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The Royal Sign and Visual Literacy in Eighteenth-Century London

  • Stephanie Koscak

This article argues that the commercialization of monarchical culture is more complex than existing scholarship suggests. It explores the aesthetic dimensions of regal culture produced outside of the traditionally defined sphere of art and politics by focusing on the variety of royal images and symbols depicted on hanging signs in eighteenth-century London. Despite the overwhelming presence of kings and queens on signboards, few study these as a form of regal visual culture or seriously question the ways in which these everyday objects affected representations of royalty beyond asserting an unproblematic process of declension. Indeed, even in the Restoration and early eighteenth century, monarchical signs were the subject of criticism and debate. This article explains why this became the case, arguing that signs were criticized not because they were trivial commercial objects that cheapened royal charisma, but because they were overloaded with political meaning. They emblematized the failures of representation in the age of print and party politics by depicting the monarchy—the traditional center of representative stability—in ways that troubled interpretation and defied attempts to control the royal image. Nevertheless, regal images and objects circulating in urban spaces comprised a meaningful political-visual language that challenges largely accepted arguments about the aesthetic inadequacy and cultural unimportance of early eighteenth-century monarchy. Signs were part of an urban, graphic public sphere, used as objects of political debate, historical commemoration, and civic instruction.

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1 Zachary Zeal [pseud.], A Seasonable Alarm to the City of London, on the Present important Crisis (London, 1764), 31.

2 See Hannah Smith, Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture, 1714–1760 (Cambridge, 2006), 123–41; McShane, Angela, “Subjects and Objects: Material Expressions of Love and Loyalty in Seventeenth-Century England,” Journal of British Studies 48, no. 4 (October 2009): 871–86; Kevin Sharpe, Rebranding Rule: The Restoration and Revolution Monarchy, 1660–1714 (New Haven, 2013).

3 John Pitts, An Elegy. To the Memory of Our Illustrious and Lamented Queen Caroline of England (London, 1821).

4 Bryant Lillywhite, London Signs: A Reference Book of London Signs from Earliest Times to about the Mid-Nineteenth Century (London, 1972), 464, 220.

5 On visual polysemity and the intertwined relationship of word and image in graphic prints, see Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image,” in Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), 32–51; W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago, 1994); Peter Wagner, Reading Iconotexts: From Swift to the French Revolution (London, 1995); Mark Hallett, The Spectacle of Difference: Graphic Satire in the Age of Hogarth (New Haven, 1999).

6 On the centrality of painting to aristocratic and royal authority, see David Howarth, Images of Rule: Art and Politics in the English Renaissance, 1485–1649 (Berkeley, 1997). The term “object of art” comes from Mary Vidal, Watteau's Painted Conversations: Art, Literature, and Talk in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France (New Haven, 1992), 185.

7 Although scholars have studied popular cultures of royalism and the commercialization of the loyalist political calendar under George III, few examine commercial expressions of monarchism before 1760. Of notable exception is Smith's Georgian Monarchy. See also McShane, “Subjects and Objects,” 871–86; Harris, Bob and Whatley, Christopher A., “‘To Solemnize His Majesty's Birthday’: New Perspectives on Loyalism in George II's Britain,” History 83, no. 271 (July 1998): 397419. For the history of commercialized royalism in pre-Revolutionary British North America, see Brendan McConville, The King's Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal American, 1688–1776 (Chapel Hill, 2006), especially 131–37. The seminal study of royalism in the late eighteenth century remains Colley's, LindaThe Apotheosis of George III: Loyalty, Royalty and the British Nation, 1760–1820,” Past and Present 102, no. 1 (February 1984): 94129. On the relationship between the monarchy and nationalism, see Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven, 1992), 195–236. For the history of mass media and monarchy in the nineteenth century, see John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch (Oxford, 2003).

8 John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1997), especially 3–55.

9 McConville, The King's Three Faces, 9.

10 Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of The French Revolution, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chapel Hill, 1991), 85–86.

11 Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851–1914 (Stanford, 1990), 99, 88.

