Life imitates Gillray

On a recent visit to the Guards Museum (excellent, well cared for, many wonderful items) I came across a copy of James Gillray’s 1787 print The March to the Bank, in which the piquet guard tramples its way catastrophically over the unfortunate populace, old and young, rich and (mostly) poor, on its daily march to the Bank of England. The print is larger than I’d imagined, and full of wonderful detail; Gillray was a draughtsman of extraordinary virtuosity. (Explore the detail microscopically here.) It’s a savage and tasteless piece of humour; witness the juxtaposition of the burglar’s (beggar’s?) broken leg with the nipple and thigh of the fashionable woman to his right. I felt bad for chuckling at the boot planted indifferently on the baby’s head.

Mickey-takes of the Militia are common in eighteenth century satires, but this relies on an equally traditional distrust of standing armies. It summarises perfectly popular resentment of professional brutalism at the disposition of a foppish plutocracy. Gillray shows some sympathy for the common soldiery, who are only doing their job, reserving his real venom for the posturing dandy of an officer. But wait a minute – where have I seen that goose stepping subaltern before?

Ah, here he is, in Sir William Beechey’s portrait of Captain John Clayton Cowell of the 1st Foot, now in the National Army Museum. Yes, the same over sized cockade, the same fly-away hair and ridiculous ruffle; the same jutting elbow and sinuous hip; the same extended, almost effeminate, show of leg, and the same dinky turned down boots. But at circa 1796 this post-dates Gillray’s satire by almost a decade, demonstrating that, in this case, life conforms to art. Sometimes not even Gillray could beggar reality.


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