A Bald Eagle & a Grumpy Turkey


turkey-1Tucked away in a corner of my working drawing for my ArtPrize piece The Great Seal is a disgruntled turkey, giving the resplendent, American bald eagle the evils. The turkey isn’t there merely as whimsical nod to the tradition of Thanksgiving. It’s a reference to a debate that was played out when the young America was selecting and developing the emblems which are now an intrinsic part of its identity.

In 1782, the bald eagle was adopted as an official emblem of the American colonies. The eagle was chosen because it evinces majestic beauty, great strength, and longevity, and, like the rattlesnake of the Gadsden Flag, it is native to North America. Yet though the eagle is sanctioned as America’s national bird, there were some in the 18th century who felt it was a misguided choice. Benjamin Franklin was amongst the dissenters:

I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly… [Too] lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him…. Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest…of America… For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America… a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.

eagle-1Franklin’s cheerleading for the humble turkey notwithstanding, the eagle was given its vote of approval on 20th June, 1782, when it became the central feature of the nascent Great Seal. The birth of this famous emblem was troubled and protracted, however.

In 1776, after the thirteen colonies had voted to declare independence from Great Britain, the Second Continental Congress decided it should have an official seal for use on treatises and international agreements. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams convened as a committee to design a seal of the United States. To help them out they recruited Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, an artist from Philadelphia. His design consisted of six sections representing the six countries whose people had colonised the thirteen States, namely England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, France, and Germany. However, the only portion of the design Congress approved was the motto E Pluribus Unum (‘Out of many, one’), which seems to have been suggested by Jefferson. The motto was most probably borrowed from the title page of the London periodical The Gentleman’s Magazine. Another source of inspiration might have been the Continental coinage designed by Franklin, featuring the legend We Are One.

A second design committee was assembled in 1780, and this time Francis Hopkinson – who had a hand in designing the American flag – was called on to assist. His first design included a native American warrior, a shield with red and white stripes, and a crest of thirteen stars. But the committee chose his second design, which replaced the native American with a soldier. Congress, however, was still not impressed.

In May of 1782, a third committee was formed. Heraldry expert William Barton submitted an idea which included a rooster in the crest, but its complexity failed to strike a chord. His second design consisted of a pyramid, the Eye of Providence, and all manner of other devices. Yet again, Congress turned up its collective nose.

In June, Congress looked to its Secretary, Charles Thomson, to come up with the goods. Thomson selected elements of designs proposed by all the previous committees, and hit upon an eagle as a symbol of ‘supreme power and authority’. He also included the striped shield, the olive branch and arrows, the Latin motto, and the constellation of stars with their cloudy halo – all the components of the now famous Great Seal. Incidentally, the olive branch and arrows may have been suggested by Franklin, who owned an emblem book showing an eagle alongside these symbols. Many states had already used eagles on their coats of arms, such as New York State from 1778.


Congress approved Thomson’s idea on the same day it was submitted – 20th June, 1782. His page of explanatory notes remains the Great Seal’s official description to this day. Thomson said the imagery symbolized ‘Independence’ because the striped shield is ‘born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue.’

But it was not until 1787 that the bald eagle was officially ratified as the emblem of the United States. As the national bird, the eagle has appeared on all official seals, as well as on most coinage, paper money, and postage stamps. The eagles on coinage have been shown in a variety of forms and postures. Also, there is great variation in the species depicted, and many complain that most of these representations show the wider-ranging golden eagle rather than the bald eagle. Meanwhile, the famous ten-dollar gold piece shows the ‘double eagle’.

Aside from the dubious legend concerning the eagle crest atop George Washington’s coat of arms being a source of inspiration, it is also said the bird was chosen because the noise of battle at one of the first engagements of the War of Independence awoke roosting bald eagles in the vicinity. They flew from their nests, circled the heads of the combatants, and cried raucously. It was suggested later they were ‘shrieking for freedom’.

Franklin’s Revolutionary Rattlesnake


gadsdensnake%20%282%29You might have noticed that in my working drawing for my ArtPrize entry The Great Seal, Benjamin Franklin is shown straddling the neck of a giant yellow snake. Before you book me in for an intensive course of Freudian analysis, however, allow me to explain the perfectly innocuous reason why this is so.

