Going Places: The Material and Imagined Geographies of Prints in the Atlantic World, 1750–1790

On a cold Boston night in January 1774 – six weeks after chests of tea were emptied into the nearby harbor – a crowd of American colonists tarred and feathered a despised British tax collector. Eight months later, after this news crossed the Atlantic, London map and print publishers Robert Sayer (1724–1795) and John Bennett (c. 1745–1787) issued a mezzotint inspired by newspaper reports of the event. The first in a series of five prints depicting acts of American rebellion in response to sanctions imposed by the Boston Port Bill, Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering (figure 1) presents potent symbols of American resistance: the scene takes place beneath the broad branches of the Liberty Tree, onto which a copy of the 1765 Stamp Act has been tacked upside-down, as a reminder of the colonists’ triumph in their most recent conflict with Parliament. The tree sports not only a noose hanging menacingly from a branch, but also a dead limb, devoid of leaves, hinting at future ill health. In the background, a group of small figures stands on the deck of a ship. Three men empty chests of tea, which pours in dark streams into the water below. In the foreground, five American colonists force a tarred-and-feathered figure to consume tea from a pot. The man wearing the “American suit of tar and feathers” is John Malcolm, a particularly hated British customs official stationed at Boston, who received his “modern punishment” after he beat a young boy with a walking stick. The source of the tar sits plainly in the lower left foreground of the print – a bucket and accompanying tar brush, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a liberty staff and Phrygian cap – while Malcolm’s “American suit” turns him into a distinctly uncivilized, almost bestial creature, led by a rope around his neck.
Over the past 240 years, this design has become one of the most widely reproduced scenes of American rebellion. Kept in print by its original publishers for ten years after its creation in 1774, the print circulated in large cities and small provincial towns on both sides of the Atlantic during the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the design was reissued as lithographs and woodblock engravings, scratched onto powder horns, and displayed in American domestic interiors in shellwork frames. By the twentieth century, it had become an emblem of the Colonial Revival movement and a staple illustration in American high-school textbooks. In four chapters, my dissertation traces the evolution of Tarring & Feathering from an emblem of dissolution in eighteenth-century London into an icon of patriotism through its reappropriation by nineteenth-century American printmakers.

Working from the premise that materiality is a constitutive element in the production of meaning, my dissertation offers the first comprehensive study of the business of publishing prints in America and England from 1750 to 1790. Anchored by firsthand study in print collections across America and the United Kingdom, the first two chapters investigate the economic, political, and geographic conditions of Sayer’s workshop and the London print industry from 1748 to 1788. A study of the production, circulation, and appropriation of Sayer & Bennett’s publications – chief among them, portraits of William Pitt, 1st Earl Chatham, and General James Wolfe – provides a foundation upon which to examine the visual and material culture of the transatlantic print trade. The second chapter offers a study of the visual culture of dissolution, as seen through the output of one publisher in an era of revolution. It first explores how geographical knowledge was represented in each of Sayer & Bennett’s five Boston Port Bill mezzotints, and how these prints related to the maps of the Americas that were printed and sold alongside them. Drawing on eighteenth-century theories of humor and laughter, this chapter argues that the prints offered a way to displace concerns about the power of the united colonies. More significantly, the chapter then links the material deterioration of the plates with the psychological deterioration of their publisher John Bennett, who was hospitalized in 1783 following a nervous breakdown caused in large part by his anxieties about the American Revolution. Through an investigation of the history and historiography of copper – as both an artistic and imperial commodity – I consider how the prints’ materiality signified the dissolution of the links between London and its American colonies.

The second half of the dissertation follows the afterlives of these prints across the Atlantic and through the nineteenth century. The third chapter explores the transatlantic networks of exchange between the competitive London print market and the developing American print industry, and the possibilities that existed for publishing prints in New England before 1790. Specifically, it reconstructs the career of John Norman, a prolific artist and publisher who remade and sold Sayer & Bennett’s publications in Boston, to offer a case study of the market for publishing prints in early America. More broadly, this chapter contributes to scholarship on colonial and early national American print culture by tracing the long history of the business of making and selling prints in America, from Peter Pelham (1727), to John Singleton Copley, to Charles Willson Peale, to John James Barralet (1790), with specific attention to investigating how prints participated in the industry of book publishing and selling. Finally, the fourth chapter tracks the transformation of Tarring & Feathering into a memory of a shared national origin.

As an art historian committed to interdisciplinary scholarship, I would keenly appreciate the opportunity to participate in the 2015 Graduate Student Forum in Early American History. As of May 2015, I will be approximately halfway through researching and writing my dissertation at the University of Delaware, supported by fellowships from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, Smithsonian Institution, Huntington Library, Winterthur Museum and Library, American Antiquarian Society, and John Carter Brown Library. In particular, I would look forward to discussing the conceptual question at the heart of my project: “How can we reconstruct an engraver’s or publisher’s system of beliefs or ideological commitments through the prints they made or sold?” In other words, I believe that my dissertation must begin with the figures who coordinated the invention, creation, distribution, and sale of the prints that shape our visual conceptions of these revolutionary moments, as biographies of objects are not complete without biographies of their makers. Indeed, to offer such a thing – to discuss this mezzotint as a disembodied illustration, disconnected from its materials and from the hands that burnished, inked, pulled, stacked, held, purchased, shipped, and framed it – would replicate the shortcomings of previous scholarship on eighteenth-century British prints. Given this field’s focus on iconographic and stylistic analysis, specific questions about locality and materiality have remained unasked due, at least in part, to a lack of traditional archival sources. My recent research in London archives has unearthed previously unknown sources – bank accounts, legal records, probate inventories, and stock catalogues – that have the potential to advance the study of audience, market, and economics for the Anglo-American print industry into the realm of rigorous historical analysis. I therefore would benefit enormously from the opportunity to discuss methodological approaches to integrating historical and visual analysis with fellow participants and audience members, and especially Professors Anderson, whose scholarship stands as a model for the craft of writing and constructing direct, engaging narratives accessible to varied audiences.
My dissertation builds on scholarship that charts the formation of national identity and the nature of American empire. Sayer & Bennett’s series of five mezzotints depict a period when many colonists began to understand themselves as American rather than British. These prints gave tangible shape to this process, helping us to understand in specific ways how citizens living on both sides of the Atlantic experienced the fracturing of the British Empire. By considering the evolving definition of “American” from vantage points on both sides of the conflict and of the Atlantic, and by engaging critical studies of place and geography, my dissertation embeds prints within their specific historical locations and shapes a new methodology for the transatlantic study of eighteenth-century Anglo-American visual and material culture.

NGA, color corrected, option 2.jpgFigure 1
(proposed primary document):

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering

Designer and engraver unknown
Publishers: Robert Sayer and John Bennett (London)
October 31, 1774
Mezzotint, 14 x 10 in. (350 x 250 mm.)
First state
National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), Paul Mellon Collection, 1985.64.165



© 2003 Colonial Society of Massachusetts. All Rights Reserved.