Happy New Year!
Or as Colonel Potter said on M*A*S*H: Here’s to the new year. May she be a damn sight better than the old one.
This week, I commemorate all things new, with the help of a few creations of my dear favorite, James Gillray.
A metaphor borrowed from fish, which will not bleed when stale.
In other words, may 2017 remain fresh the whole year through . . . and never get glassy eyed or stink.
This is one of my favorite Gillray etchings. There is so much commentary, both subtle and blatant, that it’s a study to try to find it all. Gillray depicts the interior of a portrait gallery with busts of frowning Demosthenes against Æschines and Cicero against Cataline flanking Charles Fox. If you’ve ever seen The Madness of King George, actor Jim Carter (Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey) looks uncannily like Fox. Anyway, hanging on the wall above are two prints showing Catherine the Great of Russia; in Justice, she is about to stab a sultan, while in Moderation, she is throwing arms wide open to greedily embrace the Danubian Provinces (Moldavia, Bessarabia, and Wallachia). Note the strategic placement of the royal placard hanging above the bust of Fox: the crowned circle contains a noose and reads “Conjugal love [-] A cure for the Haemerroidical Cholic.” The whole creation is captioned, in five columns, with the following:
“The Grecian Orator of old,
“With scorn rejected Philip’s Laws,
“Indignant spurn’d at Foreign Gold,
“And triumph’d in his Country’s cause
A foe to every wild extreme,
‘Mid civil storms, the Roman Sage
Repress’d ambition’s lawless scheme
And check’d the madd’ning people’s rage,
Domestic Peace, external fame,
With Patriot zeal their Patrons sought
And Rome’s or Athen’s sacred name,
Inspird & govern’d every thought,
Who then, in this presumptuous hour,
Aspires to share th’ Athenian’s praise?
The tool confess’d of foreign pow’r,
The Æschines of modern days,
What chosen name to Tully’s joind
Is now announced to distant climes ?
Behold to lasting shame consign’d
The Cataline of later times.
How can you not love Gillray?! Insightful political commentary on the previous work, risqué and off-color humor in the next. This image may document an actual event said to have occurred at the Royal Institution of Great Britain during a lecture entitled New Discoveries in Pneumatics. Professor Thomas Young allegedly performed the depicted experiment on a fellow society member, Sir John Coxe Hippsley. Sir John was said to have inhaled nitrous oxide gas as Mr. Young held his nose, with the -er- end result. Chemist Humphrey Davy works the gas bellows with a decided look of satisfaction. Whether Gillray witnessed the event with the other luminaries in the audience (we see Count Rumford, William Sotheby, Frederica Augusta Locke, and Issac D’Israeli) is unknown. And unlikely.
It’s always good to start the New Year with a hearty laugh.
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Learn more about the dubious chemistry experiments of 19th Century scientists in Young Humphry Davy: The Making of an Experimental Chemist, Volume 237.