“The World was all before them where to choose
Their place of rest, and Parson Tooke their guide.”
The `Gate of St Stephen` is the entrance to Parliament; the two swords, labelled `Middlesex` and `Westminster` – held by the two successful candidates, Sheridan ( a very red faced gent) and Admiral Hood, represent the parliamentary seats for which James Paull and Sir Francis Burdett had stood as unsuccessful candidates. It was a grudge match between the radicals and ultra conservatives – the conservative faction won, and are seen gloating over their victory. It shouldn`t be assumed that there was such a thing as parliamentary democracy at work in early 19th century Britain; the `Rotten Borough` system meant that voters were restricted to people with money, who could be bought by anyone with the biggest purse. Some constituencies possessed only a mere handful of eligible voters with which to send an M.P. to a Parliament, which was the pinnacle of a gigantic pyramid of national corruption, that permeated into the very web and weave of society.
The vicious political cartoon above is Gillray`s famous 1797 image of the Bank of England as The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street; it shows the old girl sporting a dress of banknotes and squatting on a chest holding the national gold reserves, resplendent with double padlocks. She is gamely fighting off the unwelcome advances of a certain spindly, spotty youth going by the name of Pitt the Younger; a 24 year old gent who just happened to be the Prime Minister. Pitt was wrestling with a ballooning national debt problem ( no change there then), and had ordered the bank to indulge in a spot of 18th century quantitative easing by issuing paper bank notes instead of gold. Of course, before the brilliant brainstorming idea of paper money, national exchequers had simply debased the coinage content, so young master Pitt saw this as a good wheeze to slide his way sideways out of a tricky financial spot. The world economy has been following his trailblazing lead ever since.
The great 18th century caricaturists were infatuated with faces – the more grotesque the better. True Faces by James Gillray is an explicit print which played on the manipulation that the heart and face were connected; he thus unveiled the `true` faces of the opposition party by pairing their public face with it`s corrupted counter type. So, we are shown the `Patron of Liberty` turned into `The Arch Fiend`.
Gillray assembles two rows of opposition leaders for our perusal, each with his identical double. The first pair are Fox, and Satan with a snake round his neck. Next is Sheridan with bloated face, an air of sly, watchful greed as he tightly clasps a money bag. The Duke of Norfolk is looking right; his double holds a brimming glass to his lips, and is crowned with vines. Next is Tierney, turned to the right, but furtively looking sideways – he is a Finish`d Patriot, a man with two faces – Doubr The Lowest Spirit In Hell. Mr Burdett ( who we met earlier) with his characteristic shock of hair, has a raffish double to accompany him on his forward march into political obscurity; he has been coined the Arbiter Elegantiarum, or, Sixteen String Jack ( a noted highwayman). Next comes Lord Derby, like his simian double, wears a bonnet-rouge terminating in the bell of a fools`s cap. He has been designated a baboon. The Duke of Bedford is not caricatured , but sports a natty top hat, while his double has a jockey cap perched atop his pate, with a sartorial, striped coat to finish things off. He is a Newmarket Jockey masquerading as a Pillar of State. The epitaph below his picture follows thus: “If you would know Men`s Hearts, look in their Faces.”
So we finish our short tour of James Gillray by returning to one of his favourite physogs – Pitt the Younger. Ever on the look-out for ready cash to pay for the ruinous war against the French, he screws the people with a tax on how many windows their houses boast; he thinks up the jolly jape of acquiring forced loans from citizens under the guise of calling it a `Voluntary Contribution`; but best high jinx of all, is to introduce the concept of a national income tax. Everyone in work, would be required to contribute towards the national exchequer; resistance would be futile. As Gillray shows in his cartoon, compared to the benefits received in public services from government, it`s not too difficult to sometimes see income tax as………..Highway Robbery. Pip! Pip!