In the introduction to The (New) World Tobacco Issues (Cartophilic Society of Great Britain, 2000) Gordon Howsden refers to the common description of cigarette cards as ‘The poor man’s encyclopaedia.’ From birds of paradise, to the monarchs of England, to fine art – the subjects depicted on some cigarette cards indeed seem to explore themes that when collected present a repository of knowledge about both the natural world and the culture and history of man. In particular, I have been interested in the depiction of fine art subjects on cigarette cards; the use of images produced by the great masters seems to form an interesting tension with the fact that artists who produce the images for cigarette cards are largely anonymous.
What kind of art is it possible to find in a fine art series of cigarette cards? Subjects range from classicism, such as the works of Ingres and David, to Dutch genre scenes, including those of Pieter de Hooch, and even works produced by English painters, such as Turner. Upon examination of such cards, what is perhaps most notable is the sometimes crude transposition of the images onto card or silk. Whilst it is clear that this is most likely due to the realities and limitations of available printing methods (naturally it is impossible to depict in miniature form an image that is faithful to the original in both colour and form) this might suggest something interesting about the function of such cards in a collection. Arguably, the works depicted all belong to the Western canon; the collector is reminded of the great masters and their works by the crude miniature copies that sit in their collections, standing as encyclopaedic metaphors for the works themselves.
It is interesting to consider the purpose of collecting symbols of works of art, as represented by a fine art series. Fine art has long been associated with moral improvement; Winckelmann, a German art historian of the 18th century, often said to be the father of the history of art as a discipline, was among the first to praise the moral edification to be offered by the consideration of classical art. Such a view has been promulgated and strengthened up until the modern day; the notion of art as ‘good for the soul’ is arguably a key factor behind the rationale of the art museum. Perhaps cigarette cards depicting fine art can be located within such a discourse. In accumulating such cards, the collector is not only acquainting himself with the Western canon, but also furnishing himself with a kind of culture and civilisation. Such an assertion chimes with the fact that classical and Renaissance subjects feature fairly prominently within such series; tied to notions of the Academy, classical history painting, which sits at the apex of the hierarchy of genres, was often thought to provide the greatest moral improvement for the viewer.
Returning to the notion of the ‘poor man’s encyclopaedia’, it might be suggested that in the production of such series of cards, cigarette companies sought to provide individuals who may not have acquainted themselves with culture on a regular and conscious basis, with some form of cultural contact. Individuals would have collected these images of old masters alongside their collections of popular culture, seen in film star series, the natural world, and the history of England. Within such a spectrum, fine art forms one facet to a multi-dimensional encyclopaedia, acquainting individuals with a myriad of fields perceived as important to notions Western knowledge and culture. Cigarette card collections might indeed be described as encyclopaedias.
“The Gallant-ee Show”, an article from the periodical The Magic Lantern (Vol. 1, no. 1), and its accompanying aquatint were published in 1822. Together, they illustrate a private magic lantern performance in an upper-class drawing-room, operated by showmen (a projectionist and organ-grinder). In the illustration, the organ grinder stoops below the projected image while the projectionist appears to be describing the image, in keeping with standard magic-lantern show practice. The family is gathered behind the performers, observing the scene of a Chinese emperor and his court. The supplemental article begins by describing the dysfunctional family dynamic and then segues to the father’s capitulation to his family’s entreaty to hire the showmen, who are touting their services outside their home. The article then elaborately recounts the personalities shown in the projection. The characters include the emperor and his harem, statesmen and clergy. In front of the emperor sits a court fool; “he has a soup ladle in his hand, and a chain of sausages round his neck, he is a good-humoured, harmless animal”. Who are these strange characters and how might they be related to the intended consumers of this ephemera?
It immediately struck me as unlikely that the projected image depicted actual Chinese personages. For one, at the time of this publication, little was known about Chinese civilization. Since Lord Macartney’s failed embassy to China in 1793 (Cranmer-Byng, 1957), China remained closed until the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. Furthermore, the image and description appear to resemble an English scene more closely than a Chinese one. For example, Qua-li Kurt-hees, the court fool, is wearing Western-looking garments and using a European tool (ladle). Finally, the ‘Chinese’ names associated with characters sounded distinctly English (i.e. Lie-ver-puhl). I soon realised that the names were probably pseudonyms for English statesmen, altered to sound Chinese. Hence, the item is unlikely a caricature of a Chinese court, but rather a satire of 1822 English politics. I have quoted the character names below with their accompanying descriptions. I derived the politician names in square brackets. All but Vansittart were corroborated by the British Museum catalogue entry, which lists the politicians by name (“The Magic Lantern”, n.d.). My interest piqued, I searched for further information about this entertainment.
Dating back to the travelling peep shows of fifteenth-century Europe, raree shows or gallant-ee shows commonly satirised political figures. The online catalogues of the British Museum and the John Johnson Collection online catalogue returned a handful of nineteenth-century satirical prints labelled with these keywords (as in the example below).
