Important and scarce political cartoon lampooning the repeal of the Stamp Act under the administration of George Grenville, Prime Minister from 1763 to 1765. “One of the most famous and popular political satires commenting on the Stamp Act”. (Dolmetsch)
As Prime Minster, George Grenville (1712-1770) was faced with restoring Britain’s finances and reducing the national debt, which had doubled with the cost of fighting the Seven Years’ War. In normal circumstances, the first step of government would be to reduce the army from its wartime to a peacetime establishment. Unfortunately, this was prevented by the outbreak of Pontiac’s War (1763-1766), broadly occasioned when tribes with traditional links to the French sought to oppose British claims by right of conquest to their lands.
In view of the continuing need for a strong military presence and ongoing cost of fighting the native tribes, government sought a greater financial contribution from the American colonies. Accordingly, Grenville proposed legislation now known as the Stamp Act, which Parliament passed by overwhelming margins on March 22, 1765. A direct tax on the American colonies, it proved hugely unpopular, inspiring the slogan “No taxation without representation”. Although the Act was repealed in March 1766, it was one of the first grievances that led along the path to the Revolutionary War and American independence.
The original version of this cartoon was drawn by Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788), a portrait painter, satirist, etcher, Fellow of the Royal Society, and successor to William Hogarth as Serjeant-Painter to the King. According to Dolmetsch, Wilson “boasted that it was available for sale within ten minutes of the official repeal. An instant success, it became one of the most copied satires of the period.” Stephens and George describe ours as the fourth of six versions, an anonymous treatment with descriptive letterpress text added in the lower margin.
The scene is set on an unnamed Thames dockyard. In the foreground a funeral procession approaches a burial vault housing “unwise” Acts of Parliament (listed on the stone over the doorway). The vault is adorned with two skulls of Jacobite “Monsters”, an allusion to the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745.
The funeral is led by clergyman and polemicist Dr. James Scott, followed by a procession of politicians and clergy. The identities of the men are concealed by pseudonyms, but they can be readily identified as Alexander Wedderburn (1st Earl of Rosslyn) and Fletcher Norton both lawyers; George Grenville (“Mr Stamper”), the designer of the Stamp Tax, carrying the coffin in which the Act is contained; the Earl of Bute, in tartan; the Duke of Bedford; Lords Temple, Halifax and Sandwich; with two bishops bringing up the rear. Behind them are two bales, including one of black mourning cloth, sent from America, speaking to the commercial harm done by the Stamp Act. The two banners carried in the procession bear Jacobite emblems and the numbers “71” and “122”, the numbers of votes cast respectively in the House of Lords and Commons against repeal (Other versions have them numbered”165” and “250”, representing the votes cast for repeal.)
In the background, across the Thames from this “unhappy Gang”, is a “joyous scene”: Three ships, each named for a prominent member of the opposition to the Stamp Act and now liberated by the lifting of the American boycott on trade with the mother country, load goods for the Colonies. Among these are a statue of Sir William Pitt, honoured for his leadership of the opposition to the Act.
Ours is a later state of the plate with minor reworking. This is most noticeable in the in-filled lettering for the names on the sterns of the three ships in the background.
A scarce and striking graphical commentary on the Stamp Act and its repeal, and a wonderful example of the seemingly limitless inventiveness of 18th-century British satirists.
Stephens & George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, vol. IV #4140 (4th of 6 versions described). British Museum, 1868,0808.4376 (this version. For the original etching by Wilson, see British Museum J, 1.85.) See also Dolmetsch, Rebellion & Reconciliation, pp. 38-9 (illustrating the original Wilson version); and Cresswell, American Revolution in Drawings & Prints, #623-4 (#623 a different version, #624 not illustrated but described as “a cartoon similar to item 623”).
Christies sale 18947 (Jan. 21, 2021), lot 301. Ambassador J. William Middendorf II. Northeast Auctions sale 103115 (2015), lot 769.