Dec 292015

a SaartjieBaartman7On 29 December 1815 a sad young girl died in Paris, thousands of miles from her South African homeland. She was just 25 years old, and her brief life speaks volumes about contemporary European attitudes towards race and ethnicity. Even in death she was denied dignity and respect – her remains were pickled, boiled and otherwise preserved so that audiences could gawp at her in death, just as they had done in life.

Her name ‘Saartjie’, pronounced “Sahr-kee”, was a diminutive version (in Dutch) of  ‘Sarah’, given to her by Dutch settlers after she had been orphaned when her village was raided. Her mother had previously died when Saartje was two years old. She was eleven years old when her father was killed in 1800. Six years later another raid resulted in the death of her intended husband, at  her betrothal ceremony.  Saartje was taken in by a Dutch settler called Peter Cezar  at his home near Cape Town, and appears to have been kept as a house slave. She was tiny – about four feet seven inches tall, but bright. She learned to speak Dutch and, in due course, English and some French in addition to her native tongue. Apparently she was also musically gifted, but these were not the attributes which interested Peter Cezar’s brother Hendrick, nor indeed a man called Alexander Dunlop. He was a ship’s doctor who regularly supplemented his income by supplying wild animals to menageries and travelling shows in Britain and Europe. Together they hit upon the plan of bringing the young girl to Britain – to be exhibited in freak shows. Why? Because of the size of her buttocks. There was also great interest in her because women of her tribe, the Khoikhoi, were rumoured to have enlarged genitalia. Here was a savage who could be forced to dress in the flimsiest of garments, and who would be thrust into a tiny cage where Europeans could come and gaze – and prod and feel. For those voyeurs, the entrance fee of a couple of shillings was money well spent.

a Saartjie_Baartman-3She had arrived in London in 1810 and immediately attracted the attention of the abolitionists, who lobbied for her to be set free. But Hendrick Cezar brandished a contract (written in Dutch) when the case came before  the Court of King’s Bench in November 1810. The contract suggested that Saartje had freely consented to being displayed, in return for being paid a derisory twelve guineas a year. More to the point, and for whatever reason, Saartje herself denied that she was being co-erced, and refuted allegations of sexual abuse. The court had no choice but to throw out the case, and she continued to be exhibited in degrading peep shows, where she was advertised as the Hottentot Venus. The court decision merely added to the public appetite to view this “negro freak”, and a contemporary caricature likens her to a midget (“Miss Ridsdale only 30 Inches high” ) and an albino (“Miss Harvey the Beautiful Albiness with Silk hair perfectly white and pink Eyes!” ) who were being exhibited at the same time.

The Three Graces - A midget, the Hottentot Venus and the albino woman shown courtesy of the British Museum

The Three Graces – A midget, the Hottentot Venus and an albino woman, shown courtesy of the British Museum

a Saartjie_Baartman-2For the next three years she was trailed around the country, appearing at public exhibitions at 225 Piccadilly, at Bartholomew Fair and at the Haymarket in London, and around Ireland. She also attended private viewings for the wealthy, where the observers were permitted more intimate inspection, before her contract was sold to a Frenchman. She was taken to Paris in around September 1814, and by now was being kept in appalling conditions, more appropriate to an animal. Her health deteriorated but she continued to attend exhibitions until just days before her death on 29 December 1815. The cause of death was variously given as smallpox, pneumonia  – or syphilis (although there is no evidence to suggest that she had resorted to prostitution).

a Saartjie_Baartman-1In death she was denied all dignity: her remains were kept for scientific research and public display, with pseudo-scientific papers being written seeking to establish the superiority of the Europeans over their African counterparts.It was only when the French government received a request from Nelson Mandela in 1994 that serious consideration was given to awarding Saartjie a proper burial. For years the French government considered the South African request, no doubt worried that it would establish a precedent  which might be applied to other remains and artefacts  which had come to France from overseas, but in  March 2002 her remains were handed over to the South African authorities and she was buried near her homeland in the Eastern Cape on Women’s Day, 9 August 2002. This picture shows her gravestone.

