Object of the Month – July 2015

July 2015 - Midas, Transmuting All, Into Paper, by James Gillray, 1797

Midas, Transmuting All, Into Paper, by James Gillray, 1797. Courtesy of the Trustees of the British MuseumJames Gillray is one of the most famous printmakers of the 18th century, well known for his satirical caricatures and etchings, and often referred to as the pioneer of political cartoons. In this etching, William Pitt the Younger, who was Prime Minister, is portrayed as Midas. However, instead of turning things to gold, he is transforming gold into paper. He has a stomach full of gold coins and is changing them into £1 paper banknotes, whilst people at his feet at the Bank of England try to catch them.

This is a reference to measures taken by Pitt in an attempt to reduce national debt. In 1797, due to the economic strain of the Revolutionary Wars with France, the Bank of England could no longer exchange banknotes for gold. They had to convert to paper money because they had been making large loans to the government, and £1 and £2 banknotes were issued as an alternative thus replacing the real value of gold to mere paper.

The caption on this etching explains the version of the Midas myth that Gillray is portraying:

‘History of Midas – The great Midas having dedicated himself to Bacchus, obtained from that Deity, the Power of changing all he Touched. Apollo fixed Asses Ears upon his head for his Ignorance – & although he tried to hide his disgrace with a Regal Cap, yet the very Sedges which grew from the Mud of the Pactolus, whisper’d out his Infamy, whenever they were agitated by the Wind from the Opposite Shore.’

The five men to the left of Pitt represent the Opposition, the ‘sedges whispering his infamy’ are trying to expose and criticise Pitt’s actions ‘whenever they are agitated by the Wind from the Opposite Shore’. Gillray is also being satirical about the Opposition as he portrays them as republicans with red bonnets, influenced by ‘The Wind from the Opposite Shore’ from France. The fleet that is departing from France in this etching shows the threat of French invasion during the Revolutionary Wars. Pitt holds the ‘Key of Public Property’ on his hand, along with a padlock for the ‘Power of Securing Public Credit’ around his neck. This represents the notion that public credit was being used to pay the national debt and shows the hostility towards this measure. Many believed they were being forced to accept paper money so that the Bank of England could use its gold reserves to carry on financing the war with France.

A series of Gillray’s etchings are on display as part of Show Me the Money, an exhibition exploring how the financial world has been imagined in art and visual media, running until Sunday 24 January 2016.  In the exhibition, Midas, Transmuting All, Into Paper, by James Gillray, 1797, is a modern reproduction courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.