City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London

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Between 1770 and 1830, London was the world's largest and richest city, the center of hectic social ferment and spectacular sexual liberation. These singular conditions prompted revolutionary modes of thought, novel sensibilities, and constant debate about the relations between men and women. Such an atmosphere also stimulated outrageous behavior, from James Boswell's copulating on Westminster Bridge to the Prince Regent's attempt to seduce a woman by pleading, sobbing, and stabbing himself with a pen-knife. And ...

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Overview

Between 1770 and 1830, London was the world's largest and richest city, the center of hectic social ferment and spectacular sexual liberation. These singular conditions prompted revolutionary modes of thought, novel sensibilities, and constant debate about the relations between men and women. Such an atmosphere also stimulated outrageous behavior, from James Boswell's copulating on Westminster Bridge to the Prince Regent's attempt to seduce a woman by pleading, sobbing, and stabbing himself with a pen-knife. And nowhere was London's lewdness and iconoclasm more vividly represented than its satire.

City of Laughter chronicles the rise and fall of a great tradition of ridicule and of the satirical, humorous, and widely circulated prints that sustained it. Focusing not on the polished wit upon which polite society prided itself, but rather on malicious, sardonic and satirical humor—humor that was bawdy, knowing and ironic—Vic Gatrell explores what this tradition says about Georgian views of the world and about their own pretensions. Taking the reader into the clubs and taverns where laughter flowed most freely, Gatrell examines how Londoners laughed about sex, scandal, fashion, drink and similar pleasures of life.