The Gadsden Flag is an American emblem with a fascinating history. It is named after Christopher Gadsden, the statesman and military commander, who designed it in 1775 during the American Revolution as a symbol of defiance. On a yellow background, a rattlesnake is shown coiled and poised to strike, while emblazoned beneath is the motto, ‘Don’t tread on me’.

Rattlesnakes are very common in the area bounded by the original thirteen colonies of America. The use of a rattler as the symbol of these colonies can be traced back to the publications of our old friend Ben Franklin. In 1751, he made reference to the rattlesnake in a satirical piece that he published in his Pennsylvania Gazette. It had been Britain’s policy to send convicts to America, so Franklin suggested that the British should be thanked by sending to England‘a cargo of rattlesnakes, which could be distributed in St. James Park, Spring Garden, and other places of pleasure, and particularly in the noblemen’s gardens.’

Gadsden1Three years later, Franklin published his celebrated woodcut of a snake divided into eight pieces, to remind the delegates of the Albany Congress of the dangers of disunity. New England formed the snake’s head, with further sections following the colonies’ order along the coast, and terminating in South Carolina as the tip of the tail. Under the snake was the message ‘Join, or Die’. This is of great interest to me as a caricaturist, since it seems to have been the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper. Satire was a vital weapon in the war of words that was waged in the years preceding the War of Independence, and Franklin often lampooned Britain’s political machinations.

By 1774, the segmented snake had reassembled itself, and the motto was changed to, ‘United Now Alive and Free, Firm on this Basis Liberty Shall Stand, and Thus Supported Ever Bless Our Land, Till Time Becomes Eternity.’ In December 1775, Franklin published an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal under the pseudonym American Guesser, in which he suggested that the rattlesnake was an apt symbol of burgeoning American confidence:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage…….. [The] weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—… [She] never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

As the War of Independence gained momentum, the rattlesnake was used more frequently as a symbol of the colonies, and was seen as an embodiment of the ideals of American society. In 1774, Paul Revere added it to the masthead of his paper, the Massachusetts Spy, showing it as a snake fighting a British dragon.


In the autumn of 1775, the United States Navy was established by George Washington. The Navy’s seven ships – known as ‘Washington Cruisers’ – were used to intercept British ships carrying military supplies to British troops in the colonies. The Second Continental Congress sanctioned the mustering of five companies of Marines to accompany the Navy on its inaugural mission. The first Marines enlisted in Philadelphia, and carried drums painted yellow, depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles – representing the thirteen colonies – and showing the motto ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. This is the first recorded use of the future Gadsden flag’s full and powerful iconography.

Gadsden2Colonel Christopher Gadsden represented his home state of South Carolina at the Continental Congress. He was amongst the seven members of the Marine Committee who were fettling the first naval mission.Before the departure of that mission in December, 1775, the newly appointed Commodore Esek Hopkins was presented with the yellow rattlesnake flag by Gadsden to serve as his flagship’s distinctive standard. It was flown proudly from the mainmast. Gadsden also gave a copy of this flag to the Congress of South Carolina in Charleston. The gift was described in the South Carolina congressional journals on 9th February, 1776:

Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American Navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattlesnake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, ‘Don’t tread on me.’

Benjamin Franklin had been instrumental in the evolution of one of America’s most significant, morale-boosting emblems, and I will be painting him and the rattler prominently into The Great Seal.

Of Stars, Stripes and Sundry Washingtons


WashingtonGeorgeI’m not in the habit of arranging assignations with young ladies in graveyards, but sometimes a chap needs a helping hand. One crisp, winter morning in 2012, I drove off to Cambridge, and recruited my slightly bewildered friend Siobhan Hoffmann-Heap to assist me in hunting for the grave of an obscure, 18th-century seafarer.

After a fruitless hour examining broken, illegible headstones at Little St. Mary’s, in the shadow of Peterhouse College, we retreated forlornly inside the church itself in case anything was waiting to be discovered there. Sure enough, affixed high to a wall just inside the porch was a memorial plaque to the fellow we sought, and several of his close relations.