12 Murray Pittock, Material Culture and Sedition, 1688–1760 (New York, 2013), 21–22, 145.

13 Bonnell Thornton, Adventurer, 5 December 1752, ix: 51.

14 The majority of the graphic evidence for the signs discussed here is gathered from collections of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century trade cards held at the Huntington Library, the Lewis Walpole Library (LWL), and the British Museum (BM). For recent scholarship on eighteenth-century advertising and merchant trade cards, see Benedict, Barbara, “Encounters with the Object: Advertisements, Time, and Literary Discourse in the Early Eighteenth Century Thing-Poem,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 40, no. 2 (Winter 2007): 193207; Berg, Maxine and Clifford, Helen, “Selling Consumption in the Eighteenth Century: Advertising and the Trade Card in Britain and France,” Cultural and Social History 4, no. 2 (April 2007): 145–70; Smith, Chloe Wigston, “Clothes without Bodies: Objects, Humans, and the Marketplace in Eighteenth-Century It-Narratives and Trade Cards,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 23, no. 2 (Winter 2010–11): 347–80.

15 Gerald Millar, Jacob Larwood, and John Camden Hotten, English Inn Signs: Being a Revised and Modernized Version of the History of Signboards (New York, 1985).

16 For example, the celebrated coach and herald painter Charles Catton (1728–98), who became master of the Painter-Stainers' Company in 1784 and a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts, also painted London shop signs earlier in his career. See Sheila O'Connell, with Roy Porter, Celina Fox, and Ralph Hyde, London 1753 (Boston, 2003), 53–55; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, rev. ed., s.v. “Catton, Charles, the elder (1728–1798),” accessed 14 July 2013. doi:10.1093/ref:obnd/4901.

17 Thomas Bowles, The Church of St Mary le Bow (London, c. 1762). Topos L847 no. 84+, LWL.

18 Cynthia Wall, The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London (Cambridge, 1999), 120; see also eadem, The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century (Chicago, 2006), 149–77. On the history of London and the expansion of retail, see Roy Porter, London: A Social History (Cambridge, MA, 1995), chap. 6.

19 William, Duke of Cumberland, became a popular sign after the prince's role in putting down the Jacobite uprising in 1746. “For the Mirror,” Mirror 2, no. 82 (19 February 1780), 122.

20 On perspectival vision and the rationalization of space, see Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Vision and Visuality: Discussion in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle, 1998), 3–23; James Elkins, The Poetics of Perspective (Ithaca, 1996).

21 Joseph Trigge, Trade Card (c. 1742), Heal, 84.260, BM; Ambrose Heal, The Signboards of Old London Shops: A Review of the Shop Signs Employed by the London Tradesmen during the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries (London, 1947), 134.

22 Universal Spectator, 8 January 1743, quoted in London Magazine, and Monthly Chronologer (London, 1743), 37.

23 Hogarth also helped organize the fictional Society of Sign Painters' exhibition in London in 1762, which ridiculed connoisseurial disinterest and state-sponsored notions of artistic hierarchy that excluded the broader public from aesthetic evaluation. Ronald Paulson, Popular and Polite Art in the Age of Hogarth and Fielding (Notre Dame, 1979), 31–48; Conlin, Jonathan, “‘At the Expense of the Public’: The Sign Painters' Exhibition of 1762 and the Public Sphere,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 121.

24 Charles Grignion after William Hogarth, Canvassing for Votes (London, 1757), S.2, 131, BM. Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times, 2 vols. (New Haven and London, 1971), 2:222–27; idem, Hogarth: Art and Politics, 3 vols. (New Brunswick, 1993), 3:179–84.

25 Paulson, Art and Politics, 180–81.

26 See François Maximilien Misson, Mémoires Et Observations Faites par un Voyageur En Angleterre (Hague, 1698); William King, A Journey to London In the Year 1698 (London, 1699).

27 John Evelyn, Sculptura: Or the History, and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper (London, 1662), 24–26.

28 John Taylor, Taylors Travels and Circular Perambulation, Through … the Famous Cities of London and Westminster (London, 1636), 19–20. On Taylor, see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v., “Taylor, John (1578–1653),” accessed 14 July 2013. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27044.

