J.L. Marks, Content: or a Cunning Game at Westminster…, 1820. One of the many caricatures attacking King George IV and his mistress Lady Conyngham.
King George IV’s turbulent relationship with the caricaturists of the Regency era is well documented. George had adored prints as young man and placed substantial standing orders with several of London’s leading printshops, including those of William and Hannah Humphrey, James Bretherton and William Holland. His collecting interests were varied and encompassed everything from old masters and elegant art prints, down to caricatures and even pornography. George always bought in bulk, allowing his favourite sellers to make up folios, or even entire albums of prints which were then charged to his account every month. By 1809 his consumption of prints and other luxuries had become so conspicuous that it prompted one royal secretary to despair at the possibility of ever putting the royal finances in order, as “each quarter produces fresh bills for jewellery, prints, and various articles”.
But while George may have enjoyed looking at caricatures he was far less keen on appearing in them himself. He had been dogged by a constant stream of print-based mockery since his early twenties and by the start of the nineteenth-century was beginning to grow tired and angry at being the constant butt of the satirists jokes. His elevation to the position of Regent in 1811 further increased his sense of exasperation, as he was now monarch in all but name and firmly believed that the time had come for his subjects to treat him with a due degree of deference and respect. Unfortunately, it just so happened that the advent of the Regency also coincided with a severe recession which to drag on for the best part of a decade and reignite the fires of domestic political radicalism. There probably could not have been a worse time for a gorging, gambling, spendthrift like George to ascend to the throne and he was soon to become the subject of a hostile press campaign.
The opening salvos of this engagement were to be fired by a new generation of small prints shops that began to spring up in the City of London after 1810. These shops were often owned by reform-minded young men in their twenties and early thirties, who reflected the views of an expanding and morally resurgent middling class. The likes of John Fairburn, John Johnston, Thomas Dolby, M. Jones and William Hone, were far less dependent on fashionable patronage than their West End counterparts and could therefore afford to publish material which was far more offensive in its handling of establishment figures and the ruling classes. To them, the Prince’s profligacy and limitless sense of entitlement were symbolic of the wider failings of an unreformed political system and he was to be mercilessly pilloried in print for the best part of a decade, from the initial skirmishes over Lady Hertford’s influence in 1812, to the final showdown over Queen Caroline’s trial in 1820.
George initially responded to this tidal wave of insolence by instructing his lawyers to prosecute the offending publishers. However, his plan soon unraveled when it became clear that a trial would require detailed examination and discussion of the subject matter in an open court. When the Solicitor General was sent a particularly offensive print by George Cruikshank for examination in 1812, he advised that although “this is a most indecent and imprudent print… it would require so much of difficult explanation in stating it as a libel that it does not appear to us advisable to make it the subject of a criminal prosecution.” In other words, a trial would merely draw attention to George’s indiscretions and invite further insults to the royal dignity. The fuming Regent was therefore left with little option but to dispatch his agents onto London’s streets with instructions to bribe caricaturists and printsellers not to publish images of him, or to buy up their stock as soon as it went on sale. The Prince’s secretary, Joseph Calkin, was instrumental in this process and brokered cash settlements with George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, and the printseller John Johnston among others.
Eventually at least one caricaturist cottoned on to the fact that lucrative payments could be secured merely by threatening to publish material likely to offend royal sensibilities. John Lewis Marks was a relative newcomer to the print trade, having published his first known caricature in 1814 when he was still a teenager. He was an established caricaturist by the age of twenty-four, regularly producing plates for a variety of City and West End publishers, including Tegg, Fores, Johnston, and Jones, as well as publishing substantial quantities of material on his account. On 4th September 1820, Marks wrote to Calkin enclosing a prospectus of a broadside entitled Amoroso, King of Little Britain; or the Progress of Love. A Delicious Poem, a satire on George’s long-running affair with Lady Conyngham. “I intend to publish”, Marks stated boldly, “…as soon as the Plates are ready for it – Therefore if you will be kind enough to call on me to morrow morning, I shall be glad as I shall not advertise or send out the perspectives till I have your opinion on it”. Marks need hardly have bothered attempting to hide the purpose of his letter behind such a thin veil of deference, his message was clear: pay me, or I publish immediately. He was to repeat the process of soliciting Calkin’s “opinion” of his ideas for new caricatures on a number of occasions, before finally accepting a lump sum payment of £75 (approximately £2,000 in today’s terms) and undertaking “not to engrave or publish any caracature [sic] with the name of Cunningham introduced from the date hereof.” True to form, Marks took the money and continued to produce caricatures against the King and Lady Conyngham anyway, some of which he published and some of which he again offered to sell to Calkin.
J.L. Marks, Preparatory sketch for the broadside ‘A Peep into the Cottage at Windsor’, c.1820. Marks would have sent early proofs such as this to Calkin along with notes asking for payment to ensure that the design was suppressed.