Every once in a while I get an email from someone asking me to explain the meaning of a print or attribute it to a caricaturist. Often these requests can be dealt with simply by referring someone on to the relevant page of the mighty British Museum online catalogue. On other occasions however it can take quite some time and several protracted bouts of head-scratching, before it is possible to discern anything meaningful about a particular design.
This print definitely falls into the latter category. It carries no publication line, no date and indeed no text at which would help identify the creator or the subject matter, save for the ambiguous label Plate 4, which appears underneath the image and seems to suggest this was the fourth number in a series of caricatures.
So where to begin? Well, it seemed safe to assume that the young lady at the centre of the image was the print’s principle character and that her unusual dress presumably provides some clue as to her identity. The resemblance of the outfit to a money purse initially led me to wonder whether this was a rather opaque satire on prostitution. Prints lambasting the soldier’s fondness for prostitutes appeared throughout the eighteenth-century and were particularly prevalent during the final years of the American war, when the volume of prostitutes plying their trade among the militia encampments around London became a running joke among England’s caricaturists.
After some further thought, I realised that it was also possible to put another interpretation onto this print. The form of the young lady’s dress, with it’s rounded bottom and lipped edge, could also be said to resemble the shape of a chamber pot. This, coupled with the copious amount of leg on display beneath, hints at the possibility of this being a caricature of the actress Dorothea Jordan and the print being a satire on her affair with the future King William IV.
Dorothea Jordan had emigrated to London from her native Ireland during the mid-1780s and quickly became known as one of the most famous actresses of the day, thanks in no small part to her willingness to undertake so-called ‘breeches roles’ that afforded the audience the opportunity to look at her incredibly shapely legs. Her good lucks, wit and intelligence, soon brought a string of wealthy suitors to her door and she had already concluded affairs with army officers and magistrates by the time William, then the Duke of Clarence, finally set his sights on her in 1790.
The affair between the prince and the actress was highly publicised, with newspapers such as the Morning Post and Morning Chronicle providing gossipy updates on the couple’s trips around town and hinting strongly that the pair were effectively living as man and wife. By 1791 the relationship had become an open secret and was made the subject of several mocking caricatures by James Gillray and William Dent among others. In many of these prints, such as Gillray’s famous Lubber’s-hole, -alias- the crack’d Jordan (1791), Mrs Jordan is represented by a chamber pot on legs, a reference both to the physical attributes that had made her famous and the fact that the term ‘jordan’ happened to be a slang term for a bed pan. It would appear that the anonymous creator of Plate 4 may have taken some inspiration from Gillray’s design in creating the revealing, potty-like, dress the young woman wears. The royal connection is further underscored by the presence of the two Grenadier Guards, copiously decked out in uniforms bearing the royal cypher, who are depicted in the act of depositing the scantily clad Mrs Jordan at the prince’s door. The posture of the two soldiers, coupled with the gaping upturned hat that the lady holds on her arm, are presumably intended to provide a subtle sexual subtext to the image.
If this is a satire on the Duke of Clarence’s dalliances with Mrs Jordan then we can also offer an alternative explanation for the appearance of the words Plate 4. Rather than being a serial number used to indicate the images place in a run of caricature prints, this may in fact be a coded reference to revelations about the existence of the four illegitimate children that Mrs Jordan was said to have had by her former lovers, which had appeared in the London press in 1792. The fact that other copies of this print are known to exist, while there are no known examples of similar designs carrying earlier plate numbers, lends further credibility to the suggestion that Plate 4 is the title of the design and not a genuine plate number.
Providing an attribution is far more difficult. The young lady bears some comparison with similar figures that appeared in prints by Henry Kingsbury such as A Convenience (1788) and Restoration Dressing Room (1789). However, the simplistic engraving style used on the rest of the design and the grotesque, highly-exaggerated, rendering of the two soldiers, has more in common with the style of engraving favoured by the publisher James Aitken in the prints he commissioned from Isaac Cruikshank, William O’Keefe and William Dent during the first half of the 1790s. Given that the plate carries no identifying marks it is possible that this is the work of more than one hand but equally it could be an anonymous piece by an unknown minor engraver, or an amateur. Sadly, I suspect this is something we will never be able to determine with any degree of confidence, but then it is unsolvable little puzzles like this which continue to make eighteenth-century caricatures such interesting objects to study.