The sailor in question was Captain Edward Christian. He was an uncle of Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty, and I have been researching the mutineer and his family since the early 1990s. Cambridge was something of a powerbase for the Christians. Fletcher’s cousin, Thomas Law, is also linked to Little St. Mary’s, and was baptised there. Thomas was the son of the Master of the Peterhouse, who had nursed his brother-in-law Captain Edward Christian during a fatal illness. In one of those delightfully eccentric 18th-century phrases, Edward was said to have died of ‘a tedious indisposition’. As an adult Thomas Law set out for India, and then America, where he became a property developer, cultivated a friendship with George Washington, and married the President’s step-granddaughter.

_100Long before this, the Washington name, would have been familiar to Thomas when he was a child, it seems. While I was scanning the memorials in Little St. Mary’s, I noticed another plaque dedicated to the Rev. Godfrey Washington – George Washington’s great-uncle – which sports a carving of the family’s distinctive coat of arms. My interest was stimulated by this, and I decided to do a little more digging.

It turned out that back on my home turf of Northamptonshire, the church at Great Brington shelters more of the Washington clan. A slab covering a grave in the chancel commemorates a Laurence Washington (d. 1616), and is emblazoned with the same coat of arms; while another stone in the nave marks the resting place of a Robert Washington. Hanging just by the main door there is also an engraving of George Washington that replaces an original presented to the church by the US Senate in 1914, but purloined by ne’er-do-wells in 1988. (Incidentally, Diana, Princess of Wales, is also buried on the Althorp estate at Great Brington.)

I’ve talked here before about my home village of Ecton in Northamptonshire being the ancestral home of Benjamin Franklin. I’m also pleased to say that the forbears of George Washington hailed from Sulgrave Manor, a few miles down the road, which is why we find so many family members buried in this part of England. The Stars and Stripes flies outside the manor, and a bust of George Washington keeps watch over the grounds. Inside the house, the curators even display George’s velvet jacket, which attests to the imposing stature of the man.

The presidential connexion is the big draw for visitors to this 460-year-old country pile, and although George Washington never lived there, his great-great-great-great-great grandfather did. Lawrence Washington (d. 1584) had relocated to Northamptonshire from Lancashire and, like many of his contemporaries, became a successful wool merchant. After King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the opportunity arose for Lawrence to buy Sulgrave Manor, which had been wrested from the hands of the Priory of St Andrew in Northampton. In 1539, he bought the property from the Crown for £324-14s-10d. Later, the house passed down through the generations until the US president’s great-grandfather, Colonel John Washington, emigrated to Virginia in 1656.

Legend has it that the eagle crest atop the Washington coat of arms inspired the American Bald Eagle emblem. I can’t say I give this notion a huge amount of credence. But there might be a little more substance to another hypothesis about the family armorial, which has certainly inspired me to include it in the history painting I am planning to produce for ArtPrize.

Washington3Intriguingly, the Washington coat of arms is composed of stars, and red, horizontal stripes on a white ground. It hangs in the great hall of Sulgrave Manor; it can be seen where the family placed it above the manor’s porch; and it is rendered in stained glass at the nearby Fawsley Church. It also appears above a portrait of George Washington, along with the US coat of arms (left). So, was its bold iconography to become the inspiration for the American national flag two centuries after it was first displayed proudly by the Washingtons in Northamptonshire? Some people think so. At any rate, it will be my honour to paint Sulgrave Manor, George Washington, and his starry, stripy coat of arms into my work The Great Seal when I venture to Michigan later this year.

I have an awful lot more to tell you about this exciting project, and will update you with regular posts here. For now, you can see a working drawing and more details on my page on the ArtPrize website by clicking here

The Franklin Clock: A Plea for Help


franklingrave%20%282%29In July 1758, the celebrated American polymath Benjamin Franklin and his son William came to poke around in the churchyard at Ecton, my home village in Northamptonshire. Benjamin was in Britain on a diplomatic mission, and took the opportunity to investigate his roots. The Franklins had lived on a thirty-acre freehold in Ecton since at least 1555, and when Benjamin’s servant had cleared the moss away from one of the gravestones, the following inscription was revealed:

Here Lyeth the Body of Thomas Franklin who Departed this Life January the 6 Anno Dni 1702 In the Sixty Fifth year of his age.

