James Aitken was responsible for publishing around 100 satirical prints between 1788 and 1801. His early prints were often engraved by the likes of James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank, but by 1793-4 he was chiefly associated with the works of more idiosyncratic artists such as William Dent and William O’Keefe. The tone of many of his political prints also changes around this time, with the moderate Toryism of his early years being abandoned in favour of outspoken opposition to the government and Prime Minister William Pitt in particular. Aitken’s last caricature was published in September 1801, some 18 months before his business finally ceased to operate. The following biography has been constructed using the handful of references to James Aitken which appear in contemporary sources and an analysis of his surviving prints.
We know virtually nothing about James Aitken’s early life or his entry into late eighteenth-century London’s publishing trade. He was probably born sometime around 1770 and may have been a younger relation of the “A. Aitken” whose name appears in the publication line of three satirical prints that were published from No. 2 Orange Court, Drury Lane, in 1783 and 1784 .
The earliest definite reference we have of Aitken is that of his marriage to Ann Blay at the church of St Martin in the Field’s on 3rd July 1788 . He would publish his first satirical print some three weeks later from a shop located at “No. 18 Little Russell Ct. next door but one to the Pit door of Drury Lane Theatre” . Ann Aitken almost certainly worked alongside her husband in the shop and increasingly took over the running of the family business from 1796 onwards. The couple would go on to have three children together: Charles James (1791 – 1851), Ann (1792 – 1879?) and Frederick (1794 – 1866).
Aitken’s publication lines show that he moved from Little Russell Court to 14 Castle Street, Leicester Fields, sometime between August 1788 and May 1789. Richard Horwood’s Map of London, Westminster and the Borough of Southwark (1799) places Aitken’s new shop at the corner of Castle Street and Cranburn Street, and this is confirmed by the publication line of the print Billy & Harry in their glory or a great man kicked out of place (1798) which gives his location as the “Corner of Castle St Leicester Squre”. The British Museum collection also contains two prints which were published by Aitken between 1788 and 1790 with a non-specific address on nearby Bear Street in the publication lines. This was almost certainly an error on the part of the engraver, as the two-dozen or so other caricatures that Aitken published around this time all carry the Castle Street address .
His early efforts as a publisher of satirical prints indicate an attempt to emulate the practices of successful satirical printsellers of the West End. The decision to move to Leicester Fields coincided with a sudden surge in the number of plates being commissioned from artists closely associated with the fashionable West End shops, most notably Gillray, as well as the opening of a permanent exhibition of caricatures similar to those on offer at the shops of S.W. Fores and William Holland . The opening of the latter was advertised in the publication line of the print Cooling the brain. Or – the little major, shaving the shaver (1789):
Aitken’s Exhibition Room. in Castle Street, Leicester Fields, is now open’d for the inspection of the nobility, & the public in general, containing the only compleat assortment of satiric, humorous & caricature productions now extant – admittance gratis
The Exhibition Room is not mentioned in any of Aitken’s other surviving publication lines and it seems likely to have been a short-lived experiment. We know that the backroom of Aitken’s shop had been turned into a storage space / private sales area by the early 1800s .
Aitken may have sought to copy the practices of his more fashionable rivals but it is clear that he dealt to a far more modest clientele. The pricing information that survives on a handful of his prints indicates that a design by Gillray could be obtained from Aitken in 1789 for 1s coloured and 6d plain, which was roughly half the price charged by S.W. Fores and less than a quarter of what Hannah Humphrey charged for her Gillrays’ at that time . The need to keep his prints affordable may explain why Aitken increasingly turned to lesser artists such as Dent and O’Keefe during the 1790s, as they were presumably not only cheaper to hire but would also pay to have their work published in some instances .
