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Eighteenth-Century Life 25.2 (2001) 170-182

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The Darly Macaroni Prints and the Politics of "Private Man"

Shearer West


During the early 1770s, the rage for caricatures in London was fueled by the activities of the print publishers, Matthew and Mary Darly, who flooded the market with their wry visual commentaries on social life. Among their productions were dozens of prints representing a group of men labeled by contemporaries as "macaronis," allegedly because of their affectation of foreign tastes and fashions. 1 The macaronis were an ephemeral phenomenon, as well as an extension of the fops and beaus of the earlier part of the century. 2 They were called, among other epithets, "noxious vermin," "that doubtful gender," and "amphibious creatures," and were compared variously to monsters, devils, reptiles, women, monkeys, asses and butterflies. 3 Their concern for elaborate clothing, including tight trousers, large wigs, short coats, and small hats made them the ridicule of their generation, who focused on their gender ambiguity and the dangers of their conformity to foreign and effeminate fashion. 4 A contemporary pamphlet, The Vauxhall Affray, sums up this view:

But Macaronies are a sex
Which do philosophers perplex;
Tho' all the priests of Venus's rites
Agree they are Hermaphrodites. 5

This gender ambiguity is the aspect of the representational life of the macaroni that has received the most attention in recent years. However, within their full visual and political contexts the macaroni prints signify more than a simple scorn for effeminacy. The gender issue itself needs to be reconfigured within a wider set of frameworks. What was unsaid or taken for granted about the macaroni prints in the 1770s needs to be probed. 6 The "terror of uncertain signs" that Roland Barthes identified as underlying a human search for meaning and closure needs to be reintroduced into a consideration of these prints within their specific historical sphere. 7 While the focus on effeminacy and gender ambiguity allowed these prints to be read in terms of widely held views about the dangers of foreignness and emasculation, other messages were contained within the images that were not so thoroughly articulated but would have struck sometimes unsettling chords with contemporary viewers. 8 What is revealed by a [End Page 170] contextual study of the Darly macaroni prints is the ways in which these prints drew upon and fed into changing notions of eccentricity and character in the unstable London political environment of the early 1770s.

Although a number of print publishers leapt on the macaroni bandwagon, the Darlys produced the largest number of prints ridiculing this phenomenon--several dozen between 1771 and 1774. The prints were published individually, but they were clearly thought of as a series, and the Darly's own Macaroni Print Shop (1772) shows the way in which the macaroni images were laid out together in their shop window. In conceiving of these prints as a semicoherent group, it is first of all useful to see how they differed from other sorts of print series representing individual characters that had been produced in the preceding decades. For example, Pier Leone Ghezzi's caricatures of antiquaries, published by Arthur Pond in 1742 (Plate 1), and Thomas Patch's prints and paintings of English Grand Tourists from the 1750s, had several characteristics in common. 9 They both emphasized the profile as a way of reflecting distinction in facial features, with especial focus on the nose, chin, forehead and ears. They both measured difference in terms of these facial features, as well as weight, height, accoutrements, size of feet, gestures of hands, how the subjects wear their swords and wigs, and their posture. In addition, many of these works represented individuals of high birth, some of whom were identified by Patch, Ghezzi, or the viewers of the prints.

In contrast to this, another forerunner of the Darly series may not be most appropriately described as caricatural, but shares some of the features of caricature: the prints known as the "Cries of London." 10 These prints represented the many anonymous flower girls, oyster sellers, and...