Mary Darly satire attacking General Howe and the March 1776 evacuation of Boston

[Mary?] Darly / J. S. Sc., NODDLE-ISLAND or HOW are we decieved [sic]. London: M[atthew] Darly, May 12, 1776.
Etching on laid paper, 8 ½”h x 6 ¼”w at neat line plus title and generous margins, uncolored. Minor soiling, lower margin trimmed close to plate mark, but very good or better.

Rare satire on the British evacuation of Boston during the Revolutionary War, issued by Matthew and Mary Darly in London barely six weeks after the event. An entertaining image, one of many in Darlys’ long line of “Macarony” satires, but also an important reflection on opposition attitudes to the British conduct of the war under Lord North’s government.

Matthew Darly (ca.1720-ca.1778) was one of the foremost English engravers and caricaturists of his day, active from a series of shops on or around the Strand, an important and fashionable shopping street in London’s West End. Following their marriage in 1759 he worked with his wife third Mary Darly (fl.1756-1779), who was also a noted artist and caricaturist. Indeed, there are indications that Mary was largely responsible for drawing their important output of satirical prints.

A principal theme of the work of Matthew and Mary Darly was their mockery of the sartorial excesses of the overly- affected about-town types of the day, most notably the preposterously elaborate elevated hair-styles or wigs affected both by ladies and gentlemen (the latter termed “macaronis”, as in the Revolutionary War-era song “Yankee Doodle”). One such “grotesquely extended” (as the British Museum puts it) coiffure served as the setting for this satire, a three-quarter length profile of a lady, her hair the background for a drawing depicting the military activity around Boston in the first year of the American Revolution. Although the British Museum attributes the image to Matthew, we believe Mary the more likely creator. The etcher signed the print simply as “J.S” and has yet to be identified.

The immediate context was the siege of Boston by American forces. Following the April 19, 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, British forces retreated to Boston and fortified the Shawmut Peninsula. This left American forces in command of the surrounding country, from where they were able to mount an effective land blockade of the city, leaving the British dependent on resupply by sea. Initially, neither side possessed the strength to break the deadlock, but the American capture of the artillery arsenal at Fort Ticonderoga gave fresh vigor to the besiegers. When Washington installed the artillery on Dorchester Heights, the British position became untenable, and on March 17, 1776 they as well as many loyalists were evacuated from Boston by the fleet.

As ever, the story was presented differently in Parliament and the press: Supporters of the government portrayed the evacuation as a complex operation completed successfully to extract the army from an impossible situation. The opposition, predictably, focused on the loss of the town and its important harbour facilities and laid blame on British commander General William Howe for his ineffectual leadership of a highly-trained military force against a rag-tag militia.

Darly’s caricature graphically presents the opposition viewpoint, beginning with a title including a pun on Howe’s name and alluding to the public’s being deceived by the official account (The reference to Noddle’s Island, while not especially relevant to the evacuation itself, is a punning reference to the woman’s head.) At the top of the image, the American forces are depicted in castellated brick fortifications and the British in rough earthworks formed from ringlets of hair. The British army flags bear images of a jackass and a fool’s cap, a none-too subtle commentary on the alleged quality of Howe’s leadership. The lower part of the coiffure shows the withdrawal of soldiers and baggage (deliberately or not, also reminiscent of contemporary images of the retreat from Lexington and Concord), and at the foot, the troops rowing out to the waiting ships, for transport to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

This is an example of the second state of the print, of at least four known states:

State 1: “How” in the title and no plate number at upper right margin (British Museum)

State 2: Plate reworked, particularly noticeable in the added hachuring around the ships and rowboats (this example, Brown University)

State 3: Plate number “78” added at upper right margin (American Antiquarian Society, John Carter Brown Library)

State 4: “How” changed to “Howe” in the title, date revised to May 12, 1778 (Walpole Library)

Also in 1776, the Darlys produced two companion pieces in a similar style, BUNKERS HILL or America’s Head Dress (dated April 19) and Miss CAROLINA SULIVAN one of the obstinate daughters of America (Sept. 1). The latter skewered the failed British attempt to capture Fort Sullivan at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, a humiliating debacle which scuppered the campaign to capture that city.

As is still the case today, ephemeral images—whether pictorial or cartographic—of contemporary newsworthy events had only a limited appeal and, after the event had faded from consciousness, were readily disposable. Hence their rarity today. Darly’s NODDLE-ISLAND is no exception: In addition to the examples listed above, I am aware of only one other institutional holding, at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and but one other impression having appeared on the antiquarian market (Bloomsbury Auctions, 2007).

Dorothy George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum, vol. V no. 5335. Joan D. Dolmetsch, Rebellion and Reconciliation: Satirical Prints on the Revolution at Williamsburg, #37 (note, referring to the British Museum example). Not in ESTC, OCLC or Creswell, American Revolution in Drawings and Prints.