Records suggest that the Franklins were a clan composed of some talented individuals, and Thomas Franklin – Benjamin’s uncle – was no exception. The church and Thomas’s grave will feature in the huge historical caricature (see illustration detail here) thatI intend to produce for ArtPrize in Michigan, USA, in which I will bring together my county’s links to some of American history’s most important personalities and emblems.

Thomas was the eldest of four brothers, and the intention seems to have been for him to work in the family’s blacksmith business in Ecton. But he showed himself to be a bright child, who delighted in self-education, and his intellectual pursuits stretched out in several other directions.

_100In adult life, Thomas took on many roles. Like his famous nephew, he was an inventor of some repute. He was also an enthusiastic musician; the village’s schoolteacher; a clerk of the county courts, and to the archdeacon; a lawyer; and a successful bell-founder. He and his business partner Henry Bagley cast many bells, most notably those for Lichfield Cathedral. Village lore maintains that what is now Ecton’s Three Horseshoes pub was Franklin’s and Bagley’s bell-foundry.

In his autobiography, Benjamin said of Thomas that ‘being ingenious and encouraged in learning…..he qualified himself for the bar, and became a considerable man in the county’. He was the ‘chief mover of all public spirited enterprises for…..Northampton, as well as of his own village, of which many instances were related of him; and he was much taken notice of and patronised by Lord Halifax.’ He also recorded it was said of Thomas that ‘if Franklin says he knows how to do it, it will be done’. He even undertook civil engineering works to prevent the village meadows from flooding. If you had a problem, Thomas was the man with the brains to pick, ‘and he was looked upon by some…as something of a conjurer’.

Thomas once built himself an organ to play at home, and his musical and mechanical skills were to serve Ecton’s church very well indeed. Benjamin relates how Thomas ‘set on foot a subscription for erecting chimes in their steeple, and completed it’, and he had the pleasure of hearing them play when he visited Ecton in 1758. Thomas had designed a unique contraption that connected the bells to the church clock mechanism so that they chimed automatically four times a day, at four-hour intervals. This would have proved very useful to villagers since, in those days, there was no clock-face on the tower. The chimes also belted out the tunes of two hymns. Pleasingly, Thomas’s remarkable clock mechanism survives, and it is currently stored in Ecton’s church.

As you can see from the photo (below), parts of it look like the works from some gigantic music box, and a villager who has researched the contraption in some depth tells me Thomas employed a local barrel-maker to build the wooden drum. However, the clock is no longer operational, and I’d like to help remedy this. Thomas and Benjamin Franklin quite clearly shared the same genetic predisposition towards scientific ingenuity, and it would be a crime if a physical legacy of Franklin talent were left to moulder in a belfry indefinitely. As I go about the business of painting and promoting The Great Seal in coming months, I’ll be talking about Thomas’s unique invention as much as possible, in the hope that we can find a way – and much-needed funds – to resurrect it, and hear it ringing out over Ecton once again. If you, dear reader, can offer any thoughts or advice on this, I would be delighted to hear from you.


I have an awful lot more to tell you about my exciting ArtPrize project, and will update you with regular posts here. For now, you can see a working drawing and more details on my page on the ArtPrize website by clicking here

Eyes on the Prize


In a sleepy churchyard in rural Northamptonshire is a crumbling, illegible gravestone that forms the starting point for an epic artistic and historical journey…

The Church of St Mary Magdalene in Ecton is the resting place of Thomas Franklin, uncle of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Benjamin visited England and the grave in the 1750s, and even considered buying back his family’s homestead in the village. A likeness of Benjamin even features on the village sign, which was erected to mark the millennium. Like his famous nephew, Thomas Franklin was an inventor, who designed a remarkable and unique automatic chiming clock for Ecton’s church, and I’ll be telling you more about this in later posts.

