Friday, January 4, 2013

Print Shops - Past and Present

by Grace Elliot

In Georgian times, then as now, people were fascinated by visual images; of course, in those days there was no television or cinema and so art was the draw. However only those with spare income could afford the entry fee into art exhibitions, and indeed, the free, annual Royal Academy exhibition was so popular that it was mobbed by unruly crowds and eventually an entry fee was levied to keep the poorest out. But in the 18th century with the rise of the print shop, their window displays became the new galleries, drawing crowds to gaze on the latest works of art.


A Gillray cartoon depicting a crowd outside
a print shop in St James's Street.
Prior to 1740 most prints were imported from France and in 1744 when Hogarth engravings made for 'Marriage a la Mode' he called up two Frenchmen. Indeed, during the first half of the 18th century printsellers sold mainly French wares, the British equivalent being cheap copies and poor quality.

It took printer John Boydell to give a leg up to English engravers when he spotted a potential market amongst middle income earners, for art work to put on their walls. He commissioned prints of familiar London scenes and his business instinct was amply rewards as he made a small fortune. The public taste for prints was kept fresh by rapid developments in technique: mezzotint 1760's, aquatint 1770's and stipple in 1780's. Indeed such was their popularity that one observer, Sophie La Roche, described the wide pavement outside a print shop in Cheapside:

"[to]..enable crowds of people to stop and inspect the new exhibits."

Boydell's art was mainly classical and with the French Revolutionary wars his export trade floundered, but around the same time a new vogue arose - that of the caricature. 
Gillray's 'The Three Graces' -
an observation on the fashions of the day.
Perhaps Hogarth stimulated this new trend, with scenes depicting moral corruption, indeed James Gillray (a heavy weight in the golden age of caricature) sites Hogarth as one of his greatest inspirations. Gillray was a political satirist of genius and his work still gives the modern social historian a priceless insight into the Georgian world.

 In the late 18th century,  6d (plain) to 1s (coloured) a print would purchase a print to brighten the walls of a tavern, lodging house or workplace. Caricatures tickled the English sense of humour and quickly became all the rage, with a commensurate increase in the number of shops selling them.

James Gillray (1756 - 1815) was one of the greatest artists of this type, regularly making fun of the regent's pretensions to knowledge and the king's miserly tendances. Gillray became so influential on public perception that the king tried to suppress one of his prints (L'Assemblie Nationale) and paid a huge amount of money to buy the original plate. Gillray's publisher was a Miss Hannah Humphrey and his name was linked with hers romantically. He lived above her print shop in St James's until his death in 1815, and his print "Very Slippery Weather" shows crowds gathered around the window.

Gillray's 'L'Assemblee Nationale'.

One of Gillray's competitors, Cruikshank, records how the artist worked with prodigious speed:

 "Sometimes he would at once etch a subject on the prepared copper plate... unable even to submit to the process of drawing it upon paper... he worked furiously, without stopping to remove the burr thrown up by the [burrin]; consequently his fingers often bled from being cut by it".

The period 1789 - 1815 is widely acknowledged as the height of print influence and popularity and it was with interest that I passed this print shop on modern day, St Jame's Street. It didn't have crowds round the window but people were stopping to look at the prints, reminding me of a bygone time.
The modern day print shop -'Tottering-by-Gently' - St James's Street.
 Thank you for reading this post by Grace Elliot
If you have enjoyed it and would like to learn more about the author please visit Grace's blog:
"Fall in Love With History"
Grace's latest release is 'Hope's Betrayal."
Click for link.


  1. Very interesting. Some of these prints are very valuable now. Nice book cover too.

  2. Thank you, Tim.
    It was walking past "Tottering-by-Gently" that whetted my appetite to find out a bit more about print shops. However the pendulum seems to have swing the other way - prints are relative expensive now, I suppose the modern equivalents would be poster or postcards.
    Thanks for leaving a comment,
    Grace x

  3. This was such an interesting post! I love learning things like this. I've always taken prints in restaurants, etc. for granted. Never thought of them being and exciting new experience.

  4. I doubt anybody would have caught Miss Bingley gazing into the window of that printshop in Cheapside

  5. They are so whimsical in ways, but as you say you can learn a great deal about the times just by studying them.

    Enjoyable post!

  6. The exhibition on at the Royal Academy now--the Art of Landscape: Constable, Turner and Gainsborough--features walls and walls of engravings of landscapes from the 18th century, though several are late 17th century. At the outset, the printmakers engraved scenes from European artists such as Poussin and Rosa, but by the mid-century, English artists were producing works to feed the growing middle class market for prints.

    By the time Turner was painting at the end of the 18th century, the taste for engraved prints was so huge, the artists themselves were engraving their own works, rather than allowing engravers to make all the profit...

    The print shops, particularly with their endlessly changing windows of current satirical works, acted as a source of news for many--particularly as not everyone could read.

  7. Don't forget that for many people the caricature gave the reader the first inkling of what the subject looked like. The (wo)man-in-the-street would merely know the King's portrait from the coins of the realm, and (s)he would avidly read in the gutter press stories of the goings-on of the rich and famous. But until the satirists arrived to depict the Prince of Wales, or politicians like Fox and Pitt the average person had no idea what they looked like - and there was an extraordinary fascination with the activities of the moneyed classes. Their excesses were the bread and butter of the satirists, no less so than modern readers buying up Hello magazine to read about today's celbrity non-entities!


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