Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Jack Tar and Britannia

Detail from British Resentment or the French fairly Coopt at LouisbourgLouis Pierre Boitard, 1755, 
John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
Britannia, a female personification of the British isles, dates to antiquity.[1] She still stands as a symbol of the British nation: noble, martial, prosperous, brave, and beautiful.

Increasingly as the eighteenth century progressed, Britannia was joined by her new friend Jack Tar.
Detail from Old Time's Advice to Britannia, artist unknown, 1761, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
Detail from The European State Jockies Running a Heat for the Ballance of Powerartist unknown, 1740, British Museum.
Detail from Labour in vain or let them tug & be Da-nd, Thomas Colley, 1782, 
National Maritime Museum.
Britannia and Jack are both courageous, but unlike Britannia, Jack is usually not often a handsome figure. When he comes into riches, Jack spends lavishly and foolishly. Where Britannia commands attention and respect by her bearing and presence, Jack takes to his fists.

Last year I wrote a piece for the Journal of the American Revolution: 'Hearts of Oak on Canvas: Watson and the Shark.' I argued that 'Increasingly throughout the [eighteenth] century, and particularly with the American Revolutionary War, the character of Jack Tar took on the role of personifying the nation.' Today I'd like to flesh that out a bit more by exploring the portrayal of Jack Tar in eighteenth century art alongside Britannia.

For the purposes of this piece, I will be focused exclusively on political cartoons, in which the intent of the author to say something about the nation at large comes into play. Slice of life portrayals like Gabriel Bray's works will not be examined, as they do not intend deeper metaphor.

The capture of Portobello by Admiral Vernon in 1739 elevated the common sailor to a national figure. In caricature he was to be supported or pitied.  As such, in the 1740's, sailors were often depicted as participants in great military and political upheavals. Usually, this participation is passive. In Samuel Lyne's 1742 cartoon Bob the Political Ballance Master, sailors are helpless victims of the ministry's failed policies. The same is true in the 1748 cartoon Tempora mutantur, et Nos mutamur in illis.
Bob the Political Ballance Master, Samuel Lyne, 1742, British Museum.
Detail from Tempora mutantur, et Nos mutamur in illis, unknown artist, 1748, British Museum.
By the Seven Years' War, Jack Tar becomes a much more violent figure. With the Annus Mirabilis of 1759, the 'year of miracles,' Jack became more active in caricature. Here we see the beginnings of Jack as defender of Britain, but not yet as a stand in for the nation itself.

In political cartoons of the 1750's and 60's, Jack Tar is rarely the sole British character. These political cartoons are crowded affairs with numerous characters and text bubbles crammed into small spaces. Jack is often one of several characters representing different classes of British society. Nonetheless, we start to see some of the first major examples of Jack Tar as a sole personification of Britain.
The With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, and especially after the crisis precipitated by the entry of France and Spain into the conflict, Jack Tar was increasingly featured as the sole character representing Britain.

Much Ado About Nothing, artist unknown, 1756, American Antiquarian Society.
In the crisis created by the entry of Spain and France into the American Revolution, Britain felt vulnerable. This may perhaps explain the acceleration of Jack Tar to stand-in for the Kingdom. He is often depicted as thrashing caricatures of France, Spain, the Dutch, and America.

Monsieur Sneaking Gallantly into Brest's Skulking Hole after receiving a preliminary Salutation of British Jack Tar the 27 of July 1778,
W. Richardson, 1778, John Carter Brown Library
Don Barcello, Van Trump, & Monsieur de Crickey Combin'd together, Thomas Cowley, 1780, British Museum.

Jack England Fighting the Four Confederates, John Smith, 1781, British Museum.
Jack Tar continued to be portrayed as Britain personified well after my period of study, but the acceleration from passive participant to nationhood itself is the most defining feature of sailors in political cartoons of the latter half of the eighteenth century.

[1] Henig, Martin, 'Britannia', Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Volume 3 Part 1, Zurich, Artemis, 1983 pages 167–69.

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