Much has been made of the alleged similarity between Saartje and Kim Kardashian – a somewhat a SaartjieBaartman8erroneous comparison given that the unlovely Kardashian’s over photo-shopped image was done for money. She (KK) is a talentless bimbo who is happy to manipulate her image and be paid vast amounts  to display her derriere, and much besides. Saartje never knew the meaning of freedom, let alone wealth, and her miserable, brief, existence helps remind us that the Georgian era was cruel, racist and heartless.

My interest is in seeing how caricaturists latched onto Saartje’s posterior as a commentary on contemporary events – the “broad bottomed” approach to government was much in the news. Lord Grenville, renowned for his fat rump, and the Whig coalition, known as the ‘broad bottoms’ were constantly being talked about, and commentators revelled in making comparisons with the unfortunate Saartje.

a Saartjie_Baartman-4














a George 4I had first seen Saartje’s image on a pedestal in this caricature by William Heath ridiculing the corpulent George IV –  her “excessive posterior” was being used as a counterweight to the “excessive girth” of the matching figure of the King on the opposite pedestal.

Here are a couple more references to her:

    A pair of broad bottoms by William Heath, courtesy of British Museum

‘A pair of broad bottoms’ by William Heath, courtesy of British Museum, showing the respective posteriors of Saartjie Baartman and Baron Grenville being measured by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Love at first sight. Or a pair of Hottentots, with An addition to the broad bottom family!! British Museum

Love at first sight. Or a pair of Hottentots, with An addition to the broad bottom family!! showing Grenville and Baartman. British Museum

The British Museum site here has at least half a dozen other caricatures in which Saartje appears as a background figure. At the time she may have been a figure of fun, an object of ridicule. Now, two centuries later, you have to feel sadness for a poor young woman who died alone, thousands of miles from home.

Dec 162015
Jane Gibbs, aged 22, giving evidence on the Bible, drawn by James Gillray and published in September 1799

Jane Gibbs, aged 22, giving evidence on the Bible, drawn by James Gillray and published in September 1799

Poor Jane Gibbs didn’t really have a lot going for her when she appeared in Court twice in the autumn of 1799 (once, as a witness, in September, and again as the accused in the following month). One report states that “She is tall, bony thin-visaged and masculine; her face is somewhat marked with the small pox, and her features very coarse; she wants one or two of her front teeth; she has a turned up nose, and squints most horribly.” In addition, on her own admission she was deaf in one ear. On the subsequent court appearance, “she appeared trembling, fainting and pretending to be much afflicted, and then looking round the Office with the expression of the greatest contempt and audacity towards the persons present.”

Why the court appearances – and the “true likenesses” prepared by the likes of James Gillray, S W Fores and others? Because the public needed to be protected from a woman who was regarded as a contemptible extortionist, one who was prepared to tell lies knowing that a man might be put to death as a result of her testimony.

Jane Gibbs, probably by John Cawse

Jane Gibbs, probably by John Cawse

On her own admission she had been cast out by her father, a farmer, when she was 13, after differences had arisen between her and her step-mother. One account suggested that she was from Cornwall and had a West Country accent. She herself claimed that she had come from Kennington (most probably the village of Cannington, just outside Bridgwater in Somerset). She had drifted up to London and taken a few odd jobs – as laundry maid and so on, but rarely keeping in the same employment for more than a few weeks. She kept moving from one district to another, apparently eking a living by living off her wits and by offering her favours to anyone who would have her. She then hit upon the idea of demanding money from men – on pain of accusing them of theft if they did not pay up. Not surprisingly it appears that many men preferred to be parted from a few shillings rather than be charged with robbery – a capital offence. But one Jeremiah Beck was not so lucky. He had encountered Jane Gibbs in a summer house in Kensington Gardens, and it was not long before he had cause to regret ever having met her, let alone having passed the time of day with her. And so it was that in September 1799 the poor Mr Beck appeared in court, facing the death penalty, and having to listen to the testimony of the somewhat unprepossessing Jane Gibbs. His version of events was that she tried to offer her services, then demanded money for drink, and then attacked him before chasing after him, shouting out to passers-by that she had been robbed. The scene was apparently watched by a number of hay-makers at work cutting the grass in Hyde Park, which gives a rather lovely idea of the pastoral scene in central London at the time!