Northamptonshire’s links with American history don’t end with the Franklins. A few miles down the road is Sulgrave Manor (right), the ancestral home of George Washington, and the family coat of arms emblazoned above the manor’s porch is said to have influenced the design of the Stars and Stripes. Another Washington is buried at Great Brington church, on the estate where Princess Diana was laid to rest.

I’m a British cartoonist, and Ecton is my home. Thomas Franklin’s grave is situated 150 yards from my front door, and is still visited by Americans today, who leave dollar coins on the headstone as tributes. So, when an American friend suggested I make a bold attempt to win a hugely popular art contest in her father’s home state of Michigan, I turned for inspiration to my county’s links to two of the greatest figures in U.S. history. The competition in question is ArtPrize which is an open, international event, founded by the DeVos family who created the Amway business phenomenon. For nineteen autumn days, downtown Grand Rapids in Michigan becomes a vast public gallery, and art from around the world pops up in every corner of the town. One of the top prizes, awarded by public vote, is a purse of $200,000. To a freelance artist, this is too good an opportunity to miss. But the challenge is daunting.

The piece I intend to produce – entitled The Great Seal – will be a gigantic caricature that incorporates the fascinating history of some of America’s most important and recognizable national emblems, and the people who helped forge them. In order to stand a fighting chance of winning over an American audience, I must travel to Michigan, and produce the artwork, which will measure six by nine feet – a scale on which I have never worked before. The Holland Museum in Michigan has very kindly offered me a lovely room in which I can paint, and we hope to set up a webcam for a live internet feed of me doing so. I must also find a prestigious public space in Grand Rapids where the painting can be displayed and viewed by as many people as possible, so that it has the best shot at gleaning public votes.

I will also have to generate publicity and general interest in both Michigan and the U.K.. This will entail forging links between museums in the host town, and interested parties in England, such as Benjamin Franklin House in London, Sulgrave Manor in Northants, and the good folk of Ecton, who are rightly proud of their Franklin heritage.

There are no guarantees that any of this will come off, or that I won’t be seen as a jumped-up Brit trying to spoon-feed America its own history….

How will I fare?

I have an awful lot more to tell you about this exciting project, and will update you with regular posts here. For now, you can see a working drawing and more details on my page on the ArtPrize website by clicking here

The Lancet : Quacks and Hacks

Guest Publications

_100When I was taking my first tentative steps in the world of commercial illustration, I was commissioned to draw a smiling couple for a hygiene supplies company’s press advertisement. I flatter myself I did a good job, and you could not have wished to see two people more delighted by the benefits of incontinence pads. Spool forwards 20-something years, and I found myself writing and illustrating scandalous true stories for my spoof 18th-century tabloid, The Gin Lane Gazette. I was struck by how there is nothing new under the sun, certainly where the flim-flam of marketing is concerned.

Read full article here.




History Today: Georgian John Bull

Guest Publications

_100The caricature reproduced here, drawn in 1798 by the mighty James Gillray, shows the archetypal Englishman ‘John Bull’ bellyaching because he is being forced to eat countless captured French ships, served to him as ‘fricassées’ by Nelson and his victorious admirals. (Suspicions about foreign food are nothing new.) In the background the Whig grandees Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), early supporters of the French Revolution, flee with hands raised, fearing they will be served up for consumption next.

Read the full article on History Today.

Urine the Money!

The Georgians

TheoMA host of quack doctors found their way into The Gin Lane Gazette. This is hardly surprising, since there were so many of them plying their trade in the 18th century. The cult of celebrity and the growing influence of newspapers on the consumer were exploited to great effect by Georgian medics.

In the 17th century, mountebanks had been itinerant salesmen peddling cure-alls to crowds in town squares. The huge proliferation of metropolitan and provincial periodicals in the 18th century provided the opportunity to reach a much bigger market, and advertising revenue from competing druggists became the newspapers’ lifeblood. Quacks were soon nicknamed ‘advertising professors’, and advertisements for some of the more outlandish remedies and services they marketed appear in my book. The collusion between newspaper barons and quacks led to the publication of advertorials, or ‘puffs’, written by editors sharing profits with mountebanks; and even to advertised drugs being available to buy at the printers’ premises.