Aitken’s gravitation towards the lower end of the print market appears to have coincided with the growth of his involvement in the illicit publication of indecent books and prints. By the early 1790s he was part of a small consortium of publishers that was responsible for producing Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a notorious directory of London prostitutes which had first appeared in the 1750s . The activities of this group were eventually brought to the attention of the moralist Proclamation Society, which immediately initiated legal proceedings against Aitken’s partner, the bookseller James Roach, on a charge of publishing an obscene libel. Roach initially stonewalled, claiming he had done nothing wrong and pointing out that Harris’s List had been in print for almost forty years without being made the subject of legal action. When the court dismissed this argument, he fell back on a plea of ignorance and asked the judge to note that he had immediately severed his connection with Aitken and handed over his remaining stock of the offending book to the Proclamation Society for destruction. He also implored the court to consider the fate of his wife and six children, adding that he had also been suffering from severe asthma since his arrest. Sadly, Roach’s pleas fell on deaf ears and the court sentenced him to twelve months imprisonment and a substantial fine .
If James Roach’s prosecution had been intended to scare his partners into silence then it evidently failed to have the desired effect. Aitken continued to publish and sell copies of Harris’s List and was consequently arrested and brought to trial before the Court of King’s Bench on 10th November 1795. There is no surviving transcript of the trial but the outcome was briefly recorded in the pages of the Times:
On the motion of Mr Erskine the defendant, James Atkin [sic], a bookseller, was called into Court, to receive judgement for printing and publishing an obscene libel, tending to corrupt and debauch the minds of the youth of this kingdom. The Court ordered him to pay a fine to the King of 200l. and to give security for his good behaviour for three years, himself in 500l. and his bail in 100l. each .
The fine was huge and Aitken was to spend the best part of the next two years in Newgate prison while his family scraped together the money needed to secure his release.
The arrest must have dealt Aitken’s business a financial blow from which it never fully recovered. With most of the profits now being diverted to pay his court fines, there would have been little capital left to invest in new stock or publishing projects and it is likely that the family became increasingly mired in debt . The declining fortunes of his business are reflected in both the sudden decrease in the number of new caricatures published in the years after 1795, and also the appearance of a new publication line which indicated that a J. Potsley of 50 Pimlico was responsible for financing the production of many of the prints Aitken now sold .
James Aitken was finally declared bankrupt in October 1801. The notice of bankruptcy which appeared in the London press described him as a “Print-Seller, Dealer and Chapman” and invited his creditors to present themselves at the Guildhall to lay claim to a portion of his remaining estate . It is likely that his remaining stock of copperplates was either seized or sold at this time, as many of them are known to have ended up in the hands of Piercy Roberts of Middle Row Holborn, who would go on to reissue them under his own name during the early 1800s .
The bankruptcy may have marked the end of his career as a publisher of satirical prints but it does not appear to have prevented him from continuing to trade from his premises in Castle Street. We know that he was still active there in the summer of 1802 because he was once again arrested on a charge of selling indecent images from that address. This time he was jailed and also sentenced to the humiliating punishment of being placed in a pillory which was specially erected outside his shop..
Ann Aitken assumed responsibility for the running of the shop from July 1802 until February 1803, when she was also arrested for selling indecent prints and drawings. A brief account of the trail was published the Times:
This was a prosecution against Ann, the wife of James Aitken, for publishing an obscene and indecent drawing. Her husband is at present in custody, under a conviction for a similar offence. She continued to keep the shop, and carried on the same infamous traffic. One of the most respectable and active members of the Society [for the Suppression of Vice], on being informed what books and prints were to be sold at this shop, went there to satisfy himself whether this could possible by true. He was permitted to retire into a private room, to look at some that were well finished, and that were of the most horrid and abominable nature that could possible by imagined. It was enough to harrow up the feelings of any man. This drawing was supposed to be a family-party. This woman had three children, who were brought up in the midst of all this infamy. These prints, exposed to the public view scenes that never took place since the foundation of the world, and pointed out with art, talents, and dexterity, scenes that never were acted since the sun was created.
It appeared in evidence there were about two hundred indecent prints in a drawer and the drawing in question was purchased at the price of one guinea. This woman said in her own defence, that a Gentleman had made her a present of these articles, and desired her to sell them, to enable her to support her family.
Lord Ellenborough said, it was a bad and criminal means of support. The crime was, no doubt, proved. That she sold this for her own benefit was completely proved; and it was a most obscene, beastly, drawing. It would be their duty to find the defendant guilty. It was to be lamented that no punishment seemed to have any effect. He did not know what was to be done – Guilty. There were other two indictment [sic] against her, which, out of clemency, were permitted to stand over…
Lord Ellenborough told this woman, she must turn to another course of life. The law would not allow the public morals to be corrupted, to maintain her and her family .
