The costs and profitability of satirical print production


View of an intaglio printer’s workshop during the early years of the nineteenth-century. The technology and process of printing from copper changed remarkably little during the 300 years before the introduction of lithography. Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) could have walked into a printer’s workroom in 1800 and understood most of what was happening around him.   

I’m currently reading Anthony Griffith’s wonderful new book on printmaking in Europe between 1550 and 1820. I can’t recommend it highly enough to historians and fellow print-enthusiasts; Griffith’s draws on source material gathered from across Europe to piece together an incredibly detailed and revealing account of the business of making and selling printed images in this era. And whilst much of his analysis focuses on the very top end of the market for prints, I’ve inevitably found myself wondering whether his work could be used to draw more specific conclusions about the nature of the satirical print trade in Britain during the eighteenth-century?

What follows is something of a thought experiment in which I attempt to use Griffith’s work on the cost of printmaking and the profit margins of publishers to see if I can come up with a rough estimate of how much it might have cost to publish a caricature print in London at the end of the eighteenth-century [1]. The print in question is James Gillray’s King Henry IVth the last scene, published by S.W. Fores in November 1788, and I’ve chosen it purely because Gillray’s original bill survives and we know that he was paid £2 2s for engraving the plate [2]. With this important first piece of the puzzle in place, we can start to draw on Griffith’s work to see what other costs Fores may have incurred in bringing the finished print to the marketplace.

So let’s start with the copperplate on which the design would have been engaved. Griffith’s looks at the cost and dimensions of a number of plates published in London throughout the eighteenth-century and concludes that a ratio of 1s 1d per 100cm2 of copper seems to have been maintained consistently between 1700 and 1820. The British Museum’s copy of King Henry…  measures 25 x 41cm, but it has been trimmed quite closely to the borders of the image and therefore these dimensions need to be enlarged slightly to take account of the plate’s original borders. If we add 5-6 cms onto the edges of the print then the total size of the plate is likely to have been something in the region of 31 x 46cm, or 12 x 18 inches. If Griffith’s cost ratio is correct, a plate of this size would have cost Fores approximately 15s to purchase.

Paper would have been the next item on Fores’ shopping list, as the publisher was typically expected to supply the printer with the quantity, size and quality of paper that he or she deemed necessary. The paucity of domestic paper production had meant that good quality printing paper had to be imported from France and Holland for much of the eighteenth-century, but by the 1780s Fores would have been able to secure good quality domestic paper from one of a number of wholesalers and manufacturers in and around London. One of these was the paper merchant James Whatman, whose watermarks appear on a number of prints published by Fores during the 1790s [3]. Whilst we don’t know exactly how much Whatman was charging Fores for his paper in 1788, a copy of one of the papermaker’s bills from 1775 indicates that a ream of his best paper would have cost £3 10s at that time. A ream of paper would have contained 480 – 500 sheets (let’s say 500 to keep things simple), with a typical sheet measuring 32 x 42cm. That means Fores could reasonably expect to print 500 copies of King Henry… from every ream of paper purchased, with minimal waste being left over at the end of the process.

Fores would then need to take the finished plate and his paper to a printer. It’s possible that he owned his own press and employed a printer in house, but this seems rather unlikely given the sporadic nature of his publishing output and the relatively small size of the premises from which he was operating at this point in his career. Indeed Griffith’s argues that comparatively few publishers kept printers on their staff and most would have contracted such work out to printing houses that had the requisite skills and equipment to do the job. Volume was the main determinant of cost when printing, although it seems reasonable to assume that a publisher would have had to pay more if the project involved something difficult or out of the ordinary, such as adding different colours to a plate or printing an unusually large design. Griffith’s calculates that printing costs were typically 25% higher than the cost of the paper being used, so Fores would have been charged somewhere in the region of £4 8s to make 500 impressions on a ream of paper costing £3 10s.

Once the bundles of finished prints were returned from the printers, Fores would then have to decide how many copies he wanted to have coloured before they were put on sale. Griffith’s claims that the greater part of a publisher’s stock was always made up of coloured prints, which I find somewhat surprising given that this potentially increased the size of any losses incurred from unsold prints. I can only assume that comparative demand for coloured and uncoloured prints was such that printsellers believed that this was a risk worth taking. Colouring was also relatively inexpensive to apply, typically costing 1d per print, whilst typically adding 6d – 1s to the retail price of the finished item. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Fores had the entire 500 sheet run of King Henry… coloured and therefore had to pay his colourists a combined total of about £1 17s for their work.

Now let’s put all of these costs together:

Item £ S
Plate 14
Engraving 2 2
Paper 3 10
Printing 4 8
Colouring 1 17
Total 12 11

How many copies of King Henry… would Fores have to sell in order to break-even? Here’s where things get slightly tricky, as no evidence of the retail price survives and the price of other caricatures Fores published around the same time varied considerably. In January 1788, Fores had sold another plate by Gillray for 1s, but this was a smaller boxing-related print which may not be comparable to a larger caricature. Similarly, we know that Fores charged 3s 6d for copies of Isaac Cruikshank’s The Rout which was published some two years after our print, but that was an unusually long caricature and may therefore have warranted a higher-than-average retail price. So let’s assume that copies of this print sold for 2s, which is broadly comparable to the price Fores charged for two caricatures on the Prince Regent that he had published in 1786 [4].

