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‘Keeping Within Compass’ – from Colonial Williamsburg to teapots and pubs.

In February I am privileged to be invited back to Colonial Williamsburg to give a talk to fit in with the theme of virtue and vice, as part of their week-long 74th Annual Antiques Forum. Their promotional material for the seminar features a coloured mezzotint by Robert Dighton, published by Carington Bowles, and dating from November 1784.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum site describes the print with the following words:

‘A young woman stands within a compass inscribed ‘Fear God’, holding an open book inscribed ‘The Pleasures of Imagination Realized’. At her feet is an open chest full of guineas from which hang bank-notes and jewels; it is inscribed ‘The Reward of Virtue’. A small dog stands beside her. In the background (right) is a country house, on the left farm-buildings and haystacks.

The four corners are filled with the disasters which beset the woman who does not ‘keep within compass’.

(1) A woman weeps dejectedly with cards and an empty purse on the ground at her feet.

(2) A drunken woman lets an infant fall from her arms; on the wall is a torn print inscribed ‘Domestic Happiness’.

(3) A woman is being conducted to the watch-house by two watchmen, one with his lantern, the other with a rattle.

(4) She beats hemp in Bridewell, a man standing behind her with a whip, as in Hogarth’s ‘Harlot’s Progress’.

The words round the circle are KEEP WITHIN COMPASS AND YOU SHALL BE SURE TO AVOID MANY TROUBLES WHICH OTHERS ENDURE. Beneath the circle is inscribed ‘Prudence produceth esteem’. Below the design four verses are engraved, the first:

‘Instead of Cards my Fair-one look,
(I beg you’ll take it kind)
Into some learned Author’s Book,
And cultivate your mind.’

The woman is warned about the dangers of a promiscuous lifestyle:

‘If lewdness once your Soul alarms,

There’s not so bad an evil,

To prostitute those lovely charms,

Must drive you to the Devil.’

But the admonishment  to ‘keep within compass’ was not confined to women – Dighton produced a companion piece featuring an industrious man, inside the arms of the compass. A sackful of gold coins lies at his feet. Behind the male figure, workers are  toiling hard in the fields; grain is being milled in the mill served by a water wheel; all is prosperity and  wealth. The four corners contain contrasting illustrations, with one showing the man gambling and drinking away his fortune and another with a man sitting with a whore on his lap. Lower corners show the dangers of  a ship striking the rocks i.e. if the man gets out of his depth and takes too many risks. The bottom right quadrant shows the man looking out through the bars of his prison cell.

A slightly different variation of the female inside the compass, showing the lady wearing a fine be-ribboned hat,  is shown here:

Beneath is the slogan ‘Keep within the compass women, Enter not into the way of the wicked and go not into the path of evil men”.  At the corners of the print are examples of “fallen” women. In the upper left a mother is not caring for her child properly; the infant appears to be slipping from her lap. In the top right a woman is shown working in a tavern. In the lower left a woman is standing in a street selling things to make money. In the lower right is shown a prostitute soliciting for business. All of these activities are, it is suggested, inappropriate and demeaning for a woman. The reward for behaving “properly” is written around the circle: “Keep within compass and you shall be sure to avoid many troubles that others endure.” In addition to proscribing certain behaviors on the part of women the illustration describes the appropriate relationship between husband and wife: in a marriage the woman should tend to the family and depend on the man to work and provide for them; her role is to be the “Virtuous Woman” and “a Crown to her Husband.”

‘Keep within Compass’ is not a phrase we are familiar with today – but obviously in the eighteenth century it was well-known.

There has even been a public house at Whitwick in Leicester, more generally called the Rag ‘n Mop, entitled ‘Man Within Compass’. The story goes that in the early 1830’s the publican was a freemason and the compass referred to  the fact that the premises were also used as a masonic lodge. There are records of at least two pubs called, simply, ‘Keep within Compass’, with examples in Uxbridge and High Wycombe. There is also a hotel in Sydney, New South Wales, which shares this name –  while the Wellcome Collection features a print from 1810 entitled ‘The Alehouse Sermon’.

It shows a doctor holding court, offering health advice, outside a pub with its hanging sign of  ‘a man within a compass’.

The Colonial Williamsburg site shows this fan, clearly copying the theme from the Dighton print:


A quick search on Google shows children’s plates transfer printed with the slogan ‘Keep within Compass’.

Elsewhere, I also came across a teapot featuring a man on one side and a woman on the other, on the

 blogsite of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.







On the Hanes and Ruskin Antique site  there is an earthenware bowl, somewhat coarsely decorated:

The Norwich Museum has a rather better illustrated piece of pearlware – in this case another teapot:


The Printed Pottery and Porcelain  site describes the scenes on the teapot as showing: ‘the virtuous woman on one side and the virtuous man on the other. The female figure is on the principal side, that is, the side seen by a right-handed person when pouring the tea. She holds a book inscribed “The Pleasures of Imagination Realized” and stands beside an open jewellery chest labelled “The reward of Virtue”: above her “FEAR GOD”, around her “KEEP WITHIN COMPASS AND YOU SHALL BE SURE TO AVOID MANY TROUBLES WHICH OTHERS ENDURE”, to the left “Attend unto this simple fact as thro[ugh] this life you rove”, to the right “That virtuous and prudent ways will gain esteem and love” and below her “Prudence brings Esteem”. The four scenes beyond the compass indicate the fate of the woman who does not keep within compass: idleness (playing cards scattered on the ground) and dissipation (raising a glass and dropping a baby) lead to arrest by two constables and picking oakum in the workhouse.’

The slogan appears to have been adapted to show current fashions well into the 1820s, with this version being a print by William Darton.

William Darton was a Quaker, and he inherited his father’s print-making business in Tottenham in the early 1800’s. In 1804 he opened new premises at 50 Holborn Hill which he modestly termed ‘The Repertory of Genius’. He retired in 1851 and died three years later but the business was carried on by his son, in partnership with Samuel Clark.

William had specialised in maps and cartographical scenes – mountains and rivers mostly – but in this  print he is clearly updating an existing print to give it a more ‘Victorian’ feeling. The images are framed with somewhat earnest exhortations inspired by the Bible, such as ‘Sacrifice not thy Conscience for Money,’ ‘Spare when Young, then Spend when Old’ and ‘He that goes a-Borrowing, goes a-Sorrowing’. Hard work was obviously the order of the day, with ‘Drive thy business, let not thy Business drive thee’ In a sense  the emphasis has entirely switched away from images of  transgression – no whoring, drinking or gambling scenes here!  No wonder it appears somewhat boring in comparison with the more boisterous Dighton images which it so clearly plagiarised!

As a final thought: the images shown above would have sat happily alongside all those conduct books  urging men, but particularly women, to stick to the  path of righteousness  and virtue. Needless to say, when I give my talk I will be focussing on the  men and women who failed to listen – who chose the path of licentiousness and sin. For me, the activities shown in the corners of both of the main etchings are by far the most interesting!


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