A Peep…

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Foul things lurk in the dark, damp caves of seditious politics! If my ignorance of Latin doesn’t hobble me too much, it says on the right, “Truth is great, and will prevail.”  (The thumbnail gives a larger and more clear uncolored image of this wonderful print by James Gillray.)

This print is from the Anti-Jacobin review, a journal dedicated to combating liberal and revolutionary sympathies in England in the last decade of the 18th century. All sorts of good people were pilloried in its articles. James Gillray was, for part of his career, in the pay of the Tory party, not an unusual arrangement for a satirist in those days.

Gillray, however, even as he took one side in his work, was not likely to let the other side off easily. In the print below, he shows Price, a well known liberal divine, surprised in his study as he pens subversive, “revolutionist” texts. And who, or what!, is finding him out? Edmund Burke, the famous conservative, here represented primarily by his nose. (Compare to the contemporary portrait detail shown below.) As the Gillray collector and scholar, Draper Hill, remarked,

“with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”

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For a wealth of images and background on Gillray, visit this excellent online gallery: New York Public Library – Gillray

Here are the notes on the image above:

Although originally a Whig and a supporter of the American Revolution, statesman and celebrated orator Edmund Burke warned that the French Revolution would lead to the collapse of order and an outbreak of regicide and atheism. Reduced here to a pair of peering spectacles, a prying nose, and a pair of tiny hands wielding a crown and a crucifix, Burke split with the Whigs and by 1792 had allied himself with the Tory leader, William Pitt. The “rat” upon whom Burke spies is the Dissenting, radical clergyman Dr. Richard Price. Gillray imagines Price at work on an imaginary essay “On the Benefits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism,” with a picture of the execution of Charles I hanging over his desk. Price’s actual sermon before the reformist Revolution Society, which praised the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, and championed an elective monarchy, provoked Burke to write Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). While Burke’s essay was probably instrumental in changing Gillray’s attitude toward the French Revolution, the artist chose to portray Burke as a crazed fanatic. As Draper Hill has commented, “with typical ambiguity, the content of the engraving is critical of Price but the form ridicules Burke.”

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