Combining words and images-including more than 300 original drawings by Cruikshank, Gillray, Rowlandson, and others—City of Laughter offers a brilliantly original panorama of the era, providing a ground-breaking reappraisal of a period of change and a unique account of the origins of our attitudes toward sex, celebrity and satire today.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Georgian England suffered a mad king, the loss of its American colonies, and the growing influence of revolutionary radicalism drifting across the Channel from France. In spite of this, and even because of it, social and political satire, as Gatrell shows in his exhilarating history, never had it better. Color printmakers took advantage of (and promulgated) liberated attitudes toward sex, bodily functions, and the British royalty. Gatrell’s book features nearly three hundred irreverently foul examples, to which he is an entertaining and appropriately digressive guide. In his hands, the prints provide a bewildering, sometimes nauseating, but ultimately enlightening portrait of a vigorously satirical time that lasted until the great settling down of the Victorian era.
Publishers Weekly
For those brought up on the genteel novels of Jane Austen, Gatrell (The Hanging Tree) has a rude surprise in store. Drawing heavily on Gillray, Cruikshank and Rowlandson's famous satirical prints, Gatrell vividly demonstrates the maliciousness and ribaldry of Georgian London. What made Londoners laugh was less the polished wit of the literary salon than a combination of drunken frat-boy-style jokes, toilet humor and nasty political satire. Gatrell notes that few of the tens of thousands of prints that appeared between 1770 and 1830-the heyday of satire-dealt with "social change" or high literature, except in the most condescending terms. They instead reflected "the subjects of everyday observation and conversation," at least of the artists' middle- and upper-class patrons, and "remind us that the views of most comfortable Londoners were then as unexamined and as bound by daily preoccupations as they are now." By 1830, the satirical impulse had been tamed by the rise of pietism, the idealization of female virtue, the coronation of a new king, steps toward voter franchise and the execution of leading radicals. Better manners and respectability, Gatrell sadly concludes, killed the fart joke. 300+ b&w and color illus. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Gatrell (British history, Univ. of Essex; The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770–1868) continues to forward his illumination of the British 18th century by exploring and interrogating sources and subjects that are decidedly nonconventional. His examination of literally thousands of satiric prints made between ca. 1730 and 1830 is a springboard from which studies of London life, class conflict (and stability), humor, and sex—especially sex, underpinning the "libertine" culture that operated as a rather prevalent alternative to orthodox "sensibility"—are brilliantly, absorbingly synthesized. These prints, their creators, and their consumers questioned royal privilege, lampooned aristocrats, advanced radical agendas—and reinforced the social reality that everyone and everything still had rightful, controllable places in a London undergoing profound economic and cultural change. Gatrell posits that these highly circulating prints were not only the preceding evolutionary rung to comics and cartoons but were also the first vehicles by which modern society's obsession with the visual was manifested. A page-turner for professional historians of that era as well as deeply engaged readers of English literature from Defoe through Dickens, this is a vital purchase for academic collections and flagship public library branches.
—Scott H. Silverman
Kirkus Reviews
British author and academic Gatrell (British history/Univ. of Essex; The Hanging Tree, 1994) explores exhaustively, albeit most pleasantly, the golden age of graphic satire that flourished in licentious London from 1770 to 1830. London under George III and George IV was an economically and politically dynamic city, fast-growing, foggy and sinister, where the upper classes enjoyed enormous excesses and the lower classes writhed abjectly, with a chasm between. A new hunger for more graphic, explicit imagery was the result of an expansion of print culture and the attendant growth in demand from sophisticates as well as lower professionals and craftsmen. The older, classical tradition epitomized by the work of William Hogarth gave way to "commercial products [rooted] in the realities their purchasers recognized"-namely, politically roiling, scatological and sexually scandalous prints by artists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank. The dreamscapes of William Blake and Henri Fuseli also merit attention here. The miseries of the city, the goings-on inside private clubs and the Prince of Wales's profligate behavior (and marital battles) were the favorite subjects of the era, all treated in densely informative chapters. Gatrell's reading is vast and scholarly; he moves from the diverse personalities of London neighborhoods to evolving expectations of manliness and femininity; from the nature of laughter to the different kinds of humor expressed in prints (i.e., satire, caricature, literary grotesque). He highlights some of the innovators, like Thomas Tegg, who transformed the print trade "by cutting costs and prices," and ends with the era's "silencing" by the rise of theCant and the middle class. The pages are lavishly illustrated by prints from the period. A lively, erudite study.
From the Publisher
"The fact that high and low coexisted in the minds and behaviors of actual Georgians is a bit of a leap for us. So too is an appreciation of these engravings, which are at once an expression of an extraordinarily refined visual facility and a ribald, often vicious temperament. The city that produced them — and whose life is the real subject of Gatrell's book — is similarly exotic terrain. Late Georgian London was a teeming and vibrant place, home to 10% of the country's people, ground zero for its aristocratic politics and its striving, though still fragile, middle class...It was the same place, of course, the same mixture of high and low, the same blend of want and opportunity. It was our world struggling to be born, and Gatrell has given us a vibrant album of its strange snap-shots." - Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times

"Laughter may be universal, but what provokes it is not. Even within a culture, humor can change drastically over a relatively short period. This truth is abundantly documented in "City of Laughter," Vic Gatrell's study of comic prints produced in London during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period he deems the golden age of satire…The prints themselves, hundreds of them, are wonderful, and Gillray, in full flight, can be hilarious, with a surreal touch that makes him seem much more modern than his peers. Mr. Gatrell provides expert, detailed commentary on each and every one." - William Grimes, The New York Times "[An] exhilarating history...Gatrell's book features nearly three hundred irreverently foul examples, to which he is an entertaining and appropriately digressive guide. In his hands, the prints provide a bewildering, sometimes nauseating, but ultimately enlightening portrait of a vigorously satirical time that lasted until the great settling down of the Victorian era." - The New Yorker "Graphic sex, booze and personal attacks were staples of the visual satire of 18th-century England, as Vic Gatrell's "City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London" illustrates in delicious detail…A vivid social history…A refreshing, sometimes startling account…An invaluable history of these artists, engravers and print sellers and the raunchy, fleshy world they inhabited and depicted...The glory of "City of Laughter" is the nearly 300 illustrations, most in gorgeous color, that decorate its pages throughout. Walker & Company has done Gatrell proud: The entire book is printed on glossy paper that retains color and the clarity of the illustrations' often intricate details, even though most of the prints are reduced in size from their originals, sometimes considerably…This is a scholarly work that you might approach as a coffee-table art book, or as some of us do the New Yorker, paging through the cartoons first. Filled with vibrant images celebrating the bawdy, the salacious and the grotesque, "City of Laughter" is a visual delight." - Kathryn Shevelow, San Diego Union-Tribune "A lively, erudite study." - Kirkus Reviews "Rarely has a book matched its subject better than "City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth- Century London.'' Those times were gargantuan and teeming with life, and so is Vic Gatrell's 695-page, richly illustrated work." - George Walden, Bloomberg.com "A wonderfully original, surprising, informative, fascinating and entertaining book. For years historians have been describing the rise of polite culture and polite manners in eighteenth-century London. Gatrell has spent those years examining the vast and almost entirely unresearched archive of comic and bawdy prints that tell us what made Londoners laugh around 1800. He tells us instead about the rudeness in the streets, the bedrooms, the taverns and the brothels, that pointed its joyful arse at the polite world." - Professor John Barrell, University of York