Ann Aitken was sentenced to 12 month imprisonment with hard labour in February 1803 and there are no further records relating to the Aitken family as printsellers or publishers after this date .
The ultimate fate of James and Ann Aitken remains a mystery. Assuming they both survived their time in prison and were released sometime during 1804 – 05, it seems reasonable to assume that James could have returned to work as the anonymous employee of another publisher. His family certainly remained active in the trade for at least another generation, with the Census for 1851 indicating that both Charles James and Frederick Aitken were employed as bookbinders . An analysis of contemporary burial records turns up multiple possible terminal dates for James and Ann Aitken, ranging from 1815 to 1842. Perhaps the most worrying of these is that of a 51 year old James Aitken, who died while resident in the workhouse of the Parish of St Anne’s, Soho, on 4th July 1817, raising the possibility that the former printseller lived a relatively short life in conditions of extreme poverty .
The brief history of James Aitken’s involvement in the London publishing trade provides us with some insight into the links between graphic satire and the publication of printed erotica in this period. A number of Aitken’s caricatures indicate that the lines between bawdy satire and outright pornography could become blurred, as in the case of Gillray’s A representation of the horrid barbarities practised upon the nuns by the fish-women, on breaking into the nunneries in France (1792), which was published so long after the events it purports to depict that it can only have been produced with titillation in mind. In some instances it’s possible that this blurring of boundaries was deliberate, with stocks of bawdy prints being used as a means of surreptitiously advertising that more risque material was available and of sounding out potential customers .
Aitken’s history also bears out Iain McCalman’s contention that a propensity to deal in indecent books and prints was often symptomatic of the underlying weakness of a publisher’s business . It’s clear that James and Ann Aitken became more dependent on the sale of illegal prints as the overall health of their business declined during the late-1790s and they were ultimately forced to continue in the trade even after James’s second arrest and public pillorying in 1802. The reasons for this are likely to have been entirely economic; the illicit nature of these prints meant that they could be sold for four or five times the price of an average caricature without any commensurate increase in production costs, thus allowing a business to sustain itself on a comparatively low level of sales . Unfortunately this also meant that the Aitkens were far more vulnerable to entrapment and arrest, as they could not afford to exercise discretion when choosing who to reveal their stock of illegal prints to. The irony of James Aitken’s situation is that it was the constant hounding of the Society for the Suppression of Vice which was ultimately responsible for transforming him from a respectable satirical printseller who dabbled in erotica, into a hardened peddler of criminal pornography.
- Aitken’s prison record notes that he was 32 years of age in 1802. He is also described as being 5’5 in height with a fair complexion. HO 26; Piece: 8; Page: 3. For prints by A. Aitken see B.M Satires 6288, 6560 & 6665. Aside, from the shared surname, this earlier printseller was also located in area of Drury Lane and published at least one print by William Dent.
- England, Select Marriages, 1538–1973 [database on-line].
- The address is given in the publication line of the print Falstaff & the merry wives of Westminster, canvassing for their favourite member Ld. T-d. Published 20th July 1788.
- Dates taken from online register of births, marriages and deaths. The younger Ann Aitken may married Henry Hawes in 1824 and is presumed to have been the 87 year-old Ann Hawes who died in Chelsea in April 1879.
- The two prints carrying the Bear Street address are Advice to the Electors of Westminster, or the Case as it is (1790) and The seals in commishion or the downfall of Lord Thrumb (c.1788-89). Mistakes such as this were not uncommon and are presumably symptomatic of a jobbing engraver who was unfamiliar with the specifics of the publisher’s business and working at speed.
- Aitken seems to have been particularly committed to publishing works by James Gillray during the summer of 1789, when he commissioned no fewer than 10 original designs and also reissued an edition of Shakespeare sacrificed;-or-The Offering to avarice which had initially been published by Hannah Humphrey. The latter appears to have been issued without colour, presumably in order to make it harder to distinguish from an original Humphrey edition.
