Foxy Lady

July 5, 2008

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.

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Gillray

February 21, 2005

My latest obsession – the prints of Mr. James Gillray, father of the political cartoon. I recently saw an enormous exposition of his work at the New York Public Library, and I was entranced. I’ve never had the least interest in collecting anything, not since I was a boy collecting metal cars, but the sight of his prints started me on a long-term project. Unfortunately, original impressions of his engravings and etchings are rare and expensive, so I shall be able to purchase only those of lesser quality or later editions from the 1849 Bohn edition. Oh well…The one on the upper left is one of his ‘suppressed plates’, i.e., he never printed it, either because of government, publisher, or self-censorship. It is a jab at the king and his mistress, who was unpopular, and who was a rather petite woman compared to His Majesty. Gillray digs the knife in by ostensibly comparing their shoe sizes in this very funny and racy design that even Gary Hart might love. [Speaking of Mr. Hart, candidate manquee, my hat’s off to him for skewering David Brooks with his letter to the editors of the NYTimes in which he pointed out that Brooks, the new-age conservative, was ripping off a good idea of George McGovern’s, the bete noir of the right.]

Next, we have a print on a bizarre geometic theme, showing a sphere being projected onto a plane – a reference to some rumor of the day – and a conceit dear to my digital-cartographer’s heart. Then, France and Brittania kissing and making up, and finally, one of his many anti-Jacobin prints, decrying the execution of Louis XVI and deploring the Reign of Terror. He is wonderfully witty, tremendously inventive, higbrow and vulgar all at once. Hilarious! Exhilarating!

You can see a large image of the last three by clicking on the thumbnails, and you can find several websites that have a lot of his work on display, for sale or simply for show.