29 Katherine Gibson “‘Best Belov'd of Kings': The Iconography of King Charles II” (PhD diss., Courtauld Institute, 1997), 198.

30 Nicola Smith, The Royal Image and the English People (Aldershot, 2001), 67–68, 78; Kevin Sharpe, Rebranding Rule: The Restoration and Revolution Monarchy, 1660–1714 (New Haven, 2013), 122–23.

31 Heal, Signboards, 135; Thomas Cole, Trade Card (c. 1663), Heal, 86.18, BM.

32 Chartier, Cultural Origins, 85–86 (author's translation).

33 Louis Marin, Food for Thought, trans. Mette Hjort (Baltimore, 1997), 189–217, especially 196–200; see also idem, Portrait of the King, trans. Martha M. Houle (Minneapolis, 1988), especially 206–14.

34 Louis Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, Nouvelle Édition Corrigée & augmentée, 8 vols. (Amsterdam, 1783–88), 5:118–21 (translation mine).

35 Sharpe, Rebranding Rule, 111–13. Lillywhite's index includes at least 30 different London shops, inns, and taverns conducting business under the sign of the Royal Oak between the Restoration and the end of the eighteenth century. Lillywhite, London Signs, 466–67.

36 See Harold Weber, Paper Bullets: Print and Kingship under Charles II (Lexington, 1996), 25–49; Weiser, Brian, “Owning the King's Story: The Escape of from Worcester,” Seventeenth Century 14, no 1. (Spring 1999): 4463; Sharpe, Rebranding Rule, 88–90. For a popular contemporary example of kings in disguise, see the chapbook The Pleasant and Delightful History of King Henry 8th. and a Cobler (London, 1670).

37 The Answer of Mr. Waller's Painter To His many new Advisers (London, 1667), 7.

38 The Answer of Mr. Waller's Painter, 5.

39 Gibson, “Best Belov'd of Kings,” 135. Hannah Smith uses the term “representational in ethos” to describe the spectacle of divine monarchy that was gradually abandoned in the post-Revolutionary period. Smith, Georgian Monarchy, 62, 81–83.

40 For an overview of these changes, see Sharpe, Rebranding Rule, 114–18, 136–47, and Smith, Georgian Monarchy, 131–41. On the expansion of London's engraving industry, see Antony Griffiths, The Print in Stuart Britain, 1603–1689 (London, 1998); Timothy Clayton, The English Print, 1688–1802 (New Haven, 1997).

41 Walter Raleigh, The History of the World (London, 1614), B2 verso. On Elizabethan representation, see Anna Riehl, The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representation of Elizabeth I (New York, 2010); Kevin Sharpe, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England (New Haven, 2009).

42 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version,” in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA, 2008), 19–55. Dror Wahrman makes the opposite argument about the desacralization of monarchy in the works of the Dutch painter Edward Collier; see Mr. Collier's Letter Racks: A Tale of Art and Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age (Oxford, 2012), 96.

43 McShane, “Subjects and Objects,” 873.

44 Evelyn, Numismata. A Discourse of Medals, Antient and Modern (London, 1697), 1, 176; Marin, Louis, “The Inscription of the King's Memory: On the Metallic History of Louis XIV,” Yale French Studies, no. 59 (1980): 1736, at 27; see also idem, Food for Thought, 220.

45 Ibid., 257. Marcia Pointon, Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 1998), 64–66.

46 Evelyn, Numismata, 44–45.

47 Ibid., 67–69. On civic humanism and art theory: John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt (New Haven, 1986); David H. Solkin, Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 1993); Carol Gibson-Wood, Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment (New Haven, 2000).

48 Mark Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture (Oxford, 2005), chap. 5; Wahrman, Mr. Collier's Letter Racks, 20–22; Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (Cambridge, 1998), 17–56; Deborah Valenze, The Social Life of Money in the English Past (Cambridge, 2006), 39–46, 85.

