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Matthew Darly, Bunkers Hill or America’s Head Dress, 1776.

Caricatures such as this were a common feature of British printshop windows in the 1770s. Printsellers such as Carington Bowles, Sayer & Bennett, William Humphrey and Matthew & Mary Darly, all began turning out designs which poked fun at a prevailing trend among fashionable women for wearing large and elaborately decorated hairpieces. The Darlys’ seem to have a particular fondness for this curious sub-strata of English caricature, publishing around twenty different plates on the subject between 1776 and 1779 alone. The caricature shown here was originally part of a pair which, when joined by its companions Noddle-island or how are we deceived, gave the impression of two young women wearing wigs so large that they could comfortably accommodate detailed models of the rebel entrenchments around the city of Boston, Massachusetts.

Some historians have turned to gender politics when interpreting the meaning of these designs, arguing that the mockery of female tastes constitutes an attempt to assert masculine authority over feminine forms of material culture. Others see them as a political statement, part of a wider cultural backlash against a decadent strain of cultural effeminacy which many conservative commentators held responsible for undermining Britain’s ability to successfully prosecute the war against the American colonies. Few however have considered that they may actually offer a literal depiction of the way in which wealthy women may have dressed. Historians have long supposed that such images merely offered a grossly exaggerated burlesque of the trend for applying padding, hair extensions and copious quantities of animal fat to ones hair or wig.

We now know that this is not the case and that caricatures such as the one shown here became so popular that they actually began to influence forms of dress. Diana Donald alludes to this phenomena in her book on English caricature in the reign of George III, noting that caricatures were often executed with “a scale and panache which conveyed the fashionable ‘look’ far more effectively than the frozen and timid manner of contemporary English fashion plates”. Donald also includes a reference to an article which appeared in the Lady’s Magazine of 1773, which describes a lady stepping out in a huge wig which was based on an image which had appeared in one of the Darlys’ caricatures. The date and the brief description given in the article, which mentions the wig being large enough to accommodate and entire stepladder within its tresses, suggests the design was based on Ridiculous taste or the ladies absurdity (1771) [1].

The Printshop Window has recently uncovered another article which proves that Bunkers Hill or Americas Headdress was also taken up and used as the basis for an actual hairpiece. The account, published in the Ipswich Journal, describes the principle attendees at a masquerade that took place in London’s Pantheon in early May of 1776.

Masquerade. Above 1000 persons were present on Monday evening at the pantheon; among others the Dukes of Cumberland, Devonshire, Ancaster and Manchester; Lords Pembroke, Carlisle, March, Beauchamp, Lyttelton, Falmouth, Edward Bentinck and several others of distinction. There were a great many fine women, fine jewels and fine dresses, with some character masks. The best of the latter were a haymaker from Kingswood and his wife, (Mr Dodd and Mrs Baddeley) who were uncommonly happy in supporting their characters, and afforded an abundant share of merriment, particularly Mr Dodd, who joined with the singers, led a catch [song], and had something to say to every mask who came near him. A parson silent as a bishop; a long-tailed spiritless devil his companion; a tiddy-doll; a German quack; a huntsman; an angler; two pilgrims, one the exact resemblance of Oystericus; a pilgrimess; five cantabs, some in noblemen’s gowns; a grand sultan with a female slave, as elegant in form and as beautiful in person as can be conceived; they were the finest pair in the room both as to dress and figure; a highland officer; a highland soldier; a French bagatelle seller; a Jew pedlar, remarkably well in the Duke’s-place dialect; a blackguard tatterdemalion ballad-singer, perfect master of the St Giles’s slang; three watchmen, one particularly noisy with his rattle; a Hecate; a Merlin; two old women; a young butcher, doatingly [sic] fond of a smart orange-girl; a prize-rower; a female volunteer; two circketeers; two harlequins; and one in a silk dress, all three flimsy and pert, than agile in characteristic; two Sybils, Mr and Mrs Sheridan; two sailors; a fencing-master; a match woman; a black-eyed bunter, by the same character at every masquerade this season; a fat Turk; a city alderman; a newsman with a horn, crying the Morning Post, distributed a printed paper stuffed with witless jests upon government, a lady with her head dressed agreeable to Darly’s caricature of a head, so enormous, as actually to contain both a plan and model of Boston, and the provincial army on Bunker’s Hill &c. &c… The supper, desert and wines were plentiful and good; but the decorations were rather puerile.

Sources such as this provide an indication of the degree to which written and visual satire had begun to permeate material culture in this period. The trauma of civil war with the American colonies and a full-blown conflict with the major powers of Europe had sparked an unprecedented degree of interest in satirical reportage and commentary. In the account above we find reference to at least two outfits which were directly inspired by satirical prints – Darly’s Bunkers Hill… and the “female volunteer” who regularly appeared in caricatures on the militia encampments in southern England – as well as third guest who was dressed in the guise of a newsman handing out copies of a satirical edition of the Morning Post [3]. It is therefore clear that there were times in which caricatures and other forms of printed satire were capable of taking on a degree of importance which stretched far beyond the confines of the printshop window itself.


Notes

1. D. Donald, The Age of Caricature…, 1996. pp. 86 – 89.

2. Ipswich Journal, 11th May 1776.

3. Ibid. The paper purports to rely the contents of a letter to a cabinet minister from a British officer serving in North America. The note conveys the impression of an idle and decadent ruling class which was happy to indulge its own selfish pleasures while the nation was being led to humiliation and ruin. After apologizing for interrupting the minister’s “mince-pye eating, and other important duties of the season”, our correspondent reports on a series of military maneuvers which include attending dances, visiting tea shops and undertaking pleasure cruises off the American coast with colleagues from the Royal Navy. He then concludes by praising the efficiency of the British army’s latest “cunning retreat” from the rebel forces.

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