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The Radical Print: British Art and Graphic Experiment in the Paper Age

Esther Chadwick [Yale University]
Paul Mellon Fellow, 2013 – 2016

chadwick-2015-2016

John Hamilton Mortimer, Fifteen Etchings Dedicated to Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1778, title page. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund

By the second half of the eighteenth century, London had become the foremost center of print production and publishing in Europe. “We remember when a Print shop was a rare bird in London,” William Blake (1757 – 1827) wrote in 1800, but now there were “as many Printshops as any other trade.” This was the era of the “English print” and the “Age of Caricature” — characterized by a proliferation of so-called reproductive prints and by an explosion of graphic satire. It was also a period in which the newly founded Royal Academy marginalized the print as a potential locus of “art.” Despite the centrality of the print to the functioning of the British art world, the academy’s statutes of 1768 excluded engravers from full membership, and aspiring artists were encouraged to focus on architecture, sculpture, and painting in the neoclassical tradition. Yet a number of the period’s most innovative and ambitious artistic statements were made precisely in the print medium, not only by dedicated satirists operating outside the academy’s walls but also by trained history painters and professional engravers.

My dissertation attempts to make sense of this complex situation by examining a number of prints that I place in neither the category of art’s reproductive “handmaid” nor that of its satirical “other” but see more broadly as signaling new modes of artistic engagement and criticality. I emphasize the ways in which these prints and their makers responded to and were shaped by the radical politics of the “Age of Revolutions” and the conditions of what contemporaries called the “Paper Age,” in which printed images coexisted with other print genres — pamphlets, newspapers, and banknotes — that mediated the values of a society in the midst of intensified political contestation and change.

I begin my dissertation in 1776 with The Phoenix, or the Resurrection of Freedom, an unusual, large-scale aquatint made in celebration of the American Revolution by the London-based Irish history painter James Barry (1741 – 1806). The Phoenix may be the first political print to contain an artist’s self-portrait. Barry’s presence among other historical figures shown mourning the loss of liberty in Europe opens onto a larger motivating question: what should be the role of the artist in a revolutionary world? A partial, if oblique, answer is provided in chapter 2 by a series of prints by John Hamilton Mortimer (1740 – 1779). Mortimer’s capriccio-like Fifteen Etchings Dedicated to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1778) grasped the structural affinities of an artist whose criticality depended on autonomy — freedom from aesthetic rules and institutions — and the new model of radical politics established by the reformer John Wilkes (1725 – 1797).

Moving from history painters to the insights of professional printmakers, in the third chapter I proceed by examining the work of James Gillray (1756 – 1815) in the 1790s. His satires have been discussed in terms of their iconographic content and stylistic brilliance, but here they are considered in relation to the communications structures that became a battleground for politics after the French Revolution. By insisting on the obstinate materiality of the image, Gillray’s prints laid bare the politicization and potential disruption of channels of transmission that characterized the century’s last decade.

Chapter 4 centers on a little-known workshop “experiment” by the Newcastle engraver Thomas Bewick (1753 – 1828) to argue that his famous wood-engraved vignettes, intended as tailpieces for his books of natural history, were informed by his work as a banknote engraver and by the problem of forgery. This became increasingly politicized after the British government passed the Restriction Act (1797), which outlawed the exchange of paper money for gold. The interplay of illusionism and indexicality that Bewick established in his trompe-l’oeil vignettes drew attention to the unsteady relationships of signs to their referents. As such, they may be understood in terms of the critique of paper money that would be voiced by the country’s most prominent “currency radical,” William Cobbett (1763 – 1835).

My final chapter argues that Blake’s Laocoön (c. 1826 – 1827) made use of the deeply rooted genre of the millenarian broadside — which combined the Biblical message of apocalypse with a critique of present political power — to argue for a radically dematerialized form of art as “practise” or “prayer.” The radicalism of Blake’s print, which was not made for sale and thus was abstracted from the realm of direct political activity, resided in a different kind of intervention. The Laocoön proposed an abolition of the distancing effects of mediation, whether in the form of paper money or that of printed images.

In bringing these works together and loosening the straitjackets of
their makers’ individual historiographies, I argue for the late eighteenth-century British print as a crucible of artistic modernity. For these artists, the print was a place where the function of art and of the image could be questioned and re-imagined. My readings also suggest that the print shared with contemporary radicalism a number of structuring concerns: the problems of temporality, freedom, and mediation and of the location of an origin. Ultimately the challenge laid down by my project is to think about the impact of radical politics not from the point of view of biography but at the level of the print itself, as object and medium.