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Criminal and Martyr: Art and Execution in Britain, 1725 – 1801

Meredith Gamer
[Yale University]
Paul Mellon Fellow, 2010 – 2013

gamer-2012-2013

William Hogarth, The Reward of Cruelty, plate 4 in The Four
Stages of Cruelt
y, 1751. National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Rosenwald Collection

The public executions held every eight weeks, first at Tyburn Field and later outside Newgate Prison, were among the most popular and well attended of eighteenth-century London’s urban spectacles. They were also the point of origin, literally and figuratively, for a wide range of visual and material objects — from illustrated broadsides, to moralizing prints, to anatomical models cast from criminal corpses. In my dissertation, I argue that these objects, along with the very spectacle of execution itself, played a formative role in the making, viewing, and theorization of art in eighteenth-century Britain. In doing so, I aim also to forge an account of art and visuality in this period that encompasses religious as well as secular modes of seeing and representation and that stresses continuities rather than divisions between Europe’s early modern and modern worlds.

I develop this argument in two stages. In chapter 1, I establish the public execution as a key site of eighteenth-century visual performance and display. Drawing upon a variety of contemporary sources (topographical prints, firsthand accounts, political pamphlets, and moral and aesthetic theory), I argue that this was a space in which the powers and limitations of spectacular punishment were dramatized and tested throughout the century. This first chapter lays the foundation for the subsequent four, each of which examines a particular point of intersection between eighteenth-century cultures of execution and art making.

The first of these focuses on the four-part engraved series The Four Stages of Cruelty, by William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), which concludes with the hanging and dissection of its criminal antihero, Tom Nero. Hogarth’s series has long been interpreted as a general critique of cruelty as it exists at all levels of society, high as well as low. In chapter 2, I argue that the series demands also to be understood within the specific context of ongoing debates over the ethics and efficacy of the public execution ritual. With the final plate in the series, titled The Reward of Cruelty, I argue, Hogarth sought to instill a new image of ignominious death in the minds of London’s poor by exchanging one site of punitive justice (or, alternatively, one “stage of cruelty”) for another — the scaffold for the dissection table.

Chapter 3 focuses on a group of anatomical models made between 1751 and 1775 by the surgeon William Hunter for use by members of London’s Saint Martin’s Lane Academy and the Royal Academy of Arts. Unlike the drawn or sculpted Continental examples on which they are based, Hunter’s models are cast in plaster from the corpses of executed criminals, which he flayed and posed after well-known anatomical and classical iconographies before rigor mortis set in. In my ongoing investigation of these objects, I am aiming to recover not only the histories of their making and use but also the resonances they had for their first viewers. To what degree did they retain the affective and punitive associations of the execution ground? To what degree were these overwritten by the ostensible anonymity and objectivity of their anatomical idiom? Chapter 4 takes as its starting point the late-century rise of the phrase “the sheriff’s picture frame” as a metaphor for the scaffold. (It first appears in Francis Grose’s Classical  Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785.) I consider this richly suggestive euphemism in light of two contemporary historical developments: first, the relocation in 1783 of public executions from Tyburn to the newly built “Newgate drop” and second, the emergence of the public art exhibition as a distinctly modern form of visual display. Through an examination of diverse visual and textual representations of these two new cultural spaces, I argue that the eighteenth-century execution ritual, particularly as it was reconceived at Newgate, simultaneously mimicked and inverted the social, moral, and affective functions of what was then the most common and quintessential of British visual art forms: the portrait.

My concluding chapter addresses a single, enigmatic object, which I have had the good fortune to discuss with many of my colleagues at CASVA this year. This is a life-size plaster cast of the posthumously crucified corpse of James Legg, who was hanged for murder in November 1801. The result of an experiment conceived by three members of the Royal Academy — Thomas Banks (1735 – 1805), Richard Cosway (1742 – 1821), and Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) — the so-called Anatomical Crucifixion was believed to offer an unprecedentedly accurate record of the physical effects of crucifixion. Like Hunter’s earlier casts, this is an object that straddles, entwines, and destabilizes the seemingly disparate visual and physical worlds of the execution ground and the art academy. Even more important, I argue, it invites us to reconsider what was, or could be, a religious image at this moment in time.

During the 2013 – 2014 academic year, Meredith Gamer will complete her dissertation with the support of a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, which is administered by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

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