Super-sized Georgians: why satirists were fixated with fatness
From cutting caricatures of high-profile women to affectionate depictions of Britain’s “heaviest man”, Freya Gowrley considers why 18th-century satirists were so fixated with fatness
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In 1773, John Raphael Smith produced a work of art called Miss Macaroni and Her Gallant at a Print-Shop. This scene depicts a scenario ever more common on the Georgian high street: passers-by congregating around a shop front to gawp at portraits of fellow citizens depicted on a series of prints.
Georgian Britain was awash with printed images. Prints populated coffee houses, people’s homes and, as we can see in Raphael Smith’s work, even hung from dedicated shop windows. This was an age characterised by a “print revolution”, a technological and cultural transformation that saw more imagery available to view and to purchase than ever before.
This artistic revolution coincided with another transformation in 18th-century Britain: a sea change in the way that people depicted themselves. Gone was the era of deferential, idealised portraits of society’s leading lights, to be replaced by bawdy, colourful – and often deeply unflattering – works of satire. Georgian prints invariably poked fun at their subjects – and it’s for that very reason that the public loved them.
Although often amusing to our eyes today, the Georgian satire revolution tells us more than simply what made people laugh. It also reveals some of the biggest anxieties of the period – and one of those anxieties centred around the issue of fatness.
The language of graphic satire in Georgian Britain was one of exaggeration, which meant that the body parts of the individuals portrayed were routinely overemphasised. In these works, artists eagerly enlarged noses, lengthened chins and inflated stomachs, breasts and buttocks, sometimes to extreme ends.
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But the preponderance of corpulent bodies in Georgian art was more than a mere satirical device: fatness was an issue that intersected with many of the age’s social mores. In fact, the 18th century was a time in which corpulence took on an unprecedented cultural currency, one in which artists lampooned the nobility in satirical prints, and famously large people were commodified in portraits, prints and decorative consumable goods. At the same time, corpulent bodies were put on public display as spectacular objects, while the clothing that evidenced their former owners’ size (not to mention the furniture that had been made or altered to accommodate fat bodies) became desirable items and objects of renown.
All this happened due to the convergence of a number of social, intellectual, economic and cultural phenomena. Alongside the rise of print culture, the 18th century witnessed an increased availability of food, and the so-called “consumer revolution” where those on the higher rungs of the social ladder had unprecedented access to luxury consumables.
Attitudes shifted decisively to establish thinness as the preferred body type for women
This was also the period in which the “modern self” can be said to have emerged, a time that saw active attempts to outline – and define ideal forms of – categories of identity such as race, class and gender. Accompanying these developments were changes in beauty standards and attitudes towards the body, which shifted decisively in the second half of the century to establish thinness as the preferred body type for women. When artists and commentators attempted to portray or debate femininity or race – even what it meant to be human – the issue of corpulence was never far away.
Nor was the issue of gender. The 18th century has often been understood as an age that challenges the simplistic model of gendered “separate spheres”, in which men occupied the worlds of politics, work and other forms of public culture, while women were relegated to the home. We only have to think about women like the political activist, socialite and style icon Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire to show that some Georgian women led vibrant public lives.
However, this relative freedom did not come without critique. Concerns around women’s transgressions beyond the bounds of acceptable feminine behaviour abounded, particularly in the satirical image. Here fatness emerged as a consistent visual language, with famously public-facing women such as the actress Sarah Siddons and the political hostess Albinia Hobart, Countess of Buckinghamshire routinely satirised through the exaggerated portrayal of their forms. Albinia’s “crimes” included lasciviousness, overindulgence and a presence in the worlds of gambling and the theatre – and for that, the satirists savaged her.
James Gillray’s print Dido in Despair! typifies this trend. Published in 1801, it shows a rotund Emma Hamilton, arms and leg raised in a desperate gesture of anguish caused by the departure of her lover, Lord Nelson. Emma, who rose through the ranks of 18th-century society to become the wife of Sir William Hamilton, first won fame for her performances portraying well-known sculptures and works of art, known as “attitudes”, enacted at her husband’s home in Naples. Rendering her body the object of public display, these tableaux vivants made Emma the subject of vicious critique, which presented the ”attitudes” as overtly sexual in nature.
- Listen | Dr Freya Gowrley reveals how Georgian satirists used images of fatness to comment on the anxieties of the age
Traces of the erotic potential of Hamilton’s performances can be seen throughout Dido in Despair! Alluding to Sir William Hamilton’s famous collection of classical antiquities, the meaning of a cluster of objects at Emma’s feet is made clear by the grouping of statuettes in which a satyr gazes lustily at an armless Venus. At the same time, an open book on the window seat depicts Emma reclining nude. Its title, Studies of Academic Attitudes Taken from the Life, makes its frame of reference obvious through direct reference to Emma’s performances. Read against the fulsome fleshiness of her body, these classical allusions encourage the viewer to read the print as a critique of Emma’s extra-marital trysts, as alluded to by the presence of her slumbering, blissfully unaware husband in the background of the print.