49 Evelyn, Numismata, 228, 224; Valenze, “Social Life of Money,” 85.

50 Louis Marin, “The Inscription of the King's Memory,” 27; see also Food for Thought, 220.

51 Evelyn, Numismata, 41.

52 McShane, “Subjects and Objects,” 885.

53 Griffiths, The Print in Stuart Britain, 23, 217–43; idem, Early Mezzotint Publishing in England—I. John Smith, 1652–1743,” Print Quarterly 6 (1989): 248–51; Carol Wax, The Mezzotint: History and Technique (New York, 1990); Ben Thomas, “Noble or Commercial? The Early History of Mezzotint in Britain,” in Printed Images in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Interpretation, ed. Michael Hunter (Burlington, 2010), 279–96.

54 Griffiths, “Early Mezzotint Publishing,” 248–51.

55 Smith, Georgian Monarchy, 139; Griffiths, , “The Pepys Library,” Print Quarterly 12 (1995): 411–12; Pointon, Hanging the Head, 62; Clayton, The English Print, 57–62.

56 Individual half-sheet prints of the monarchy by George Vertue and Robert Sheppard, engraved to illustrate Paul de Rapin-Thoyras's History of England (1726–31), were advertised at between three and six pence apiece. London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 29 March 1736.

57 Millar, Larwood, and Hotten, English Inn Signs, 310.

58 Lillywhite, London Signs, 37, 487–88, 472, 352.

59 On Protestant religious visual-material objects, see David Morgan, “The Look of the Sacred,” in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed. Robert A. Orsi (New York, 2012), 296–318; Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production (Oxford, 1999); The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, 2005).

60 John Sutton, Trade Card, Heal, 111.144, BM. For a similar example of the Queen's Head sign that could be read in multiple ways, see the trade card of Samuel Wrather, 66 726 T675 Quarto, fol. 42, LWL.

61 Page from “Trade Tokens and Bookplates” (1705–1799), 66 726 T675, fol. 143, LWL.

62 William Ironside (pseud.), “To the Editor of the St. James's Magazine,” in St. James's Magazine, ed. Robert Lloyd, 4 vols. (London, 1762–64), 1:278. Thomas Pelham Holles, the duke of Newcastle (1693–1768) resigned his office as prime minister in 1762 and joined the political opposition to George III. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v., “Holles, Thomas Pelham, Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne and First Duke of Newcastle under Lyme, 1693–1768,” accessed 1 August 2015. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/21801.

63 Ironside, “To the Editor of the St. James's Magazine,” 1:279.

64 Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation, especially 272–91.

65 Jonathan Swift, City Cries, Instrumental and Vocal: or, an Examination of certain Abuses, Corruptions, and Enormities, in London and Dublin (Dublin and London, 1732), 29–30.

66 On the royal cypher, see Wahrman, Mr. Collier's Letter Racks, 91.

67 Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation, 273.

68 Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Spectator, 2nd ed., 1, no. 28 (London, 1713), 2 April 1711, 104.

69 Richard Steele, with Joseph Addison, The Tatler. By Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., 1, no. 18 (London, 1709), 21 May 1709.

70 See Lawrence E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1994), 175–94.

71 Gibson, “‘Best Belov'd of Kings,’” 174–75, provides an authoritative account of the purchase and alteration of this statue; see also Smith, The Royal Image, 124–25.

72 Andrew Marvell, “On the Statue at Stocks-Market,” in Andrew Marvell, A Collection of Poems on Affairs of State (London 1689), 111.

73 James Ralph, A Critical Review of the Public Buildings, Statues and Ornaments In, and about London and Westminster (London, 1734), 12.

74 Agnew, Worlds Apart, 110, identifies a “representational crisis of authority” in England by the mid- and late seventeenth-century, tracing the origins of this crisis to unease engendered by “England's increasingly boundless market.” For Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation, esp. 1–8, this was a crisis of credibility and public discourse during the shift to a representative society.

75 Pointon, Hanging the Head, 83.

76 Jonathan Richardson, An Essay on the Theory of Painting (London, 1715), 21–22.

77 Oliver Goldsmith, “On the Instability of Worldly Grandeur,” in Oliver Goldsmith, The Bee: Being Essays on the most Interesting Subjects (London, 1759), 184–89, at 184.

