Object of the Month – June 2015

June 2015 - Universal Suffrage or the Scum Uppermost, hand coloured engraving by George Cruikshank, printed by George Humphrey, July 1819

Universal Suffrage or the Scum Uppermost, hand coloured engraving by George Cruikshank, printed by George Humphrey, 1819 Humphrey was a printer of Tory work in London, his clientele were mainly the wealthy upper class. The print shows a representation of popular radical reform, which is thought to be tantamount to ‘revolution’. The many headed monster, typical of Cruikshank’s work, triumphs over institutions supposedly honoured by the British including royalty, religion, the Magna Carta and the arts, as well as numerous others. The monster wears the cap of liberty on its tail, signifying freedom and the pursuit of liberty. The print is designed to warn people of the fatal consequences the calls for political reform might have on the values, culture and rights the upper classes enjoyed. Published in July 1819, just one month before the Peterloo Massacre, it demonstrates the strength of feeling for reform by the British working class at that time.

60,000 had gathered in Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields in August 1819 to demand the vote and hear Henry ‘the orator’ Hunt speak. Fearing revolution, the authorities ordered the arrest of Hunt and proceeded to send armed yeomen into the crowd. With little to protect themselves, 18 were killed and hundreds injured as the yeoman hacked at and rode over the defenceless crowd. The People’s History Museum tells the story of Peterloo and displays objects from that time including the very sabres used to quell the crowd. The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre and sparked outrage throughout Britain. Cruikshank himself, at this point a well known artist of satirical work, interpreted the dramatic scene in Massacre at St Peter’s in stark contrast to the view put forward in Universal Suffrage or the Scum Uppermost.

Massacre at St Peter’s by George Cruikshank, 1819 Universal Suffrage was evidently a product of its rightwing printers. To what extent Cruikshank agreed with the political sentiments of the design however, remains unclear – especially because we know at the time he was also producing radical material with William Hone, as well as sympathetic prints such as the Massacre at St Peter’s. He only initialled Universal Suffrage instead of using his full signature, often a sign that he based his artistic statements on the wishes of his employer, rather than his own political beliefs.

Heritage Lottery Fund

June’s Object of the Month has been purchased by the People’s History Museum using funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme. The print is currently on display in Main Gallery One.