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The Materiality of Visual Print Culture in Later Stuart Britain

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Mark Knights’s “Possessing the Visual: The Materiality of Visual Print Culture
in Later Stuart Britain” documents an investigates what appears to be a turning-point in the production of visual images in print medium during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with an emphasis on the political impetus behind the emergence of the form. After briefly noting the lack of scholarly attention paid to the subject, Knights proceeds to summarize that single-sheet images and topical playing cards, addressing the central issues of the Popish Plot of 1678 and the 1710 Sacheverell trial, are critical components within an arena of intense political and religious conflict. In these years, visual propaganda took on an immense importance, simultaneously reflecting party agendas and inciting public feeling. Knights acknowledges that such usage of the visual was not new but that, in the later Stuart era, a shift in production translated to a profound change in presence and influence.

To that end, Knights discusses how the Popish Plot, or the widespread perception facilitated by Titus Oates that a conspiracy existed to restore Catholicism and papal supremacy to England, essentially generated visual polemic to a new level. This is partly due to the awareness that public opinion was crucial if, as the Whigs determined, elections were to alter the line of succession and prevent a pro-Catholic heir from taking the throne. Conversely, Royalist factions countered with images affirming that such a course would plunge England into civil war. For Knights, the importance lies in how this debate was an unprecedented dialogue between visual arguments, with graphic prints directly answering one another (and frequently “borrowing” each other’s imagery). Between 1678 and 1682, printed images were integral to the political conflict so linked to religious controversy, and the consequences reflect the role of them. It is importantly noted, for example, that visual polemic generated impact of an unprecedented nature when Stephen College was executed in 1681 for satirizing King Charles in an illustration; visual satire, simply, had become a treasonable offense.

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Knights goes on to document how, in the early 18th century, High Church Tories and Whigs engaged in a fierce conflict over the trial of cleric Henry Sacheverell, charged with inflaming rhetoric against dissenters, aligned with the Whig party. Politics and religion fused, with the Whigs objecting to the construct, and visual images presented a heated dialogue to a divided public. Tory imagery has the devil ferrying a republican to the throne; conversely, Whig response presents Charles as the Catholic Pretender, also driven by the devil and escorted by Sacheverell, whose horse crush moderation and liberty beneath them. Given the magnitude of the issues and the abilities of the new free press, volume escalated; between 1709 and 1711, over 40 graphic images centered on the Sacheverell affair were produced, and virtually all were created within a process of fierce ideological exchange. Again, blatant similarities of the visuals reflect the reactive quality of the debate; as the Tories portray Sacheverell in his study and destroying both the devil and the pope, the Whigs present him in the same setting, with the devil and pope whispering in his ear.

Knights proceeds to discuss the ancillary emergence of playing cards, in this period taking on a political function and serving as further instruments of visual propaganda for both sides; perhaps as many as five different packs were produced in the winter of 1679-1680, to address the issue of the King’s unwillingness to allow Parliament to sit. Knights also addresses the importance of mezzotints, and the seeming usage of certain visuals to sway the female public, as Sacheverell was considered attractive. In essence, Knights’s work goes into extensive detail as to the elements of all the visual prints discussed, maintaining a perspective on the relevance and documented impact of them both individually and as genres. He concludes by indicating the need to further trace the trajectory of print imagery in later years, as he also expresses frustration for circumstances not yet clarified, as in why advertisements for prints, evident during the Popish Plot years, are absent during the Sacheverell crisis. Nonetheless, the analysis is a striking focus on how visuals in print became a significant force in the heated discourses of the later Stuart years.