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781843543220
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2006
  • Pages: 720
  • Product dimensions: 5.79 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Vic Gatrell is a professor of British history at the University of Essex, a life fllow of Gonville and Caius College, and a member of the Cambridge history faculty. He lives in Cambridge.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations     ix
Picture Acknowledgements     xx
Acknowledgements     xxi
Introduction: Lady Worsley's Bottom     1
The Sense of Place     21
London and the Pleasure Principle     23
'The West or Worst End'     51
Covent Garden and the Middling Sorts     82
Crossing the Boundaries     110
How They Laughed     157
Laughing Politely     159
Bums, Farts and Other Transgressions     178
Image Magic     210
Seeing the Jokes     230
Gillray's Dreamscapes     258
The Sexes     293
The Tree of Life     295
Philosophy and Raking     314
What Could Women Bear?     345
The Libertine Last Fling     388
The Enemies of Laughter     415
Taming the Muse: The Long View     417
The Age of Cant     435
Radical Satire and the Censors     483
The Silencing     530
Happiness, Cant and the Beggars     547
Epilogue: Francis Place and 'Improvement'     574
Brief Lives     597
Abbreviations in Notes     605
Notes     606
Select Bibliography     668
Index     670
Index of Artists' works     690
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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    engaging illustrated critique of historical British prints

    Gatrell seamlessly blends art history and appreciation with social history for an elaborate, panoramic treatment of the spirit of ribaldry and satire captured in numerous comic prints of the era. The author goes well beyond the best known satirical artists of Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, and Cruickshank to include numerous others as well. (The treatment carries over into the early nineteenth century.) Nearly 300 of the prints are reproduced in color in varying sizes from full-page to one-third of the 5' x 10' page size. In this century of sweeping social change from the old order to a much more democratic society, the artists took full advantage of their new freedoms and the growing number of newspapers and other media including posters to portray the antics and vices of English men and women. No one, not royalty or high politicians, escaped the scathing portraits of Hogarth, Rowlandson, and the others though many of the prints had generic characters such as lechers, lusty women, hypocrites, and drunkards. Pornographic and scatological material and illustration knew no bounds. Still, much of the art of caricature and satire had a moralistic or political intent. In the early 1800s, the 'radical commentary turned solemn and earnest on the whole, as a new optimism about the prospects for social- and self-improvement developed.' Democratic society had grown to understand itself, its potentials, and its desirable proprieties better. The Victorian era was dawning. Adulterers, drunkards, etc., were no longer to be simply ridiculed, but reformed. Besides, it was becoming increasingly risky to make merciless and often bitter fun of recognizable leaders of society--the legal and financial troubles of some of the satirists moderated others. But generally, as democratic, middle-class values and tastes spread throughout the society, the wicked satire which could send a heir to the throne into seclusion and evoke 'wild, coarse, reckless, ribald laughter...was beginning to be taught good manners,' as the novelist Thackeray saw. Gatrell is a professor of British history in England.

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