The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England
Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media Series
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
Hardcover. xiii+232 pages. ISBN 978-3319499888. £67
Reviewed by Sophie Mesplède
Université Rennes II
The book opens like a well-spun tale, embarking its readers in the breezy style that characterises James Baker’s prose throughout the book on a journey of discovery through the late-Georgian network of print shops, engravers, publishers, customers and collectors. As ‘how a story begins says a great deal about the story that follows’ , Chapter 1 (‘Beginnings’) starts off with the thriving trade in maps of the 1770s, a trade which regularly overlapped with that in satirical prints in the mid- to late-Georgian period and from whose study much is to be learnt regarding the mechanics of the print business itself. For this monograph, as Baker claims it upfront, is not going to be yet another study relegating ‘the realities of making and selling prints to a position of formal description’  but will rather make artists’ and publishers’ economic choices, the quest for profitability and the cogs of the market for graphic satire the very centre of its attention. After duly acknowledging the use and value of previous research in lately revalued objects, the first chapter of The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England vindicates a recent shift from a historiography that has until recently mostly centred on reception to one that seeks to reconnect production and consumption in a Latourian attempt to entangle and complicate a story of causes and effects. Bruno Latour’s influence on Baker can hardly be overstated and the author, with an interest in both digital history and printing techniques, will repeatedly come back to his ambition to follow up on the French sociologist’s invitation to unveil the hidden mechanisms of technological and creative processes, here so as to shine a light on the ‘black box’ of crafts and technologies which allowed late-Georgian satirical prints to come to life – even afterlife – and navigate their ways in complex market environments.
There is nothing like a case study to make a point, and in the brilliant second chapter of the book (Chapter 2, ‘Scandal’, also happens to be the second part of the book’s two-chapter introduction), Baker takes his readers down the steamy developments of the sexual and political scandal involving the Duke of York and his one-time mistress, Mary Anne Clarke. By unpacking the timely and often conveniently ambiguous illustrations provided by the Cruikshanks, father and sons, Baker’s study sheds light on the seminal part played by commercial imperatives in elaborating protean visual responses to the social, moral, political and military issues raised by the princely affair. The story exposes how the different agents on the print market – here the Cruikshank household and their several publishers – came together and coordinated to tap into the expectations and anxieties of a socially diverse public from which they sometimes parted on ideological grounds. From copper plates worn out under the printing press and the reworking of successful prints to sometimes entirely opposite ends, the picture presented in this chapter is one of business savvy and occasionally downright opportunistic partnerships between satirical artists and publishers who mastered the art of shaping ‘graphic satire, [this] malleable form attuned by necessity to the value systems of its customers’ .
Having promised to concern himself with prints ‘in the making’ rather than simply focus on the resulting objects and their designs, Baker continues (Chapter 3, ‘Production’) with a concise yet useful presentation of the printmaking techniques favoured by late-Georgian satirical engravers. The print historian’s keen eye for evidence of retouching, recutting and burnishing (in a selection of prints from collections across the world) manages to bring to life a world of both very modern-sounding commercial expediency and time-honoured craftsmanship. The histories and techniques of the raw materials involved in the process of creating a satirical print – copper, ink, paper and colours – also get folded into the general picture of the print business and contribute to identifying and assessing the hidden cost-related constraints that shaped the final form of printed satirical images. It is undoubtedly in these astutely retrieved stories of the material life of prints that the book is at its most fascinating.
The following chapter (Chapter 4, ‘People’) flings open the doors of the businesses that operated in London in Cruikshank’s day and offers a vivid picture of the actual places in which prints were sold, often alongside a medley of other wares. Not all artist-engravers self-published and James Baker probes into the commercial dynamic of exchange which existed between burin-wielding satirists and the people who ultimately sold their works. As talent transformed into capital over an often short period of time, Chapter 4 traces the contours of the various types of collaborative ventures which brought together professional satirical artists, independent artist-engravers, in-house engravers, print publishers, apprentices of all kinds, relatives, friends, and occasional wealthy individuals otherwise unconnected with the trade but with a vested interest in a particular publication. Yet, as we learn in the subsequent section of the book (Chapter 5, ‘Trade Networks’), these small nexuses of collaborators who made copper plates into prints did not operate in a vacuum but rather relied on rich networks of trade contacts built through diversifying one’s stock (particularly in the direction of books and stationery items), becoming a freeman in a livery company, joining the many clubs and societies which blossomed in the capital, or putting one’s name down in a prestigious subscription list. Social capital was indeed eagerly sought after by publishers desirous to hedge their bets in sometimes risky financial ventures.