The excellent Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsey Fitzharris, blogged recently about mediaeval ‘piss prophets’, who diagnosed illnesses by analysing the colour, and often the taste, of their patients’ urine. They even had colour charts, or ‘urine wheels’, to assist them in this. I find it fascinating and pleasing that this practise had not died out in my era of choice, as the career of Dr Theodor Myersbach demonstrates.

Myersbach had been a lowly clerk in a Bavarian post office, before deciding to seek his fortune in London. However, his hopes of becoming a performer in an equestrian circus were dashed by a deficiency in his height. Undaunted by this setback, he soon settled on the study of urine – known as Uroscopy – as an alternative career, having picked up some rudiments of medical science from a doctor who had cured him of the Itch.

DrRockThe practice that Myersbach established in Hatton Garden in the 1770s yielded sizeable financial rewards. It was estimated that at the zenith of his popularity he was treating around two hundred patients a day, many of whom were celebrities, members of the gentry, and aristocrats of the first rank. The actor David Garrick consulted Myersbach when he was troubled by persistent gout and a kidney stone.

Patrons would pay half a guinea to hear Myersbach give his pronouncements on their health. The infirm visited his premises and offered up receptacles of urine to the medicaster, who examined their water in a pompous and theatrical manner, before offering his diagnoses. He was heard to boast that by those inspections alone he was able to determine the age, sex, and medical history of the patient. Like many of his peers, Myersbach blurred the line between medicine and entertainment, and profited handsomely as a consequence. His income was said to have been 1,000 guineas per month, allowing him to indulge his love of fine clothes, and to keep a coach and horses.

Rocking the Royal Crescent

The Georgians

In the 1780s, No.1 Royal Crescent in beautiful Bath was the elegant townhouse of a fellow called Henry Sandford. Henry was clearly a man with whom I’d have got on famously, as he kept a scrapbook of titillating cuttings from Bath’s gossipy newspapers. I’m delighted to say this wealth of material is still extant.

No.1 is now a museum, and a thoroughly magnificent one at that. It recently reacquired the wing next door, which allowed the trustees to undertake substantial and impressive refurbishments this year, and the house is once again the fine edifice it was in the Georgian age.

When I was writing and researching The Gin Lane Gazette, I suggested to the museum folk that I should include some of Henry Sandford’s more scandalous newspaper material in my book. They agreed, and the two stories I chose were about a riot erupting at the soirée of an infamous Bath hostess, and the attempted murder of a local clergyman with a biological agent concealed in a letter. After the Gazette was published, another fabulous opportunity arose. No portrait of Henry Sandford is known to exist, but a full-figure silhouette of him that I produced for his page of stories was brought to life by animators for an excellent video, which is now played to the museum’s visitors.

_1100Most exciting of all, an enchanting evening of Georgian larks has also been planned, and I’d like to invite you all to attend. The date for your diaries is Friday 29th November. Gracing our event will be a fine harpsichordist, costumed performers, and No.1’s dedicated cooks, who will be preparing 18th-century canapés on the premises. I’m also pleased to say the excellent Jillian Drujon, a.k.a. Feather & Flask, will be showcasing her innovative 18th-century-themed fascinators. Her work has graced many a Hollywood flick, and you can see some examples here.

As if that were not enough, I will regale our crowd with period scandal from the Gazette, alongside Hallie Rubenhold, the TV historian and author. Hallie wrote a splendid history of the infamous Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies – a kind of 18th-century Yellow Pages for prostitutes and their services  – and she always gives value for money when holding forth to an audience on matters scandalous. We’ll both be on hand to sign our respective books, if you’d like to take one home to read under the bedclothes.

Bath is hosting its famous Christmas Market from 28th November – 15th December, so why not book yourself into a local hostelry, and make a long weekend of it? Come and help us rock the Royal Crescent, and kick off your Christmas in bawdy style.

Click HERE to secure a ticket.

