This is a late 18th century print by Rowlandson called “Reynard put to his shifts.” It is from my personal collection, and is one of my favorites because of the dense knot of allusions, mythological, sexual, political, and satirical that it contains. Just what is it about?
“Reynard” is the French word for fox, and it is sometimes used in English fables (in the land of fox hunting) as the name as an animal character. The Fox referred to here is Charles James Fox , Whig opponent of the Tories. James Gillray lampooned him often and viciously, partly because Gillray was, for a while, in the pay of the Tory party. (Though he didn’t spare James Pitt, the Tory leader, either.) Here is a detail of a Gillray satire of Mr. Fox that shows him assassinating British liberty in the costume of a French sans culotte revolutionary. (He was, for a time, a supporter of that revolution, and Gillray pilloried him as an unpatriotic sympathizer with Napoleon long after the Revolution had devoured its children.) In my print, Mr. Fox is, of course, shown as a fox chased by some vicious hounds that bark out the names of legislative bills he supported. A fashionably dressed woman calls out to him, “My dear fox, get into cover,” inviting him to run and hide beneath her skirts. The sexual innuendo is indirect, but clear. What is going on?
In 1784, the year this print was made, two unusual things happened in British politics: Mr. Fox had to actually compete for his seat in parliament – usually a seat once gained, was totally safe; and Mrs. Georgiana Cavendish, an educated, brilliant, cultured, and tremendously wealthy noblewoman (shown here in a portrait by Gainsborough – she was famously addicted to gambling) who was a distant cousin, friend and supporter of Fox, went out on the hustings to drum up support for him. (He won in the end.) Never mind the Age of Enlightenment, this was not women’s work, and she was ridiculed and lampooned for it.
Rowlandson himself, did several satires of her political canvassing, including these two, which show Mrs. Cavendish suckling foxes at her breast, and buying votes by selling kisses. Other less subtle prints show her groping tradesmen, not just kissing them, or playing with voters on a see-saw balanced on a penis fulcrum.
There is an additional association: the theme of “Reynard put to his shifts,” i.e., the hunted fox at his wits end, was a common theme in popular culture of the day. Here is an image by Carrington Bowles (1779) that shows one representation of the story with some commentary:
Reynard’s Last Shift may be read satirically as a comment on the upper-class hunters’ callous indifference to the disruption their sport brings down upon a peasant family. But we know as well that the image takes place within a narrative that here begins to yield other possibilities, among them the lascivious joke of the huntsman grabbing tail, highlighted by his reach between the legs of the alarmed woman. There is also the problem of the two genteel bystanders, woman and man, whose amused nonchalance is so striking. Is this cruel indifference or is it just possible that the young man’s gesture and her gaze indicate that they share our lascivious joke, setting up a complicity with the viewer? And indeed who are we as the imagined viewer? Possibly our 18th Century counterparts—the purchasers for a print like this—would be more of the “middling sort” who would see themselves as neither gentry or peasant, but there were always openings for alignment one way or the other. It could be that part of what made “jokes” like this so resilient in the period was a fluidity of the social structure in which the boundaries were unstable, even while readily recognizable within the visual delineation the prints suggested through such markers as dress.
from Clark University
This sort of close and entertaining analysis of satirical prints from this period of English history is found in abundance in Vic Gatrell’s fabulous book, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London.
In this image, Georgiana is given a sort of [mock] heroic aspect, standing tall and firm, while fox cowers beneath her skirts. The dangers to Fox’s political personna are apparent – Karl Rove is not an original thinker. My sense also is that Rowlandson here is alluding ironically to the myth of Actaeon, with which he was certainly familiar, as would any man of his standing, all of whom were educated on the classics. That unfortunate man, Actaeon, loved nothing so much as hunting stags with his hounds, but one day he accidentally happened on the goddess Diana naked at her bath. She splashed and cursed him, he metamorphosed into a stag, and his own beloved hunting dogs pursued himand tore him to pieces. He couldn’t even form words to call to them to stop. Here, the goddess is his protector, simultaneously saving him, and by implication, emasculating him, I think.