Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lady Archer and the Caricaturists

Though she was once a celebrity whose likeness could be spotted in shop windows everywhere, Sarah, Lady Archer, has more or less fallen from the public consciousness—which is probably a good thing for poor Lady Archer, as the attention formerly paid her must have been largely unwelcome. Like Lindsay Lohan or The Jersey Shore's Snookie today, she was once known largely as the butt of jokes.

Lady Archer was born in 1741 as Sarah West, the daughter of a Warwickshire landowner and MP. At the age of twenty, she married the Honorable Andrew Archer, who went on to become the 2nd Baron Archer of Umberslade upon his father’s death seven years later. She wasn’t especially pretty, she was as active in politics as a woman of her era could reasonably be, and she dared to dress in a confident, outdoorsy fashion. (Writing many years later, the Hon. Grantley Berkeley called her "a celebrated amazon of that time.") It was almost inevitable that she should become a favorite target of often-misogynistic caricaturists like Isaac Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, and especially James Gillray. Though she was an excellent whip and rider to hounds, an active champion of Whig causes and politicians, and the mother of three daughters, caricatures of Sarah focus almost exclusively on two of her failings: she was an avid gambler, and she strove to enhance her rather plain looks.

Modern Hospitality

Gillray's 1792 Modern Hospitality, or A Friendly Party in High Life is subtitled "The Knave Wins All." It shows Lady Archer presumably cheating at cards; the Prince Regent sits beside her, while Whig leader Charles James Fox reacts with dismay on the far right.

In an age when men could gamble freely in clubs but women could not, ladies confined their gaming to private gatherings—soirées, musicales, card parties. The “Faro ladies” were aristocratic hostesses known for holding such gambling parties, where play was deep and went on for hours. They were mostly from political households known to support the politician Charles James Fox, himself an inveterate gambler. Because Fox was a Whig and the Whigs were the radicals of their day—they even harbored sympathies for the dangerous revolutionaries in France—anything they did that smacked of decadence or excess instantly drew criticism from more conservative quarters. How dare these liberal elites indulge in such dissipation?

The Exaltation of Faro's Daughters

In Gillray's The Exaltation of Faro's Daughters, Lady Archer is on the right, while the woman with the dead squirrel soaring over her head is Lady Buckinghamshire.

Lady Archer was one of the better known Faro ladies, together with other grandes dames including the Duchess of Devonshire and the Countess of Buckinghamshire. Both Lady Buckinghamshire and Lady Archer actually ran gaming houses out of their London residences, keeping their own faro banks. Though such play was an open secret, it became headline news in 1796 when a well-connected twenty-three year old named Henry Weston was hanged for forging a £10,000 bank note to cover his gambling losses (a sum which he quickly went on to lose in further play). The Lord Chief Justice at the time, Lord Kenyon, was so incensed that he promised that anyone convicted of running a gambling house would be punished: "though they should be the finest ladies in the land, they shall certainly exhibit themselves at the pillory." Caricaturists leaped on the pronouncement, with Gillray depicting Lady Archer in the pillory in two separate cartoons, Discipline a la Kenyon (she's in the background, while Lady Buckinghamshire is being whipped at the cart's tail) and The Exaltation of Faro's Daughters; she also shares a pillory with Lady Buckinghamshire in publisher S. W. Fores's Cocking the Greeks. A cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank entitled Dividing the Spoil! even compares Lady Archer, Lady Buckinghamshire, and their friends Mrs. Sturt and Mrs. Concannon to prostitutes parceling out their nightly earnings.

The Finishing Touch

The Finishing Touch shows Lady Archer applying rouge in a futile effort to make herself attractive.

And everywhere in the the anti-gambling caricatures, Lady Archer's aquiline profile and painted cheeks are apparent, because the chief thing about her that really seems to have drawn the caricaturists' ire was her appearance. She's easy to recognize in their satires, not just because of the hooked nose and the make-up, but also because she was known to favor the menswear-inspired riding costume that came into vogue for self-assured, active women of means in the early 1790s. In Gillray's The Finishing Touch, Lady Archer is depicted as sitting in front of her mirror, wearing her "mannish" driving habit complete with a high-crowned hat and a skirt that shows her ankles. As her phaeton awaits her just outside the dressing room window, she applies rouge to her cheeks. Lots of rouge.

La Belle Assemblée

In Gillray's La Belle Assemblée, Lady Archer is the hawk-nosed woman in red, leading a sacrificial lamb on a leash.

In the ironically titled La Belle Assemblée, a faux-classical composition (an apparent parody of Sir Joshua Reynolds's Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces), Gillray depicts Lady Archer as one of several middle-aged society ladies with pretensions to being younger and prettier than they really are. It's worth clicking on the image to enlarge it, just to see how very unattractively Gillray has drawn Lady Archer, complete with heavy brows and a beak of a nose.

Six Stages of Mending a Face

Rowlandson's Six Stages of Mending a Face depicts Lady Archer as a hag employing everything from a wig to a false eye to make herself presentable.

But that cartoon is positively kind compared to Thomas Rowlandson's 1792 Six Stages of Mending a Face. Reading from top right to bottom left, the first panel shows a hag with drooping breasts, no teeth, and only one eye. In the second panel, she places a glass eye in her empty eye socket; in the third, she covers her bald head with a flowing wig. In the fourth panel (bottom right), she's inserting false teeth. Panel five shows her applying rouge--and in panel six, the hideous crone has completed her transformation into a pretty (but entirely artificial) young woman. The caption reads, "Dedicated with respect to the Right Hon. Lady Archer."

With respect. Oh, those regency caricaturists. They were such wags.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

1 comment:

Fiona Marsden said...

I'm sure that Lindsay Lohan has it easier.