Smugglerius: Sketching the Body of an 18th-Century Criminal

The Georgians


A few weeks ago, I realised two ambitions. One was to engage in life-drawing in the hallowed portals of the Royal Academy. The other – perhaps more perversely – was to meet a criminal I had featured in The Gin Lane Gazette, and who gasped his last breaths on the gallows in the late 18th century. I had been asked by the medical historian and Chirurgeon’s Apprentice Lindsey Fitzharris to sketch him on camera for her TV documentary Medicine’s Dark Secrets, and I jumped at the chance to pay my respects to a nameless man who had unwittingly assisted generation after generation of artists.

The criminal in question owes his unenviable notoriety to Agostino Carlini (c.1718–1790). Carlini was a Genoese sculptor, who had made his way to London via The Hague by 1760. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy, and two of his works – both portraits of King George III – are still in the Academy’s collection. In the late 1770s, he worked on architectural sculpture for London’s Somerset House. He cut a curious figure, by all accounts, and ‘used to walk from his house to Somerset-place, with a broken tobacco-pipe in his mouth, and dressed in a deplorable great coat’, or ‘full-dressed in a purple silk coat, scarlet gold-laced waistcoat, point-lace ruffles, and a sword and bag.’

At the RA, Carlini set out to assist his artistic disciples in life drawing by somewhat grisly means. In 1776, he cast in bronze the cadaver of a hanged felon, flayed by the expert hand of the institution’s Professor of Anatomy Dr. William Hunter. The criminal was set in the posture adopted by the celebrated figure of Antiquity, The Dying Galatian (formerly known as the Dying Gaul, or Dying Gladiator), in order that the students could use him as their model for drawing, and get to grips with the subcutaneous composition of human anatomy. The nefarious career of the executed man was known to the students, and there was speculation that he had been a smuggler. Gallows humour kicked into gear, and he was quickly dubbed Smugglerius. There has been a great deal of speculation as to his true identity, but I won’t get bogged down in that here. The original bronze cast is now lost, but Victorian plaster copies made by William Pink are housed at the RA, and at the Edinburgh College of Art.


Why did Carlini choose the Dying Galatian as a model? It is a portrayal of a fatally wounded barbarian, and is one of the classical world’s most famous artworks. There’s even a coaching inn near Scunthorpe called The Dying Gladiator, which displays a dodgy copy of the sculpture above its main entrance. The marble figure itself is a Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic original that dated to around 230BC, and it is thought to have been found in the 17th century during construction of a villa for Rome’s Ludovisi family. Pope Clement XII acquired it later, before it was pilfered by Napoleon’s forces and taken to the Louvre. It finally returned to Rome in 1816. Byron mentions it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and it was greatly admired amongst the artistic cognoscenti. Viewing it was considered essential by young bucks on the Grand Tour. A trade in Dying Galatian trinkets began to thrive, with engravings, miniatures, and full-sized replicas being snapped up by 18th-century art lovers, who prized Antiquity’s cult of heroic and idealised nudity. Student artists were encouraged to study and sketch the surviving statues of the ancient world, and dissection was a preoccupation of the Enlightenment, so I suppose flaying a miscreant and arranging him in a classical pose was taking matters to their logical conclusion. Also, the wounded Galatian was paying the price of his rebellion against civilization, and in his own way, Smugglerius had suffered the consequences of his own transgressions against authority.

Two hundred years later, as I sat in a vaulted studio mapping out the contours of Smugglerius’s yellow-ochre body in soft pencil, I can’t say I experienced any overwhelming sensations of revulsion or pity. I imagine knowing that I was scrutinising a copy of a copy of a deceased human being played its part in this. Yet even if I had been encountering a real, skinned individual I’m not sure I would have felt much differently. Without skin, wrinkles, hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, and all the other things that give a man his identity, at that moment he seemed little more than an anonymous specimen. I think Lindsey and some of the film crew had more unsettling reactions to him. Somehow, it felt to me like viewing a corpse at a distance through a veil. Whoever he was, though, I’m delighted to offer him my own inadequate tribute.


*Note: All photos by Robert Pinna