Jane Gibbs on the other hand gave evidence in court that she had been set upon by Beck, and robbed of her life savings. She gave chase or as she said: “he ran all across the gardens towards Hyde-park-corner; then I ran almost three quarters of a mile after him, till my hair dropped with water.”

Fortune favoured the man in the dock – her story had inconsistencies and lacked convincing corroboration. Worse, at least two individuals ‘who happened to be passing the court and looked in to see what was going on’ recognized the accuser and took to the witness stand to testify that they too had been set-up by Jane Gibbs. Each man testified that he had paid up out of fear for his life and reputation. Mind you, it does seem a little odd that two hangers-on in court should just happen to be there, ready to give evidence, when neither of them claim to have known that Jane Gibbs was going to be in court…

Mr Beck was acquitted and Jane Gibb was hissed and booed out of the Old Bailey. As the trial proceedings stated, one of the jurors told the court afterwards: “My Lord, I know the prosecutrix perfectly well; she once acted a similar part towards me.”

It wasn’t long before she was up to her old tricks, this time alleging that she had been robbed by an Admiralty Messenger called Mr Evans. It was 5th October 1799, but this time the watchman recognized her from “her character in the Print Shops”, and she was charged with assault and making false accusations. The Daily Chronicle gave details of her appearance in Court. “The evidence being gone through she was committed to take her trial for the assault on Mr Evans at the next Quarter Sessions for Westminster, and was re-committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell where she is obliged to be confined in a separate cell, to save her from violence of the other female prisoners, who otherwise would have treated her very roughly”

Gibbs 4 London Chronicle Oct 11 1799Come the trial and she was found guilty and, as the Newgate Calendar stated, “she was committed to the New Compter, but after being pronounced insane was removed from thence, by an order of the Lord Mayor, to Bedlam. Apparently “she seemed perfectly sensible when she was going, wept very much, and persisted she was not deranged.”

I have no idea how long the unlovely and unloved Jane Gibbs languished in Bedlam, but it is an interesting reminder of how “Photofit” pictures have been used to alert the public to criminal behaviour for several hundred years. The full description under the Gillray portrait reads: ‘Swearing at the Old Bailey to Mr J. Beck having Robbed her in Kensington Garden of which charge he was honorably acquitted – multitudes of Witnesses appearing to prove her having made similar Charges against them, in order to extort Money.’ On the design: ‘Caution to the Unwary! – This Pest of Society is rather of a Tall & Thin form . . . [&c, &c.]’. 23 September 1799. The fact that within days of the appearance of the print, it had been seen by the watchman, shows the efficacy of Gillray’s caricatures and the popularity of his prints.

The second portrait shown is described as being “Drawn from Life”, and has below, “Mrs Jane Gibbs as she appeared before the Magistrate at Bow St., charged by Mr Evans Admiralty Messenger with atrociously endeavouring to repeat on him the Attempt she had made on the Life of Mr Beck at the Old Baily by falsely swearing a Robbery against him. Publishd October 14 1799”. In other words, it followed her second court appearance, whereas the Gillray was published before the Evans incident.

Jane Gibbs by S W Fores

Jane Gibbs by S W Fores

The third portrait, by S W Fores, shows her, hand in pocket and holding on to her glove, and is described as being “A correct likeness of the notorious Jane Gibbs. Beneath the title: ‘She addresses herself to decent dressed men as a Servant out of Place, or a Quaker, pretends a deal of Modesty, and if she cannot prevail by these means, she then accuses them of having robbed her . . . and with such boldness, that has induced many respectable men to give her sums of money to prevent unpleasant consequences.”

My thanks to the Lewis Walpole Library for the Gillray image and to the British Museum for the other two. Additional material came from the excellent online Old Bailey Proceedings and extracts from the Newgate Calendar.

