I was practically drooling into my keyboard when I came across this painting in an auction catalogue shortly before Christmas. It finally went on sale this week, smashing the auctioneer’s estimate of £3,000 – £5,000 and achieving a final hammer price of £24,000. Add on fees and taxes and the lucky so-and-so who’s bought this picture will probably have to part with north of £30,000 before they’re able to take it home with them. Looking at these images it’s not hard to understand why the buyer ended parting with an amount equivalent to the average annual salary for it; it’s an absolutely stunning example of early eighteenth-century satirical art and the banking-related subject matter will no doubt have helped attract a number of buyers with pockets that are deeper than the average oceanic trench (which is somewhat ironic given the artist’s evident antipathy to bankers).
The painting is a satire on the collapse of the South Sea Bubble and specifically an attack on Sir Robert Knight (1675 – 1744), the man many people held responsible for causing the financial crisis of 1720. Knight was the Chief Cashier of the South Sea Company and in 1719 he had negotiated a deal with the British government which allowed the state to trade the national debt for South Sea Company stock. Superficially this seemed like a good deal for the taxpayer, providing the government with a badly needed injection of cash and the promise of lower interest rates on its debt in future. However it also artificially inflated the value of the Company’s shares by turning them into a form of government-back investment, and gave Knight and his colleagues an incentive to push the value up further in order to increase the profitability of the deal. Almost immediately the Company began talking up the value of its shares, leaking rumours about the imminent conclusion of lucrative trade deals with South America and setting up schemes to loan investors money with which to buy more stock. By the end of the summer of 1720, South Sea share prices had increased from about £100 to almost £1,000 as the country became gripped by a frenzy of speculative investment.
Thousands were ruined when the bubble finally burst at the end of September 1720, including many members of the politically-influential aristocracy. Parliament was recalled in December and the government forced to implement a wave of emergency measures to stabilise the economy and compensate those who had suffered losses. Unlike our own time, this was achieved by the perfectly sensible and straight-forward method of arresting the bankers responsible for the crash, confiscated their estates and using the money raised to pay-off those who’d been duped by their dodgy investments. However the wily Knight managed to slip through the government’s net, fleeing England to seek refuge on the Continent. The state initially tried to pursue him but once it became clear that he had retained meticulous records of all of the MPs, peers and members of the royal court who had received bribes in the form of South Sea Company stock, it was deemed prudent to allow him to remain in self-imposed exile in France. Knight spent the next twenty years living a comfortable life that was split between a palatial Parisian town-house and a country estate at Vincennes. He returned to England following the eventual fall of Robert Walpole’s government in 1743 and died the following year.
The fact that Knight had managed to evade justice evidently incensed many contemporary observes and this painting is essentially a rather virulent form of wish-fulfillment, showing Knight being conveyed to Hell aboard the ship ‘S.S. Inquisition’ (a reference to the Parliamentary committee of inquiry that had been formed to look into the South Sea Company). The vessel is manned by demons who exhort their passenger to continue to lie, cheat and covet wealth, and is being sailed into the flaming jaws of a huge beast personifying eternal damnation. Knight himself seems blissfully ignorant of his impending fate and looks away to the left with a slight smile on his face, no doubt a sign that he is pleased with himself for having evaded the earthly forces of justice. In his right hand he carries a goblet containing a flaming heart labelled “My Cup is full of Indignation” and “My Heart is Zealous for my Countries Ruin”, suggesting that any indignant claims of innocence simply mask a contemptuous willingness to bring the nation to ruin in order to further his own ends. He stands on a pile of gold coins that pour from a huge upturned purse labelled “the glory of the wicked”, while his left sleeve is decorated with a coin showing tails and his right with one showing heads, the message here is simple – ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’
The central image is surrounded by five smaller satirical motifs on greed and retribution. On the right of the picture we see another demon holding a key to a safe deposit box whilst reassuring Knight that the devil remains his “faithful cashier”. Below this Knight’s elegant horse dines from a trough filled with gold and a bound man is being flogged with a flail tipped with coins. At the top left-hand corner of the picture contains a scaffold from which a life-sized knave of diamonds card is being hung in Knight’s place. Beneath that is an image of a man, probably meant to be Knight, standing in the pillory to await punishment.
The picture is oil on canvas, measures 72 x 63cms and carries no signature, date or title. However we know that at least three printed versions of this image were published in or around May 1721 under the title Lucipher’s new Row-Barge [sic]. The most impressive of these, and the one which bears the closest resemblance to our painting, is a fine line engraving which was also published anonymously (below). The design is largely identical to the painted version, save for the addition of a plaque carrying a quote from the Book of Ezekiel – “Thou hast greedily gained of thy Neighbours by Extortion … Behold, therefore I have smitten mine Hand at thy dishonest Gain” – and three columns of verse beneath the image damning Knight and his ilk and wishing every punishment under the sun upon them. We do not know whether the painting preceded the print or vice versa and therefore whether the decision to exclude the additional text from the painting was deliberate or not? The other two printed versions of this image are lower quality copies which were evidently aimed at middling and lower class consumers and were presumably created sometime after the more high-end engraving was published. One of these of was the woodblock engraving by John Bell which used to decorate the front edition of the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer of May 21st 1721, which allows us to date the creation of the design with some degree of accuracy to the spring of that year.