The second and last part of The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England (Chapters 6-8) turns the spotlight towards the most visible part of the trade in prints, i.e. the marketplace, often regrettably made the main focus of studies into the business of art to the detriment of the hidden processes at work in producing images for sale (the ‘black boxing’ of Latourian theory to which Baker here returns). Still, true to the declared approach of the book, the emphasis in this part remains firmly on the material dimension of market transactions and what Baker calls ‘the physical marketplace’. With Chapter 6 (‘The physical marketplace’), satirical print businesses are first replaced within an array of ‘petty’ shops peddling a variety of goods and images, shops in which prints vied with pamphlets, books, almanacs, all sorts of stationery goods and popular prints of a non-satirical nature. The physicality of the marketplace is here to be understood in geographical as much as cultural terms, and the study of the geographical network of the London trade broadens into an investigation – through comparison with the ‘throw’ of more prestigious print ventures such as John Boydell’s Collection of Prints (expensive reproductions after master paintings) – of the national and international markets for satirical prints. Trade routes are retraced, international resonances sounded, limitations to the fluid travelling of goods exposed, before Baker turns to looking at price points and pitting popular satirical prints against other images or wares available for the same price. As design and matter are once more shown to be inextricably bound, the historian goes on to assess the impact of customer choices (for content of either lasting or topical appeal) on the very material quality of the prints.
In an echo to Chapter 4, Chapter 7 (‘The shops’) moves on to examine the physical places in which satirical prints were sold, the print shops themselves, and it sets out to counter a recent historiographical construction of shops as primarily for display and spectating with an attempt to revisit them as centres for commercial transactions and profit-making. Once again, the story finds itself complicated by the fact that print shops rarely sold large single-sheet prints only, and that this type of graphic satire was to be gradually replaced by more complex objects mixing text and image. Moving back and forth, as the book consistently does, between ‘what’ and ‘how’, Chapter 7 in fact starts with a consideration of printed images whose shape and function greatly changed throughout the late-Georgian period (from stand-alone single sheets to ones meant to be included in increasingly popular mixed media volumes) to end with an examination of the sale strategies favoured by shop owners who often had much more on offer than the prints of Cruikshank or Gillray.
Having looked at both producers and consumers against a geographically situated backdrop of workshops and shops, the final chapter of the book (Chapter 8, ‘Satiric Stock’) proposes to tease out how ‘the intersections between those who made, sold and purchased satirical prints’  shaped the content of the images published and publication choices that predictably differed from one publisher to the next and made prints eminently time- and place-specific. Preoccupied from the outset of the book with both Cruikshank and various forms of geography (from local to international), Baker chooses the motif of place, specific and generic, as (re)presented in the stocks of Isaac Cruikshank’s various publishers to shed light on subtle yet timely modulations from one selling point to the next. Quantitative analysis of these stocks, supported by graphic representations of Force Atlas networks which would have greatly benefited from more legible printing, is complemented by considerations of location, immediate sale environment and personal circumstances in an effort to conjure up a vivid impression of the lives of prints in the marketplace. Even the afterlives of these objects are explored, as Baker ends his study with developments on a culture of plagiarism which had to negotiate the passing of two Copyrights Acts in 1735 and 1766, and on the fashion for transfer printing onto ceramics, making the final chapter cum conclusion look like some sort of a mixed bag of related issues which the reader at times struggles to piece together.
Overall, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England is remarkably consistent in its methodological approach. It repeatedly comes back to what it has set out to do, namely to centre on the material life of prints, from the production stage right up to their advertising and selling on a physical marketplace of people and places. Although his book could certainly have done with more careful proofreading (the text is peppered with rather annoying spelling mistakes and awkward punctuation choices, and the bibliography is characterised by regular inconsistencies in the typographical presentation of the works), James Baker has to be commended for his fresh and convincing attempt in presenting late-Georgian satirical prints as cultural objects best understood through the processes – technological, creative and commercial – involved in making and selling them. Extremely well documented, written in a lively and engaging way and with a welcome insistence on concluding each part and chapter with a brief summary of its main thrust, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England undoubtedly constitutes an important contribution to the recent scholarship on both graphic satire and the business of art.
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