, 5th December 1798. Note the “S.W.F” shop stamp at the bottom right-hand corner of the print.
Here’s another print from a marvellous set of caricatures that came into my possession a couple of weeks ago. It shows Pitt as St George, slaying the dragon of Whig opposition while surrounded by a panoply of unfortunate beasties representing the great powers of Europe.
As much as I enjoy this print, I’m not sure that it is entirely successful as a piece of political satire. The artist has attempted to cram too many references to various aspects of Britain’s domestic politics and foreign affairs into a single plate and consequently it fails to convey a single coherent message that extends beyond a rather vague sense of Tory triumphalism. Nonetheless, the quality of the engraving work on display here and the beautiful delicacy of the colouring, mean that this is still an excellent example of the standard of English satirical printmaking in this period.
The design seemingly draws upon influences taken from both the world of high art and other pieces of contemporary English caricature. The central theme may have been derived from one of the popular engraved editions of seventeenth-century Flemish paintings of St George, such as Hans von Aachen’s St George Slaying the Dragon and Balthazar van Lemens’ St George and the Dragon. The latter painting having been reproduced as a highly successful mezzotint by the English engraver John Smith in 1685. The St George motif had already appeared in a number of English satirical prints and it’s possible that this design was based on one of these earlier caricatures. There is certainly a distinct similarity between the ‘dragon’ which appears in this design and the multi-headed monster that featured in a crudely etched political satire on the downfall of the Fox-North Coalition entitled George and the Dragon (1784). The artist also appears to have plundered a selection of recent prints by James Gillray to obtain accurate likenesses of the individuals portrayed. The images of Tierney (right), Sheridan and Pitt all being strikingly close to those which appeared in French Habits (1798), Doublûres of characters;- or – striking resemblances in phisiognomy (1798) and The Giant Factotum amusing himself (1797) respectively.
At first glance the print appears to be a blandly patriotic satire celebrating the revitalizing effect Nelson’s victory at the Nile had on the government’s standing at home and Britain’s position abroad. Pitt charges forward on John Bull, impaling his Whig opponents on the lance of the “United strength of the people”, while his mount tramples a pack of cockerels representing the Directory and an unfortunate Spanish hound. The constellation of European powers shifts above his head to shine their lights on England and reflect the fact that Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire were now all considering revanchist strikes against France. Look closely though and this celebratory tone becomes far more ambiguous. Pitt’s ruddy cheeks and closed eyes are indicative of extreme intoxication and it seems as though he has in fact been carried to victory on the back of the British bull. His flowing purple robes also carry a mixed symbolism which stands at once for both the triumphs, vanity and despotic tendencies of the emperors of ancient Rome. Even the bovine emblem of John Bull, who could be considered to be the real hero of the piece, seems enraged to the point of madness and is depicted in a posture which seems to suggest that it is about to toss the slumbering rider to the ground.
The identity of the print’s creator remains a matter of some conjecture. Edward Hawkins, the original curator of the British Museum’s collection of caricatures, recorded it as a work by Isaac Cruikshank but Dorothy George rejected this notion when she came to write her catalogue of the Museum’s collection a century later. It is certainly possible to discern a certain similarity between the likenesses of the individuals portrayed in this caricature and those that appear in other prints Cruikshank engraved for S.W. Fores around this time. However, the precise engraving that appears on the rest of the plate bears little comparison with the slightly scruffy style that typifies so much of Cruikshank’s output.
In 2008 an an amateur historian contacted the Museum to suggest that the lettering which had been added to this caricature and a number of other S.W. Fores prints in the collection, indicated that they were the work of the engraver Francis Sansom. Sansom is chiefly remembered today as the botanical illustrator responsible for producing the engraved plates that were published in the early editions of The Botanical Magazine but he was in fact a commercial engraver who worked on all manner of publications. He was retained by Fores for a period of roughly five years, from 1796 to 1801 during which time he was chiefly employed in engraving the designs of artists, such as G.W. Woodward and John Cawse, who lacked the technical skills required to translate their caricatures into print. The evidence of Cruikshank’s hand at work on this particular print therefore raises the intriguing possibility that it was the product of a collaboration between Sansom and Cruikshank. However, this begs us to ask why Fores felt the need to pair an experienced caricaturist like Cruikshank up with another engraver? One theory is that Fores insistence on Sansom’s involvement in the production of Cruikshank’s prints was symptomatic of a wider breakdown in the relationship which took place between Isaac Cruikshank and his publisher during 1798-99. It is certainly true that the number of plates Fores was commissioning from Cruikshank dropped off sharply after 1798 and that the printseller began offering more work to artists such as Woodward, Cawse and Charles Williams. It has been suggested that this transition may have been prompted by Fores growing frustration with Cruikshank’s slapdash approach to engraving and the number of mistakes that were being left uncorrected on his finished copperplates. In these circumstances it seems feasible that Fores may have insisted on pairing up Cruikshank with a more reliable craftsman like Sansom.
Of course, this is all pure speculation. The print may have been produced entirely by Sansom, or by Sansom and another artist whose identity has now been lost to history. Attributing unsigned prints to specific artists is an art rather than a science and should always be taken with a suitably large pinch of salt. Still, it is precisely this kind of unsolvable historical conundrum which makes Georgian caricatures such fascinating items to study.