- The Times report of 21st February 1803 states that customers wishing to view indecent prints were invited into the backroom of the shop to look at items produced from a chest of drawers.
- Gillray designs such as The coward, comforted,-or-a scene immediately after the duel (1789) and Hyde-Park;-Sunday,-or-both hemispheres of the world in a sweat (1789) were both sold for 1s coloured, 6d plain. S.W. Fores typically charged 2s for a print coloured and 1s plain. He also charged customers 1s for admittance to the caricature exhibition at the rear of his shop, whereas Aitken’s display was free. The price engraved into the plate for Gillray’s Shakespeare sacrificed… (1789) indicates that Hannah Humphrey was selling copies for 5s.
- William Dent is described as the publisher in the publication lines of at least 13 of the prints he engraved for Aitken between 1791 and 1793.
- Other members of the group included James Roach and his brother John whose shop was located a few doors down from Aitken’s at No. 5 Russell Court.
- Times 10th February 1795.
- Times 10th November 1795. Aitken’s discharge is recorded in the lists for Newgate from 1797. King’s Bench and Fleet Prison Discharge Books and Prisoner Lists, 1734-1862 database on-line.
- The complex credit networks that sustained the publishing industry in late Hanoverian England were remarkably sensitive to changing market conditions. The printseller Thomas Dolby would later recall that the moment his business was perceived to be struggling, his suppliers began rising their wholesale prices and trying to palm him off with low quality reams of papers. See T. Dolby, Memoirs of T. D…. late Printer and Publisher, of Catherine Street, Strand … written by himself, London, 1827. p.163.
- See BM satires 7869, 8692 and BM No. 1948,0214.395. There is no other evidence to connect J. Potsley or the address 50 Pimclio with the publishing trade and it seems likely that he / she was an amateur investor became involved in the business while James Aitken was in prison.
- London Gazette, 20th October 1801.
- See BM 8434 for an example of a plate which was originally published by Aitken and later reissued by Roberts.
- The Morning Post and Gazetteer 4th August 1802. “Akin, yesterday, stood in the pillory, opposite his house, in Castle street, Leicester-fields, for selling indecent prints.” Aitken’s entry into Newgate is recorded in HO 26; Piece: 8; Page: 3 but I have been unable to locate the record of his release.
- Times 21st February 1803. Ann Aitken’s case was tried alongside that of an itinerant printseller named Baptista Bertazzi who was also arrested at the behest of the Society for the Suppression of Vice for selling obscene prints. Revelations about the Society’s use of paid undercover agents to entrap printsellers would eventually result in a public backlash and a split in the Society’s membership. See this article for more details: https://theprintshopwindow.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/bertazzi-versus-the-king-censoring-graphic-prints
- J.P. Malcolm, Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London During the Eighteenth Century, London, 1808. p.121.
- Charles James Aitken appears in the 1851 Census as a bookbinder resident at 4 St Martin’s Lane, St Martin in the Fields, Westminster. Frederick Aitken is similarly employed at Chesham Place, St George Hanover Square, Westminster. London, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1965 [database on-line].
- Although the burial record states that this James Aitken was born in 1766 and would therefore have been slightly older thanthe age given for James Aitken the printseller in 1802. See DL/T/087/023. Aitken could equally be the “James Aitkin” who lived on Gravel Lane in the East End of London and died aged 78 in November 1842. General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 4211. DL/T/097/014/002 contains the burial record of 50 year old woman named Ann Aitken who was formerly a resident of 33 White Hart Yard in the Parish of St Mary Le Strand. The address was located within a few hundred yards of James Aitken’s first printshop on Little Russell Court and may indicate that the couple returned to the Drury Lane area following their release from prison.
- The New Annual Register, Or, General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1803, pp. 74 – 75. The travelling printseller Baptista Bertazzi said that he would often show potential customers caricatures and humorous prints as a means of testing their reaction and checking whether they would be amendable to the purchase of more explicit images.
- Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld. Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795 – 1840, (Oxford, 2002), p. 214.
- The indecent prints at the centre of the Bertazzi case were said to be valued at around 8 – 9 shillings each. See https://theprintshopwindow.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/bertazzi-versus-the-king-censoring-graphic-prints/