The critical role played by visual culture in shaping the arguments of the Revolution debate is most evident in the political caricatures of the 1790s. Engravings of revolutionary events and of British responses to them provided a visual apparatus through which basic information about key players and occurrences could be communicated. Because representations are not transparent reflections of actualities, a significant attribute of these political prints is the way they constructed incidents and personalities through the canny manipulation of verism and distortion. These tactical adjustments positioned the engravings to function as formative influences on public opinion, and this influence was pivotal to the debate's exchanges over the nature of human nature and social change. In an effort to clarify the terms of these exchanges, representations of French revolutionary women in British political caricature cast them in an unflattering and particularly unnatural light. 1 This essay analyzes the cultural, political, and visual elements that supported the formation of this representational practice. Indeed, the interdependence of these elements enabled the practice to assume, even in the face of obvious satirical exaggeration, a position of documentary accuracy, eventually extending to include not just the revolutionary women themselves, but the figures of any woman with political or public sphere associations.
The market for political caricatures was well-established by the 1780s, when London boasted a number of printshops, like those of S. W. Fores in Piccadilly and of William Holland in Oxford Street, both of which had opened in January 1784. 2 At these and other locations around the city, engravings on topical subjects including images of the most recent revolutionary events in France were published, exhibited, and sold. From 1789 through 1794, Holland and Fores advertised permanent exhibitions of caricatures on French revolutionary subjects in the hopes of attracting and maintaining an interested clientele. 3 William Humphrey, with a shop in the Strand, and Mrs. Hannah Humphrey, who offered Gillray's prints exclusively after 1791 at her Bond Street establishment, were similarly keen competitors for the market in political caricature. 4