Before the invention of photography, in the days when illustrated books were inordinately costly, one means of satisfying the universal human desire for pictures was the so-called "catch-penny." This was an engraved sheet of paper, sometimes filled with illustrations, sometimes with verse, sometimes with both, but hawked on the streets of London for a penny. Millions of these broadsides must have been printed in the 18th century, but most of them have perished or lie inaccessible in the print collection of the great libraries.
By a fortunate chance, a unique collection of late-18th-century broadsides, all printed by the London firm of Bowles and Carver, recently came on the market. Reprinted for the first time in almost 200 years, these fabulously rare prints reveal the world of delight and surprise that must have been felt by the original purchasers of this fascinating folk art.
Plebeian humor, vital, earthy, is the chief characteristic of this range of prints: familiar types of the day, perhaps individuals (Peggy Bacon-face, Squire Somebody, Bet Boozer); the characters of literature (Sir John Falstaff, in a particularly gross form); birds and animals, by artists who surely never saw them; children's born-book sheets, with alphabets, objects to be spelled, early nursery rhymes, including the first appearance of certain Mother Goose rhymes; ladies of fashion; Captain Macheath and Lucy Locket from The Beggar's Opera; great ships; trades, occupations, street cries; the Royal Family; the traditional heroes of England; puzzle pictures — find the giant; soldiers; The Wonderful Pig; and a host of others.
Between Hogarth and Gillray in style, this collection offers a close-up view of the 1780s and 1790s not recorded elsewhere. It serves its original purpose: to delight, entertain, amuse, and instruct adults and children alike. Today, however, it has another use: a new, strong source of picture material for commercial artists and designers.