Hamilton’s apparent lack of morals are also indicated by the trinkets that sit atop her dressing table. Including rouge, hairpins and a beaded necklace, these consumable goods point to another of the reasons that fatness became so culturally prevalent in the 18th century, the “luxury debates”. A shifting economic climate that resulted in an unprecedented availability of luxury goods sparked intense discussion over the nature of needs versus desires, one that was central to the moralising approaches to fatness that surfaced at this time.
Another print by Gillray, this one from 1799, reinforces the close connection between corpulent bodies and the potentially dangerous indulgences of luxury. Titled Punch Cures the Gout, -the Colic, -and the ‘Tisick (above), it shows the sufferers of these illnesses seated around a punchbowl. All nevertheless enjoy the refined luxuries of the Georgian era, from fine furnishings to sumptuous dressing gowns, which contrast powerfully with their unhappy physical states.
Of particular interest here is the porcelain punch bowl, whose design suggests it is of Chinese origin. Its presence within the print functions as a reference to the great swathes of porcelain goods that had arrived in the country since the late 17th century, after which point a veritable “mania” for such import wares emerged. As such, the bowl recalls some of the broader, indeed global, issues at stake in the consumption of luxury objects – namely, the idea that British-made wares and manufacturing might be supplanted thanks to the vogue for foreign goods. The influx of these material objects – which were often perceived as having a negative effect on those who owned them – only increased thanks to the lucrative new trade established by the nascent British empire.
Fatness figures heavily in images of imperial encounter. Visual images and printed texts used corpulence to reinforce the idea of otherness and of dislocation from “home”. Fatness was deployed as a metaphor for the changes enacted by the imperial landscape on colonial bodies, transforming enterprising businessmen into the lazy, corpulent figures who populated parts of modern-day India and the Caribbean.
Fatness was employed as a metaphor for the corrupting power of foreign lands on colonists
Combining interrelated fears around foreignness and sexual immorality, Gillray’s A Sale of English-beauties, in the East-Indies (above) of 1786 is typical of this genre. It features a racially diverse cast of characters, depicting a shipload of sex workers arriving fresh off the boat in Kolkata, whose plump bodies mingle with the corpulent figures of Kolkatan men and British colonists alike.
As in the later image of Emma Hamilton, here fatness signals the implied indulgence of sexual depravity and an overall lack of morals. Within such images, corpulence became a powerful metaphor for the vexed contact zones of the British empire, where once strictly delineated fault lines between identities and cultures were blurred.
Yet fatness could have more positive connotations. Images of the robust bodies of the British labouring classes, for example, highlight how their healthy plumpness was a signifier of strong constitutions – and, by extension, a healthy national character. Satirists consistently portrayed “John Bull”, the very embodiment of Britishness in the 18th century, as fat, sturdy and ruddy-cheeked. As such, he stood in direct opposition to symbolic representations of France as dangerously malnourished, surviving on a diet of thin gruel.
In Britain plumpness was used as a signifier of a strong constitution and a healthy national character
Gillray’s French Liberty, British Slavery from 1792 exemplifies this trend. It shows a skinny Frenchman, wearing tattered clothing and eating a meagre dinner of spring onions, sitting in opposition to a gluttonous Brit, who greedily devours the national dish of roast beef. The ironic title of the print refers to the British belief that the political systems that emerged following the French Revolution represented anything but true freedom. Gillray’s respective depiction of Britain and France in this work was an indication of what Britain perceived as its supremacy over the French, particularly in the wake of the turbulent events of 1789.
This juxtaposition between fat and thin also features consistently in images of Daniel Lambert, known as Britain’s heaviest man. Lambert’s great corpulence (he was said to have weighed 50 stone in 1805, aged 35) made him a celebrity – so much so that he co-starred alongside none other than Napoleon in Bone and Flesh, or John Bull in Moderate Condition. This 1806 print by an anonymous artist draws on well-known representations of John Bull – as well as satirists’ long-established use of extremes (fatness at one end of the spectrum, thinness at the other) – to ridicule two national stereotypes.
That Lambert was chosen to represent Britain in the print is testimony to the fame and riches his great weight had brought him. By the early 19th century, this one-time prison keeper and animal breeder was generating income not only from the sale of hunting dogs and fighting cocks, but also by publicly exhibiting himself in London. Here he became a popular attraction for the capital’s fashionable elite – as evidenced by the crumpled flyer shown lying at his feet, proclaiming the Leicester-born leviathan a “wonder of the world”.
The flyer also makes reference to 53 Piccadilly, the central London address at which, from 1806, Lambert regularly received visitors from midday until 5pm, charging them a shilling for entry. The following year he would supplement his income further still by doing public viewings in Leicester Square.
That rich Londoners were so eager to meet one of Britain’s heaviest men – and to pay for the privilege – speaks volumes about Georgian Britain’s relationship to fatness. Britons in the 18th century were both appalled and transfixed by the issue of corpulence. This obsession could make life very uncomfortable for those at the receiving end of 18th-century satire. Yet the nation’s fascination with fatness also turned Lambert’s body into a commodity – and, as Bone and Flesh proves, he was more than happy to cash in.
Freya Gowrley is an art historian and postdoctoral fellow in history at the University of Derby. She specialises in identity and visual and material culture in 18th and 19th-century Britain and North America
This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
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