This important, previously unrecorded drawing was made by John Hamilton Mortimer in preparation for his engraved frontispiece to Evan Lloyd’s The Powers of the Pen: A Poem which was published in 1768. Lloyd was a Welsh cleric and poet who produced a number of polemics; The Powers of the Pen was a substantial verse satire written in octosyllabic couplets which attacked contemporary literary critics. Mortimer’s rapidly worked compositional study is the only known drawing relating to the frontispiece which appeared with the title The Reviewers Cave. A grand literary satire, Mortimer’s composition takes the form of a sophisticated attack on contemporary authors, particularly popular critics such as Samuel Johnson and William Warburton.
The drawing shows the figure of the Genius of Dullness asleep above an assembly of authors. As Philip Smallwood has pointed out, Mortimer has drawn explicitly on imagery from Pope, both the Dunciad and the ‘Cave of Spleen’ from the Rape of the Lock. Mortimer shows a basket of contemporary books being brought before the reviewers’ court. The judge seated third from the centre is easily identifiable as Samuel Johnson, who is directly attacked by Lloyd for his edition of Shakespeare. Lloyd criticised it for its ‘Brobdingnag words’ and pedantic contents. Johnson appears on the margin of the sheet in a satirical profile, his distinctive wig and pointed nose are repeated in more recognisable form in Mortimer’s Literary Characters Assembled round a Medallion of Shakespeare drawn in 1776. It has also been suggested that Johnson is the ‘Doctor Expositor’ of Lloyd’s text, the faceless judge presiding over the scene, as he had recently been awarded a doctorate by Trinity College, Dublin. Other identifiable figures include the man second from the main judge on the right, to whom Johnson is talking; this is Dr George Horne who also appeared in Mortimer’s later drawing, Literary Characters Assembled round a Medallion of Shakespeare now at the Yale Center for British Art. Mortimer seems to have experimented with his caricature of Horne, drawing him in the margin with his eyes closed and wearing clerical bands; Horne was Master of Magdalen College, Oxford , and later Bishop of Norwich. The figure closest to the principal judge is probably William Warburton who had also produced a critical edition of Shakespeare. The books brought before the judges are made clear in the finished print, the basket includes Lloyd’s own work, The Powers of the Pen; ‘Stern’, a reference to Laurence Sterne and ‘Churchill’, a reference to Charles Churchill. Above the seated judges a donkey brays, reinforcing their crucial position. Mortimer makes Lloyd’s position explicit, papering the walls above the judge with the titles of books and works which had received critical censure, including Tristram Shandy and Lloyd’s own The Curate, another of his satirical poems.
Rapidly handled and finely drawn, Mortimer’s sophisticated satire shows he was in full sympathy with the graphic work of William Hogarth. Mortimer was clearly a friend of Lloyd’s as he would go on to produce the frontispiece for another of his works, Lloyd’s 1773 Epistle to David Garrick. Mortimer’s abilities as a contemporary satirist of the literary world was reinforced by his 1776 drawing Literary Characters Assembled around the Medallion of Shakespeare which was made for John Kenyon. This important, rediscovered sheet offers important evidence for the critical struggles of mid eighteenth-century Britain and provides interesting contemporary evidence for the satirical iconography of Samuel Johnson.
- Philip Smallwood, ‘The Johnsonian Monster and the Lives of the Poets: James Gillray, Critical History, and the Eighteenth-Century Satirical Cartoon’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, Autumn 2002, p. 224.
- Morris Brownell, Samuel Johnson’s Attitude to the Arts, Oxford, 1989, pp. 94-95