In the article, The Magic Lantern seems to have appropriated this type of entertainment to poke fun at the society and politics of its time. According to The Senate House Library in London (“Book of the Month, December 2005, n.d.) , “the [Magic Lantern] journal highlights aspects of society in a satirical fashion.”
The John Johnson Collection copy of The Magic Lantern is rare for several reasons. First, the article and the aquatint (which is hand-coloured) are co-located in our collection, just as they would have been when first published; the tri-fold engraving would have originally been bound in with the article. The British Museum and the Library of Congress each have a copy of the image but lack the accompanying article (“The Magic Lantern”, n.d.; “The Magic Lantern: About This Item”, n.d.). The copies located at these repositories, in contrast, are orphaned from the periodical and therefore lack the original explanation. The print is remarkable for a second reason: the print illustrates three aspects of a lantern show seldom depicted concurrently, namely the projection, the showmen and the audience. This last aspect is important in that it contextualizes the projected slide as designed for performance in an upper middle-class household. One can argue that the performance was designed for private home consumption; the lantern requires a small, enclosed space, while the entertainment’s exhibition relies on serendipity. An inn, for instance, could scarcely accommodate an ad hoc spectacle such as this. Although further evidence is needed, one can surmise that the satire was probably intended for families in the privacy of their home.
This is not just any family, however, but a comically dysfunctional one. As the accompanying text makes clear, this family spends their time tediously bickering over finances. The father, a penny-pincher, is also anti-Semitic: upon hearing the showman crying his ware outside, he describes his accent as ‘israelitish’, and only after hiding his silver and loose articles does he invite them in. The British Museum has suggested that the head of the household is John Bull, a personification of the United Kingdom (“The Magic Lantern”, n.d.). It would seem that the article’s author is mocking a part of the English society.
This material contains a wealth of content worth exploring. The history and subscribers of The Magic Lantern deserve further study. Certainly an investigation into the publication would reveal clues about the audience the author wished to reach with the satire. Additionally, research into the current events prior to this publication would undoubtedly further contextualise this discussion. Similar illustrations remain undiscovered online and in repositories such as the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. A cursory search for gallant-ee and raree shows on the Visual Arts Data Service and Google returned several intriguing results.
However, the copies I found, while associated with the magic lantern keyword, were not linked with gallant-ee show nor raree show.
This raises interesting questions concerning linking natural language with controlled vocabulary, something of a ‘hot topic’ in information science. A case can be made for an information retrieval system (IRS) to semantically link terms by concept. For example, entering Gallant-ee show might return semantically linked results associated with peep shows and magic lanterns. Alternatively, others may argue that an IRS should demonstrably link variants to their preferred terms. For example, if a user enters a variant spelling or related term, they would be given the option to re-perform their query using suggested terms from a controlled vocabulary. Without access to a controlled list of terms, how will users know which descriptive words to use in their search? It should be noted that a majority of database administrators post notices on their online catalogue listing the vocabularies that are used. Nevertheless, these announcements are insufficient: many users disregard them or are less likely to spend the required time studying controlled vocabularies before conducting their queries.
Character names (from left to right):
Lie-ver-puhl [Robert Banks Jenkinson Early of Liverpool, with puppet]: “puppet-show-man”, “he moves all the state-puppets, by means of certain secret wires and strings”
Yorge-Hi [King George IV, seated on throne]: Chinese emperor with an “attachment to the fair sex”, “traversed his dominions, and displayed the utmost condescension and affability to even the humblest of his subjects whom chance or business threw in his way”.
Qua-Li Kurt-hees [Sir William Curtis, seated on turtle stool]: “the court-droll”, “shown with soup-ladle in his hand, and a chain of sausages round his neck”, “good-humoured”, “harmless”, “no sense”, “stubborn”
Kahn-hing [George Canning, atop ladder]: “the chief corresponding mandarin”. “Posture-master”. “Descended from the lowest ranks of society (mother having been one of an itinerant corps dramatique), but endowed with an ardent mind and unbounded ambition, he has climbed and wriggled himself through every round of the ladder to the very top…”
Qua-ling-tun [Arthur Wellesley 1st Duke of Wellington, wearing a sword]: “great war mandarin”. “…Skill and success in battle has rendered him no less formidable to the enemies of his country than to his country itself, and even to the Emperor…”
Van-seit-hart [Nicholas Vansittart, 1st Baron Bexley, facing away from the emperor]: “the mandarin of finance, who manages the imperial revenues; and a devilish clever sleight-of-hand man he has proved himself.”
Seid-moth [Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, the right-most figure]: “That dull heavy-looking thing that you see in the Pantaloon’s dress is Seid-moth, late one of the corresponding mandarins; he, Qua-li Kurt-hees, and Balaam’s ass, would form a remarkably congenial trio, and might mutually exclaim – “We three loggerheads be!”
Book of the Month, December 2005 (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2013, from http://w01.ull.wf.ulcc.ac.uk/specialcollections/bookofthemonth/2005_12.shtml
Cranmer-Byng, J. L. (1957-58). ‘Lord Macartney’s Embassy to Peking in 1793’. Journal of Oriental Studies. 4(1,2): 117-187.