If Fores sold King Henry… at 2s per copy then he would have had to sell 124 coloured copies, or 25% of every 500 copies printed, to break-even. Assuming he managed to sell every copy printed, then he stood to make a total profit of £37 10s per 500 prints published.

So what, if anything, does all this tell us about the business of making satirical prints? For me it highlights two things: Firstly, it demonstrates that there was reasonable money to be made from publishing caricatures. Fores’ profit on every 500 prints sold would have been more than double his initial investment and was comparable to the average annual wage for an unskilled labourer. As such it is perhaps easy to see why successful publishers such as John Boydell and Thomas Tegg managed to amass considerable fortunes on the back of publishing and selling prints. Secondly, our little experiment also indicates the potential cost of getting things wrong. The publisher faced considerable up-front expenditure to bring a new caricature to market and bore all of the financial risk if things went wrong. Success in printselling must in part have been based on one’s ability to accurately forecast sales and set production levels accordingly. Print too many copies and your profit margin would evaporate in piles of unsold stock, too few and you failed to maximise on the profitability of a successful design. The long list of eighteenth-century printsellers whose business floundered after just a few years of trading indicates just how difficult it was to consistently get this balance right.


  1. A. Griffiths, The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking, 1550 – 1820, (London, 2016) pp. 62 – 77.
  2. A.M. Broadly, Napoleon in Caricature 1795 – 1821, Vol. 1, (London, 1911) p. 37.
  3. The Lewis Walpole Library has a number of caricatures published by Fores on paper carrying a Whatman watermark. See here and here for examples.
  4. See BM Ref. 1851,0901.376. The wording of an advertisement for A Rout which appeared in the Times 20th February 1790 would suggest that it was considered to be a somewhat unusual caricature due to the number of figures depicted. Unusually, the prices of the two prints published in 1786 were etched onto the plates, see BM Cat. 6924 and 6927.

Printing from an original eighteenth-century plate

Some readers may remember this post from January 2016, in which I gave a potted history of the career of the copperplate-maker Benjamin Whittow (fl.1750 -1805). Whittow was one of the principle manufacturers of copperplates for the engraving trade in eighteenth-century London and his wares were used by a range of noted artists and craftsmen, ranging from William Blake to Thomas Rowlandson and Robert Dighton.

I was inspired to write that post after acquiring one of Whittow’s plates at auction in late 2015. That plate was eventually sold to John Gill, proprietor of the Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston, Massachusetts, and a specialist in the recreation of eighteenth-century printing techniques, who has managed to take an impression from it using a reproduction of a period wooden rolling press.  A short video of John’s second attempt at printing from the plate can be seen on his Facebook page:

As you can see from the video, John’s impression comes out flawed as a result of excess pressure being applied by the rollers. This nicely illustrates (if you’ll forgive the pun) that the printer’s skills were of equal importance to those of the artist and engraver in bringing a finished print to market. Here’s an image of a later impression. Lkely to be one of the first taken from this plate in almost 230 years:

Advice to the Officers of the British Army, 1783

This anonymous caricature etching was included as a fold-out frontispiece to Advice to the Officers of the British Army. With some Hints to the Drummer and Private Soldier, published by George Kearsley (fl. 1758 – 1790) in 1783. The book is presented as a serious treatise on military practice but it is in fact one long satirical lampoon of almost every facet of army life. It could be argued that some of the author’s pearls of wisdom are still valid in the workplace of today, for example:

To senior officers:

  • You must… take care of your own sacred person, and never expose it to any dangers. You have not arrived at this rank without knowing the folly of knocking one’s head against a post, when it can be avoided. When any service of danger is to be performed, you should send your second in command, or some inferior officer – but whomever you send, if he succeeds in the business, be sure to take all the merit of it yourself.”
  • “As you probably did not rise to your present distinguished rank by your own merit, it cannot reasonably be expected that you promote others on that score.”
  • “If… economy is the word, make a great bustle… it will [also] be prudent for you… to put it in practice, but not so as to extend to your own prerequisites.”

To non-commissioned officers:

  • “… you are probably at the summit of your preferment (unless you have a pretty wife, sister or daughter).”
  • “When you command a guard… go to the next alehouse and take post by the window, in order to see that none of the soldiers quit their guard.”
  • “You are not only to entertain a hearty contempt for your officers, but you must also take care to communicate it to the soldiers. The more you appear to despise your superiors, the greater respect… your inferiors will profess to you.”

To the rank and file:

  • “If you are a sentinel at the tent of one of the field officers, you need not challenge in the forepart of the evening, for fear of disturbing his honour, who may be reading, writing or entertaining company. But as soon as he is gone to bed, roar out every ten minutes at least ‘Who comes there?’, though nobody is passing, this will give him a favourable idea of your alertness.”
  • “You may be sure that, go into what quarters you will, the landlord will heartily wish you out of them. You should therefore make it a point to give him good cause for it; as it is hard a man should be hated and despised without reason.”