Horwood's map showing Bethlam Fields Hospital (Bedlam) Moorfields  in 1799

Horwood’s map showing Bethlem Fields Hospital (Bedlam) Moorfields in 1799

Dec 102015

In my last blog I included an extract from ‘The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour’ demonstrating how a lady should curtsey in the Proper Manner. I realize of course that many men should also receive instructions in the art of doffing the hat, and how to retire gracefully. As ‘The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour’ states: “It is an observation (which cannot escape Notice) that many Persons retiring, or taking leave of any Person or Company, either thro’ want of knowledge or Neglect in discovering a decent Carriage at their Departure, have appear’d very aukward Figures to Persons of Polite Behaviour.”

So especially for all those people now living in 1737 (and I am thinking re-enactors as well as the odd TV producer and any out-of-work film extras) here is the definitive guide:1 maleI was a little perturbed by the oddness of the left hand, tucked limply inside the jacket. It looks as though he is holding half the family silver, smuggled out from the dining room, under his waistcoat.

Here, a careful reading of the text may prevent embarrassing mis-understandings:

2 maleThe image is also a rather nice reminder of just how many buttons there were on men’s apparel – I think there are twenty-two on the outer jacket, not counting perhaps half a dozen  on each voluminous cuff, as well as thirteen on the waistcoat.

Ah well, time to practice rolling up a trouser leg to reveal the Georgian Gentleman’s well-defined  calf, turning the foot so that I am ‘shewing the leg to best advantage’ as Monsieur Nivelon would have said…


(The whole of the original book, complete with plates engraved by Boitard, has helpfully been digitised and can be found here.)

Dec 072015

I recently came across a book entitled ‘The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour’ which contains some lovely descriptions of how ladies should hold themselves while curtseying, walking, dancing the minuet and so on. It also instructs gentlemen how to doff their hat, how to take their leave and so on. Each instruction is illustrated with the appropriate image.

WWW courtsie image

The book was written by a Mr F Nivelon, a French dancing master from Stamford in Lincolnshire, in 1737. It describes itself as “An Introduction to the Method of attaining a graceful Attitude, an agreeable Motion, an easy Air and a genteel Behaviour” and makes a rather nice change from the endless conduct books which rambled on about modesty, affability and good manners – before embarking on 500 pages of recipes and other items which young ladies were expected to master.


It is a reminder that in the eighteenth century dance instructors did much more than teach people the latest dance steps: they taught deportment, how to move gracefully, how to enter and leave a room, and so on. I had rather forgotten just how much was involved in giving a proper “courtsie”. I will now go and practice in front of the cheval glass….

Dec 042015
 James Gillray, watercolour on ivory, circa 1800.© National Portrait Gallery, London

James Gillray, watercolour on ivory, circa 1800.© National Portrait Gallery, London

Today I am delighted to offer a guest spot to freelance writer Jim Sherry, who has started a website devoted entirely to the life and works of a man who died exactly 200 years ago, the remarkable James Gillray. Jim’s aim: to inspire others to appreciate Gillray’s work and to facilitate further research on an artist whose images are widely known, but whose art is still very much under-rated.

Jim writes:

“Anyone familiar with Georgian culture and politics has seen and no doubt enjoyed the prints of James Gillray. His portraits of the major politicians of the era –William Pitt, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, not to mention Napoleon Buonaparte–are the nearly definitive representations of those figures in the national consciousness. His scathing portraits of the royal family have been wondered at for their audacity and continually reproduced since the day of their publication. And the savage indignation of his political and social satire is matched only (in English) by the writings of Jonathan Swift.

The Plumb pudding in danger, by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey, © National Portrait Gallery,

The Plumb pudding in danger, by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey,

Now I have developed a web site, “James Gillray: Caricaturist”, wholly devoted to his work.The heart of the web site is a much needed comprehensive chronological catalogue of his prints, including the “serious” if less interesting ones he made in the early 1780’s when he was trying to establish himself as an artist and engraver.

Fashionable Contrasts.

Fashionable Contrasts.

But there are also sections of the site devoted to his life (in the context of the development of 18th century caricature), his print techniques and colouring, his print sizes, his year-by-year output, and the people he caricatured. And for people who want to get to know Gillray even better, there are links to some of the major Gillray collections in Britain and the U.S. as well as a selected bibliography.”


Thanks Jim! I think it is an excellent resource, and I urge readers to hurry over to the site to have a look. You can also find Jim’s own web-page and details of his freelance writing here.