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City of Laughter: Sex and Satire

in Eighteenth-Century London

Review By Cheryl Bolen

City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London
Vic Gatrell
Walker & Company, New York, 2006
696 pages, $45

British historian Vic Gatrell is the first scholar to ever comprehensively study eighteenth-century satirical prints, and the result is this stunning, high-quality book of nearly 700 pages and 289 illustrations, many of which have never before been reprinted.

Three factors explain why historians had neglected the study of these satirical prints. First, they were scattered in various collections and libraries throughout the world, including Yale University, making them difficult to access. Secondly, the bawdy subject matter could be offensive to many. Lastly, according to Gatrell, "comic art is undervalued."

Between 1770 and 1830 some 20,000 satirical or humorous engravings were published in London's print shops. The three most prominent artists (whom we think of as caricaturists) were, chronologically, James Gillray (1756-1815), Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), and George Cruikshank (1792-1878).

Because these dealt with politics, international affairs, and scandals and satire of London's social elite, those who figured in the graphic satire and those who flocked to the print shops to purchase them for a shilling or more came from the middle and upper class.

Gatrell uses the 60-year era of graphic satire to show that before the Victorian era, London was a city of sex and laughter.

And, man, how these illustrations show it!

Since many of the social situations which inspired these satirical illustrations are unknown to most of us, Gatrell has kindly provided text to explain the background. His research and knowledge of Georgian London are astonishing.

These 700 pages are crammed with interesting tidbits. Some examples:

Bachelor Prime Minister Pitt (the younger) "was stiff to everyone except a woman."

Public hangings were moved from Tyburn to the gate of Newgate prison in 1783.

Piccadilly was the first street to be lit by gas—in 1809.

Sedan chairs did not go out of fashion until 1820.

Women wearing powdered wigs washed their heads every three months.

Bagnios (public baths/brothels) were located in the Charing Cross area near Charles I's statue.

Doors to Haymarket opened at five.

Drury Lane boxes cost 5 shillings, and upper gallery seats could be had for a shilling.

Because the artists slightly changed the actual names or omitted letters, the artists and printers did not get sued.

One print, for example, shows Lady Worsley washing her naked body in the bathhouse at Maidstone while her husband, Sir Richard Worsley, stands outside, hoisting a man up to the small window near the roof to get a peek. The story goes that Sir Richard tapped on the bathhouse door to notify his wife he was going to give Bissett a peek. Apparently, Sir Richard was an accomplice in his wife's many adulteries. The text on the drawing reads:

Sir Richard Worse-than-Sly, Exposing his Wife's Bottom – O Fye!

Many of the illustrators accepted bribes. George Cruikshank (whose father, Isaac, was also a noted caricaturist) accepted £100 from the regent to strop satirizing him. Gillray earned a £200 annual pension from George Canning in 1797 to produce propaganda against the Foxite Whigs.

"Bums, Farts, and Other Transgressions" is the title of one of the chapters. If you ever wondered how to illustrate a fart, this is the book for you. Part of another chapter on libertines deals with the erotica Rowland illustrated from 1790 until 1810. Some of the erotica is truly graphic, even pornographic, except Gatrell explains that because they are humorous they do not meet the criteria for pornography. (Warning: Keep book out of reach of young children.)

Some of Rowlandson's erotica was costly to purchase and was prized by wealthier Londoners. These prints were also shared with women.

London in Regency times was the richest and most economically dynamic city in the world, and its residents were undoubtedly the most debauched.

Of the couple of hundred Regency research books in my library, this volume will nowrise to the top five in breadth of knowledge imparted.

I was uncommonly lucky to find it at Edward Hamilton for $7.95—which included postage! As heavy as the book is, shipping cost must have neared $5. My good fortune, sadly, came at others' incredible loss. The book must have been remaindered by the publisher.

And they say sex sells.

This article was first published in The Quizzing Glass in May 2011.

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