Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: Blowing up the Pic Nic's, or, Harlequin Quixote attacking the Puppets, 1802

Blowing up the Pic Nic's, or, Harlequin Quixote attacking the Puppets
April, 1802
James Gillray
This version is in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

James Gillray (1757-1815), a popular British printmaker and satirist, was, perhaps, one of the most prolific in his field during the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Here, we see one of his cartoons from 1802. The image depicts English theater manager Richard Brinsley as Harlequin. He is shown leading a group of professional actors including the famed performer David Garrick (who was, at the time dead), rising from the grave. Also pictured are the actors Mrs. Billington, P. Kemble and, of course the renowned Sarah Siddons. The troupe is protesting members of the Pic Nic Society—an amateur acting group which had been performing at London’s Tottenham Street Concert Rooms. Apparently, they were in the midst of performing the then-popular show, “Tom Thumb.”

Professional actors and theatre managers at the time considered this amateur gang to be a nuisance—taking away revenue from the professionals with their extravagant and decadent displays. Sheridan was among those who launched an aggressive campaign against them. Here, his mask and pen indicate that he has been writing anonymous complaints about the group.

Gillray has cleverly composed this scene to resemble a page from Migel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” wherein the famed title character attacks “Master Peter’s” puppet show because he is convinced that the performance is real. In doing so, he has cast his judgment on the futile actions of Sheridan and his band of protestors. The print was published in April of 1802. The version above is in the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another is in the British Museum

Version in the British Museum.

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