Botany Bay

"Paper Promises: Restriction, Caricature, and the Ghost of Gold"

The surge of scholarly interest in Romantic literary forgery has overlooked the impact of financial forgery on Romantic-era politics and culture. This essay uses James Gillray’s Midas (1797) and William Hone and George Cruikshank’s Bank Restriction Note (1819) as the basis for an investigation of the cultural and political repercussions of the 1797 Bank Restriction Act. The decision of Pitt’s government to end payment in gold and flood the economy with paper money was deeply unpopular. To begin with, it was seen as an act of fiscal incompetence and incontinence, as can be seen in Gillray’s scatological vision of Pitt as an inverted Midas figure showering the nation with cheap banknotes. Secondly, the Restriction Act led to a massive hike in executions for banknote forgery. The Bank of England’s prosecution of lower-class offenders provoked a public outcry at both the unreality of paper money and the harshness of the penal code. Cruikshank and Hone’s response to this controversy was the Bank Restriction Note, a mock banknote in which the normal symbols of the state have been replaced with macabre gallows humour. The essay concludes by proposing that caricature (sheets of paper satire) was the perfect medium for ridiculing the dubious authenticity of paper currency which was no longer anchored in the ‘real’ value of gold and silver.
February 2012

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