GTGeorge Townsend, Justice attempting to beat boy strikes wife pen, n.d.

This unassuming little sketch is an original work by the seminal mid-eighteenth-caricaturist George Townshend (1724 – 1807). The aristocratic Townshend was to hold several governmental posts in his lifetime, as well as serving a senior officer in the British army and regularly attending on the king at court. However, he is perhaps more readily remembered today as one of the most successful amateur caricaturists to emerge during the boom in speculative satirical print publishing that occurred during the middle decades of the eighteenth-century. With the British public’s appetite for news and political commentary being buoyed ever-upwards by the Seven Years War and the bitter internecine rivalry between the factions aligned under the Dukes of Newcastle and Devonshire, London’s print shops became increasingly reliant on the efforts of amateur caricaturists to keep up with the demand for new satire.

Townshend was an establishment figure par excellence; the son of a viscount, he had purchased his way into one of the most fashionable regiments of the British army and was appointed to serve as aid-de-camp to the Duke of Cumberland during the Flanders campaign of the War of Austrian Succession. On stepping down from active service in 1749, he was able to use his contacts and family connections to begin a career on the margins of British politics and increasingly took to publishing caricatured portraits and political satires as a means of venting his spleen at those who crossed him. His prints became popular in London society, thanks in part to their innovative application of Italian caricatura to the conventional tropes of domestic political satire, but they provoked a rising tide of criticism among those who felt the publication of such material was beyond the pale. It was all well and good for gentlemen to laugh at such sketches in their studies or the privacy of their club, but to have them published and publicly displayed in a manner that invited the lower orders to gawp and laugh at the failings of their betters was an act of treachery to ones own class. A correspondent calling himself ‘George Bout-de-Ville’ captured this mood perfectly in a letter to the Public Advertiser in June 1756:

Every window of every print shop is in a manner glazed, and the shop itself papered with libels. One arch-libeller in particular has rendered himself more than a hundred times liable to prosecution for Scandalum Magnatum. There is scarce a distinguished person in the Kingdom, who he has not exhibited in Caricature. He has dealt his grotesque cards from House to House, and circulated his defamatory pictures from Town’s end to Town’s end…. However faintly he is crayoned out in this Letter, I dare say that most people will know and abominate him.

The British Museum holds a number of hand-drawn versions of caricatures that were later published by Townshend and it is possible that this is also a preparatory version of a print which has now been lost. The image itself is undated but the paper and the dress of the principle figures suggest a date of 1765 – 1770 is not unlikely. It shows a cat or dog attacking the leg of a waiter who in turn drops the contents of a teapot into the lap of a startled and understandably enraged old gent. The title of the piece, which has been added in pencil, is somewhat odd as it seemingly bears no relation to the original image and may therefore have been a reference to something which appeared elsewhere in the original sketchbook, or simply a later edition by an unknown hand.

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