The golden age of satire? Late-Georgian satirical prints

A British Museum Spotlight Loan

Generously supported by the Dorset Foundation

Tour schedule

Pontefract Museum, Wakefield 
11 May – 20 July 2019

Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire  
27 July – 6 October 2019

Beacon Museum, Whitehaven  
12 October 2019 – 12 January 2020

Recommend this exhibition

The first modern political caricatures were invented in Britain during the long-eighteenth century, often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of satire.

Following the British Museum’s major 2018 exhibition sponsored by Citi, I Object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent, this partnership Spotlight loan explores how a small group of printmakers – Gillray, Cruikshank, Rowlandson and Newton – mercilessly skewered the worst excesses of the British monarchy between about 1790 and 1820. Set against a febrile atmosphere of reform, revolution and war, these prints held a mirror to a dysfunctional and deeply unpopular institution. Highlights include James Gillray’s much imitated Fashionable Contrasts (1792), an outrageously provocative satire that summons thoughts of the utmost vulgarity, entirely through the size and angle of two pairs of shoes. A generation later, in 1812, George Cruikshank depicted the Prince of ‘Whales’ as a bloated cetacean wallowing in the ‘sea of politics’.

Such disrespectful images were greeted with uproar and apprehension by the establishment, jittery owing to revolutionary events unfolding in France. There, the destruction of the Bourbon monarchy had begun through a campaign of public mockery leading to a saying, ‘ridicule kills’, and a featured French print from the period illustrates this point. In Britain the monarchy felt genuinely wounded by such mockery, while the government tried, usually unsuccessfully, to threaten and bribe the printmakers into silence.

Tom Hockenhull, curator of this Spotlight Loan said, ‘these prints are clever, dangerously subversive and viciously funny. I’m delighted that they will be shared with a wider audience through this partnership exhibition. They provide a rich and complex source of information about the period, and I look forward to seeing how each venue approaches the material.’

With the support of the Dorset Foundation, the exhibition will travel to three UK venues from May 2019 until January 2020.

James Gillray (1756-1815), A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion, 1792, hand-coloured etching © The Trustees of the British Museum