With its classical symmetry, coffered ceiling, modern furnishings and book-lined walls, all suffused with old book smell (“A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness”), the Canada Law Book Rare Book Room is a near perfect space and a wonderful place to work. The collection is not as large as Harvard’s or Yale’s, but it still provides ample opportunity for serendipitous discovery and consequent wonder. We recently discovered an 18th-century print of a very silly caricature, seemingly unsigned. The etching was in an old Plexiglas frame, completely yellowed. Fortunately, when removed from the frame, the print proved to be in perfect condition. Though the image looked vaguely familiar, none of us could identify it. Because of its obvious quality, we immediately determined to get the print expertly framed, to archival standard; but first, we wanted to identify the artist. This post is a short record of our investigations and what we learned about the picture and the artist.
The print is a small copper etching, 7 x 8.7 cm, of a curious sort. Held one way, it’s a picture of a “Lawyer”. But when you turn the image 180 degrees, it’s portrays a “Client” — a technique referred to as “topsy-turvy caricature”. There’s no signature on the plate, the only identification being the caption “The Lawyer” followed by the very small date “1790”; and when flipped, the caption “The Client” followed by “K 1790 347”. Here’s the image (from both directions):
I cease to be amazed by what can be found on the web and how effective it is for research. A quick Google search of the basic terms “the lawyer the client etching caricature” got immediate results. The sixth link on the first page of results was a review of the book Capital Caricatures: A Selection of Etchings by John Kay, by Sheila Szatkowski (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2007). (The home site, Electric Scotland, is dedicated to books and information about “Scots, Scotland and the Scottish Diaspora”.) The review page not only reproduced the Lawyer-Client etching, but also provided basic biographical information about its creator, the great Scottish engraver and caricaturist John Kay (1742-1826).
John Kay was born near Dalkeith, Scotland, in 1742, to a stonemason and his wife. His father died when he was only six, and his mother sent him to apprentice to a barber at the age of 13. Six years later he set up shop in Edinburgh after paying his dues to the Society of Surgeon-Barbers in 1771, where he earned a good living “dressing the wigs and trimming the heads of a certain number of gentlemen every morning”. But he had always possessed a knack for sketching; and perhaps employment as a barber provided him ample occasion for the close inspection of human features and afforded him the opportunity to develop the analytic eye necessary for accurate portraiture and uproarious caricature. One of Kay’s customers, William Nisbet of Dirleton, took to Kay and desired to foster his talent. Nisbet supplied Kay with proper artistic materials for the first time in his life and supported Kay’s family as he became established. Nisbet died in 1782, but arranged for Kay to draw a yearly sum of money from his estate. Kay published his first caricature in 1784, when he was 42; and during a long and distinguished career produced portraits, sketches and caricatures of Scotland’s most important personalities and of Edinburgh’s celebrities and oddities. He worked steadily at his craft until his death in 1826. Kay is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.
Our image, Kay’s “The Lawyer; The Client”, dates to 1790, in the first decade of his professional career. The British Museum tells us that Kay drew inspiration from a print published, though not necessarily executed, by John Wallis in 1789 , depicting “Moses and The Vicar” (a parish clerk and a parson), and which seems to come from a popular ballad of the period.
With the black hat and the wig, Kay’s etching uses the exact same elements and the same composition as that of Wallis. I can spot only two real differences. Most obviously, Kay labels the characters represented differently, changing “Moses and the Vicar” to “The Lawyer and the Client”. Along with the change in professions, Kay’s caricatures, with their wrinkles and warts, are considerably more satirical. It’s funny to think that despite the passage of time, public opinion on certain matters can remain remarkably obstinate. This wasn’t the only etching Kay produced in this satirical style (you can see another one here), suggesting that, thankfully, the law profession shouldn’t feel uniquely victimized. The great equalizers are death and the satirist’s pen.
To produce an etching, the artist scratches his drawing into a wax ground covering a metal plate, often copper, to create an intaglio design. When he’s completed his image, he soaks the plate in a bath of acid, which eats away at the exposed parts of the metal; that is, everywhere he’s scratched through the wax. After the acid bath, the artist scrapes away the remaining wax, inks the metal plate, and puts it to paper. Etching allows the artist greater freedom than engraving, as wax is much easier to manipulate than metal. Identifying the various types of prints can be tricky, but one thing you can look for is the impression the plate makes around the image, as etchings and engravings require an enormous amount of force to properly transfer ink from plate to paper. You won’t find this impression with woodblock or most modern methods of printmaking.
There’s one last issue to consider with regard to our print; namely, the “state” of the plate from which it was printed. Compared to a copy of the image online at the British National Portrait Gallery, ours seems identical, right down to the presence of three small dots in the bottom left when “The Lawyer” faces right side up; but there is one glaring difference. Ours print has the number “347” in the bottom right corner when “The Client” is right side up, whereas the National Portrait Gallery’s does not. One other copy was also not numbered; and unfortunately, the British Museum record for the etching does not include an image with which we could compare ours.
I could find only one more copy online, and thankfully, this one solved the riddle. I believe our print was taken from the second volume of the two-volume collection A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings by the Late John Kay, with Biographical Sketches and Illustrative Anecdotes, published after Kay’s death in 1837-1838, in which all images are numbered. The introductory notice to the first volume notes that that Kay tried unsuccessfully to publish a collected works in his own lifetime, and that after his and his widow’s death, his original plates came into the possession of Hugh Paton, the book’s compiler and publisher. Our presumption is that, for the collection, Paton had the catalogue number added to (ie, inscribed onto) each individual plate used for the published work. This would mean that our print was made after Kay’s death, from a late state of the original plate, with the numbering added. Of course, this knowledge does not make our print any less interesting.
Kay’s Lawyer and Client is currently the only work of art (other than the books) in the Canada Law Book Rare Book Reading Room, but only one of many in the law library. Next time you’re on a study break, take a stroll and admire our growing collection.