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  • Wilkes’s Squint: Synecdochic Physiognomy and Political Identity in Eighteenth-Century Print Culture 1
  • Shearer West (bio)

In June 1763, the pseudonymous “Philo-Britannicus” published A Letter from Scots Sawney the Barber to Mr. Wilkes an English Parliamenter, rebutting John Wilkes’s relentless attacks on the Scots in his scandalous political journal, The North Briton. In his diatribe, Philo-Britannicus referred to Hogarth’s engraving of Wilkes on trial for seditious libel (fig. 1), which had been published two months before. He wrote:

Figure 1.

I have seen a print of you here, holding up a cap with the word LIBERTY upon it, and a Devil your familiar, prompting your North-Briton into your ear. The device, I think, really is a just and a very pretty one; only that you are a most shocking dog to look at, and ought not to be exposed to pregnant women’s view, as they are in use (like Laban’s cattle) to copy what strikes their fancy. Your face is the indication [End Page 65] of a very bad soul within; and any, thse least judge of physiognomy, may see you a scoundrel at one view. 2

This passage makes a clear reference to Hogarth’s etching of his erstwhile friend Wilkes, which sold 4,000 copies in the months following Wilkes’s appearance before the King’s Bench. 3 Wilkes is shown with his real-life squint 4 and a suggestive leer, which were seen as symbolic of duplicity and sexual excess; he holds a staff of maintenance topped by a cap of liberty which offer an ironic foil to the signals of his physiognomy. The moment chosen was a significant one in the career of Wilkes, who during his lifetime was hailed or condemned as a libertarian, a patriot, a deceiver, a rake, a sponger, and a devoted father. At various stages in his career he was a militia colonel, an M.P., an outlaw, a prisoner, an Alderman, and a Lord Mayor—the industrious and the idle apprentices rolled into one. 5 The complexity of Wilkes’s private character and his ambivalent public role during the 1760s made him the subject of numerous polemical publications and popular prints. Hogarth’s view of Wilkes was only one of many, but it is a pivotal one in assessing the importance of physiognomy to eighteenth-century conceptions of the relationships between public and private character. 6 In Wilkes’s case, his identifying feature, a squint, became a metonym for the man himself. A study of the imagery of Wilkes produced before and after Hogarth’s caricature reveals the ways in which what was in eighteenth-century parlance termed a “deformity” could [End Page 66] become inextricably associated with the abstract values that Wilkes, as a popular hero, advocated. Hogarth’s print of Wilkes was more than a symptom of Hogarth’s artistic and political misjudgements at the end of his career. A different reading of the imagery and its reception reveals the extent to which a powerful representation by a popular artist could become appropriated and reinterpreted by its audience with the complicity of the sitter. Such a study involves a sensitive understanding of the multivalent nature of corporeal signifiers, as well as the ways in which visual culture contributed to discourses of beauty, ugliness, liberty and laughter in the eighteenth century. 7

Hogarth’s engraving of Wilkes was part of a heated battle between the two men, which began when Hogarth attacked the pro-war Pitt faction in his political print, The Times, Plate 1 (1762), and continued when Wilkes published a diatribe against Hogarth in his North Briton, no. 17 (September 1762). The Times was one of Hogarth’s most complex works, produced, according to the artist, to “stop a gap” in his income, but involving him directly in a contemporary pamphlet and print battle. 8 Using the apocalyptic image of a burning house, Hogarth’s print represents the Scottish minister, the Third Earl of Bute, as a heroic fireman trying to quell the flames of war. Bute’s opponents—the supporters of William Pitt’s plan to extend [End Page 67] England’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War...

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