The print is titled Veluti in Speculum (‘as in a mirror’) and shows a satyr inviting a party of British officers to look at themselves in a large mirror topped with military regalia. The Library of Congress catalogue identifies the officers as (l-r) Amherst, Murray, Burgoyne, and possibly Tarleton, Cornwallis, Clinton, and Sir William Howe. Their reactions range from shock (Amherst) to rapt self-adulation (Howe), but all manage to effectively convey the impression of preening narcissism. This message is reinforced by the fact that the generals are so distracted by their own reflections that they have completely neglected the charts on the walls behind them, both maps of theatres in which the British had recently experienced humiliating military reversals, namely Menorca and the North American colonies.

Lewis Walpole Library masterclass: Anglo-American History Painting and Graphic Satire

The Lewis Walpole Library is now accepting applications for its residential masterclass, A Contest of Two Genres: Graphic Satire and Anglo-American History Painting in the Long Eighteenth Century. The residential course will be led by Mark Salber Phillips (Carleton University) and Cynthia Roman (Lewis Walpole Library), and will take place 15-18 May. According to the […]

via Lewis Walpole Library Masterclass — Romantic Illustration Network

The Shocking Case of Count Fig

The summer of 1789 heralded the arrival of dark days for many in Britain: revolution in France, the Russians were on the march in the east, and the swearing in of an American president seemingly confirmed that the former colonies would not, as had been widely predicted, collapse into anarchy. But for the residents of the Poultry in London, the long summer of 1789 brought a new terror: the threat of a disturbed night’s sleep. Throughout June of that year the occupants of this oddly-named thoroughfare had been woken by the sound of someone knocking loudly at their doors during the dead of night. Inevitably this mysterious caller would always vanish before the householder had chance to answer the door, and speculation about his identity quickly became rife throughout the area.

After being awoken on several occasions by the sound of someone ringing his front doorbell during the small hours, Thomas Ribight of 40 Poultry hit on a novel idea for unmasking this nocturnal nuisance caller. Ribright was an optician and manufacturer of scientific instruments of some renown; he was also a keen amateur scientist and had recently completed a number of experiments on the conductive properties of different metals when exposed to a strong electrical current. Before retiring to bed one evening he sprinkled a large quantity of tin filings over his front doorstep and connected a length of copper wire to handle of his doorbell. The other end of the wire was connected to a Leyden Jar, a sort of primitive battery, which Ribright had charged with a large charge of static electricity. With his trap set, he duly took himself to bed and fell into a fitful sleep. 

Sometime later he was awoken suddenly by the sound of a loud scream at his front door. Running downstairs, he threw the door open and saw the figure of Peter Wheeler, a neighbour, slumped in the doorway clutching his hand in agony. Wheeler was a well-known figure in the Poultry; a successful grocer and tea-dealer who had been nicknamed ‘Count Fig’ by his neighbours on account of both his wealth and the affected airs and graces he had adopted since coming into money. Wheeler had subsequently quarreled with several of his neighbours, including Ribright, and decided to get his own back by sallying forth at nights to knock them from their beds. The little grocer eventually managed to stumble to his feet and, assuming that he had been the victim of some lethal assault, yelled “What! You shoot people eh?! Damn ye!” before staggering off in the direction of his home. The noise alerted a number of passersby, including members of the city watch, but on learning the reasons for Wheeler’s predicament, they too decided to enjoy a laugh at the hapless Count Fig’s expense.

The story quickly spread across London and was reported in the Times 29th June 1789. It is presumably from this account that a number of caricaturists took their inspiration, as prints relying the incident soon began to appear in the window’s of the city’s printshops.  Animal magnetism on an improv’d method or Count Fig in a trance, published by W. Price of Tower Hill on 2nd July 1789 is the only one of these prints to carry a publication line and date. It shows Wheeler being blasted away from Ribright’s door, much to the amusement of two watchmen and a drab who happy to be passing by. The image is accompanied by the following limerick:

…The Count attack’d the Inchanted Wire
Unconscious of the latant Fire,
Which hurld him prostrate on the Stones
Screaming aloud my bones – my Bones
The Watch approachd & bear the Wight
Home on their Shoulders all be Sh[i]te

Two other prints, almost certainly both the work of by the same artist and publisher, were also produced anonymously around this time. The first of these was The downfall, of Peter Ficus, commonly called Count Fig, the little grocer, which also shows Fig in the moments after being electrocuted. The second, Peter Fig the little grocer, commonly call’d Count Fig, has been more carefully engraved and was presumably produced at a slightly later date in order to capitalise on the on-going interest in the subject. It shows Wheeler striking a rather ridiculous pose in his shop and contains a rhyme which compares his features to those of a baboon.

The public’s interest sparked a rash of increasingly fanciful accounts of the incident which Ribright himself eventually felt compelled to correct. On the 8th July 1789 a letter appeared in the Times, stating the facts of the matter as relayed here and stating that the author was willing to swear an affidavit to that effect if needs be.