Caricatures were extremely popular during the Regency era. Thousands were produced, ranging from mild criticism to biting satire, and included political, social, and personal commentary. They were printed from etchings or engravings and sold to whoever would pay for them.
Politicians and aristocrats were frequently lampooned. For example, there were caricatures of the Four-Horse Club’s meetings, of gaming clubs, of young bloods slumming it with low folk. There were caricatures showing similarities between great ladies and prostitutes. The Prince of Wales, both before and after becoming Prince Regent, was mocked so often that he had printers prosecuted for sedition or bribed them to suppress the prints. One of the first caricatures to mock rather than flatter the prince was “A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion” by James Gillray. Its detail attacks his gluttony, drinking, gambling, sexual vices, laziness and indifference.
Frequently, the wealthy had standing orders with print shops for their caricatures. Alternatively, they would send servants to buy the latest prints. Some scandalous prints (such as one about the secret marriage of the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Fitzherbert) were so popular that the printer couldn’t produce them quickly enough. People who couldn’t afford to buy prints were able to view those on display in the print shop window. A crowd would gather, and those who were literate would read aloud whatever wording was on the prints.
Most of the caricaturists were from relatively poor backgrounds; some were educated, some not. They were considered disreputable, for they would generally (usually out of necessity) take whatever work offered. However, they quite rightly criticized the bad behavior of all levels of society.
One of the most famous, Thomas Rowlandson, had a certain amount of access to the rich and powerful, and was even commissioned by the Prince of Wales to produce prints attacking his political enemies. However, many of his prints were quite bawdy—too bawdy for a PG blog! I find his caricature of the bluestockings interesting because he shows the women no more mercy than he does men when portraying their drunken debauchery. Rowlandson was usually good-humored in his mockery and even caricatured himself.
There is plenty of fodder for stories in the world of the caricaturists and the rich and famous people they lampooned. My July 2012 novella for Harlequin Undone, To Rescue or Ravish?, touches on this world, for the heroine faces being caricatured in a print shop window for all London to see. Looking at it from her point of view, it’s not much different from being in the tabloids of today!
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