78 “A Sentimental Journey. By a Lady,” serialized in Lady's Magazine or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex (September 1774), 455–56.

79 For a summary and criticism of these histories, see Smith, Georgian Monarchy, especially 1–15.

80 Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 8 June 1723; Evening Post, 6–8 June 1723.

81 Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 8 June 1723.

82 Ibid., 30 March 1723.

83 Ibid., 24 February 1723.

84 Ibid., 8 August 1724.

85 Post-Boy, 2–5 June 1711.

86 Weekly Packet, 30 July–6 August 1715.

87 Eirwen E. C. Nicholson, “Sacheverell's Harlots: Non-Resistance on Paper and in Practice,” in Faction Displayed: Reconsidering the Impeachment of Dr Henry Sacheverell, ed. Mark Knights (Malden, 2012), 69–79, at 77–79, with the quotation at 77. Mark Knights makes a similar point in “Possessing the Visual: The Materiality of Visual Print Culture in Later Stuart Britain,” in Material Readings of Early Modern Culture: Textual and Social Practices, 1580–1730, ed. James Daybell and Peter Hinds (Basingstoke, 2008), 85–122.

88 See John Brewer, “Commercialization of Politics,” in The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb (Bloomington, 1982), 197–262. Nicholson, “Sacheverell's Harlots,” 79.

89 “A Sequel to the Dissertation on Sign-Posts,” Craftsman, 30 September 1738, 638. On broader opposition to Walpole, see Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture, and Imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (Cambridge, 1995), 117–36.

90 Craftsman, 30 September 1738, 638; Conlin, “‘At the Expense of the Public,’” 4.

91 Craftsman, 30 September 1738, 638.

92 Diana Donald, The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III (New Haven, 1998), 57; Eirwin E. C. Nicholson, “Consumers and Spectators: The Public of the Political Print in Eighteenth-Century England,” History 81, no. 261 (January 1996): 5–21, at 14. See also Fordham, Douglas and Albright, Adrienne, “The Eighteenth-Century Print: Tracing the Contours of a Field,” Literature Compass 9, no. 8 (August 2012): 509520, at 515–16.

93 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v., “Mist, Nathaniel (d. 1737),” accessed 15 July 2013. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/18822.

94 Weekly Journal, or, Saturday's Post, 13 September 1718, 545.

95 Lillywhite, London Signs, 478.

96 Richard Flecknoe, Rich. Flecknoe's Aenigmatical Characters. Being Rather a new Work, then new Impression of the old (London, 1665), 84; Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten, The History of Signboards: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London, 1866), 264.

97 Weekly Journal, or, Saturday's Post, 13 September 1718, 545.

98 None of these engravings survive, but pro-whig newspapers claimed that the print was produced by Francis Clifton, and “several Hawkers were corrected at the Whipping-Post for crying them.” Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 20 September 1718.

99 Ibid.

100 Larwood and Hotten, The History of Signboards, 12.

101 Lisa Cody, “‘Every Lane Teems with Instruction, and Every Alley is Big with Erudition’: Graffiti in Eighteenth-Century London,” in The Streets of London: From the Great Fire to the Great Stink, ed. Tim Hitchcock and Heather Shore (London, 2003), 82–100.

102 Flying Post, 31 March–2 April 1702, quoted in William Bragg, ed., Rogues, Royalty and Reporters: The Age of Queen Anne through its Newspapers (Boston, 1956), 25–26.

103 Post Boy, 6–8 March 1707, quoted in ibid., 51.

104 Heal, Signboards, 94; Heal, 70.141, BM.

105 Banks, 28.135, BM.

106 Looker-On, no. 32, 15 December 1792, 253.

107 Zeal, A Seasonable Alarm, 11, 2–3.

108 Ibid., 29, 31–32.

109 Ibid., 37, 39.

110 J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1660–1832: Religion, Ideology and Politics during the Ancien Régime, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 2000). On the inability of the early Georgian court and monarchy “to represent themselves effectively on the public stage,” see Brewer, Pleasures of the Imagination, 28.

111 Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York, 1996), 233.

112 Leeds Mercury, 18 August 1821.

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