One of the more unusual items to be found in the British Library’s collection of James Gillray’s correspondence is a copy of a note which the printseller George Humphrey found lying on the pavement outside his shop on 19th April 1823.
A noted long nosd [sic] Jew-looking wretch about 40 attends this picture shop window every afternoon for hours; mark him out he his [sic] known on the town
Humphrey then scribbled the following line underneath his transcription:
This paper was drop’t down the area in front of my house, 24 St James’s St, on the 19th of April 1823. G. Humphrey.
Although the exact meaning and purpose of the note is as baffling to us as it evidently was to Humphrey, it seems likely that it was written by one of the printseller’s neighbours (or someone else who evidently had the opportunity to observe the comings and goings outside his shop for lengthy periods of the day), who was motivated not just by an obvious sense of antisemitism, but also by a concern that the printshop was acting as a magnet for some unspecified crime.
In this respect at least, the author’s the fears may not have been completely without foundation. Whilst our view of Georgian printshop windows is a rather rosy one, unduly influenced by puff-piece caricatures of smiling crowds happily congregating to enjoy the latest prints, it is not one which would necessarily have been shared by contemporary observers who had experienced these crowds first hand. There are numerous records which indicate that the windows of even the most fashionable West End printshops served as the backdrop for a variety of crimes, ranging from petty thefts to homosexual soliciting, with the ‘low’ and potentially dangerous, nature of the crowds that gathered there proving to be a constant source of anxiety to conservatively-minded Londoners.
Just as interesting as the note itself is the piece of paper it was written on. In his haste to transcribe the odd notice he’d found laying on the ground outside his shop, Humphrey had evidently grabbed the first piece of paper that came to hand, which in this case happened to be a blank customer bill marked with his letterhead.
For me, this document goes some way towards answering a long-standing question about the nature of the Humphrey family’s publishing business, namely: “Given the small number of new prints the Humphreys’ published after Gillray’s final descent into madness in 1810, how did their business survive for so long?” George Humphrey’s letterhead quite clearly indicates that Gillray continued to act as the basis of the family’s business for years after his death. This over-reliance on simply churning out reissues of his works may have also proved to be the business’s undoing, stifling the sort of innovations in format and printing methods that were taking place elsewhere in the market during the 1820s and leaving Humphrey almost completely reliant on the public’s continued appetite for Gillray. Thus when tastes began to change from the 1820s onwards, Humphrey had nothing else to fall back on and found himself being rapidly overtaken by printsellers who had invested in new publishing techniques and the talents of new artists.