The Siege of Blenheim, or the New System of GUNNING Discover'd

Description: 

Elizabeth Gunning sits astride a cannon in the front foreground of the print, the skirt of a golden dress flying toward her face and revealing her legs and undergarments, her arms thrown open and back. She cries, “Oh Mother! Mother! My mask’d Battery is discovered, & we shall be blown up! Oh Mother Mother we must raise the siege immediately & take refuge under the Duchess’s cover’d way, & there act on the defensive: O Mother: Mother it’s all your fault, say what you will!” Out of the cannon love letters fly toward Blenheim Palace, set in the back of the print. The five letters contain small writing: “Letter forged by my Mother” “Forged Love Letter” – “Letter written by my daddy” – “Letter from Mary: written by myself” – “Letters in Answer to myself” – “Letter from Myself.” From the front middle window of the palace, the bare buttocks of the Duke of Marlborough shoots a stream of excrement across the palace’s grounds toward the Gunning family, Elizabeth in particular, overwhelming their attack. Elizabeth’s father, General John Gunning, is turned away from the females; his profile shows him sneaking away in uniform, his face turned such that no features are visible except a blank cheek. He says, “I find our Stratagem won’t take effect, & therefore I’ll be off; & menouevre;--any common soldier can lead on to an attack, but it requires the skill of a General to bring off his forces with honor after a defeat…” Mrs. Gunning, to the right of Elizabeth, looks to her daughter with a frightened face, her left hand raised in the air and her right hand holding a large feather quill emitting smoke to the back of the cannon. She wears a pink dress and declares her innocence, “Good Heavens! Who could have thought that the siege of a Coronet would have ended in smoke & stink! – well I’ll take my affidavit that I know nothing at all about the matter—” In the far right foreground of the print is the Duchess of Bedfordshire, wearing a blue dress whose hem rises above and slightly curls over the head of Mrs. Gunning. Her breast is exposed and she says, “Come under my Protection, dearys, I’ll hide you in Bedfordshire, & find one of my little Granny-boys, to play with Missy.” The full title and frame text read, “The Siege of BLENHEIM or the new system of GUNNING discovered__ Vide A bold stroke for a Husband___ dedicated to the Duke of A__ ”

Accession Number: 

791.3.5.1

Printing Context: 

The Siege of Blenheim—or—the New System of GUNNING Discovered— was published on May 5, 1791 from Hannah Humphrey’s print shop at 18 Old Bond Street, London.

Associated Events: 

The Gunning Love-letter scandal, also known “The Gunningiad”


Both the Marquis of Blanford, son of the Duke of Marlborough, and the Marquis of Lorne, son of the Duke of Argyll and cousin to Elizabeth Gunning, were potential matches for nineteen-year-old Elizabeth. When the Duke of Argyll asked General Gunning if the Duke of Marlborough approved of their children’s liaison, the General sent for a letter from the Duke of Marlborough, but the Duke of Argyll suspected forgery upon its conveyance to himself. General Gunning discovered that his wife, Mrs. Susannah Gunning, and daughter had forged letter from the Duke of Marlborough to himself that consented to the match between Blanford and Elizabeth: the letter was meant to prompt a counteroffer from the Marquis of Lorne (T. Wright, James Gillray, 124). In another account, the General was aware of the scheme the entire time. Though they denied their guilt, the General turned his daughter and wife out of the house. Elizabeth and her mother took the refuge offered to them by The Duchess of Bedfordshire, the Marquis of Branford’s grandmother (P. Perkins, “Fictional Identities,” 85). Following these events, a publicized letter from Mrs. Susannah Gunning to the Duke of Argyll in defense of her daughter’s conduct, "A Letter from Mrs. Gunning to His Grace the Duke of Argyll" incited the scandal’s eruption into print, pamphlet, and periodical. In the letter, Susanna refers to her husband’s “cruel machinations” behind the scheme and he was more generally accused of allowing the demise of his daughter’s reputation in order to avoid paying her marriage portion (P. Perkins, “Fictional Identities,” 87).


Associated People: 

Gunning, General John (d. 1797)


General John Gunning of Castle Coote, Ireland, was the youngest of his siblings, who included the beautiful group of sisters renowned as “Three Graces.” He attended Westminister before entering the army, where he served in the 65th Regiment and fought in America at Bunker’s Hill. In 1763, he married Susanna Minifie; they had one daughter, Elizabeth. General Gunning became lieutenant-adjutant-general of North Britain in 1787. (C. Russel, Three Generations, 140). In 1791 he turned his wife and daughter out of the house after discovering their forged love letters. He was a renowned adulterer, and in 1792 was fined five thousand pound for “damages” after his friend James Duberley pressed charges for the affair between his Gunning and his wife. He died at Naples in 1797 (T. Wright, James Gillray, 124).


Gunning, Miss Elizabeth (1769-1823)


Elizabeth was raised at her aunt, the Duchess of Argyll’s home until her death in 1790 (C. Russel, Three Generations 135). Following the “Gunningiad” in 1791 and a brief refuge with the Duchess of Bedfordshire, Elizabeth and her mother went first to Dover and then to Boulogne. There, she met Major James Plunkett who, after a “serious implication” in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, fled to France. In 1794, three years after the notorious scandal, Elizabeth published the first of nine sentimental novels, The Pocket; after the scandal, she often used her notoriety to advertise her writing. (P. Perkins, “Fictional Identities” 85). Eventually, mother and daughter returned to London, where Mrs. Susannah Gunning died in 1800. In 1804, Elizabeth married Major Plunkett. After he received leave to permanently return to England, largely for the influence of the Duke of Argyll, the couple settled at Long Melford, in Suffolk and had five children: James, Argyll, Coventry, and two twin daughters.


Gunning [née Minifie], Susannah (1739/40-1800)


Susannah Minifie was the daughter of James Minifie, a clergyman in Somerset. By the time she married John Gunning in 1768, she had published six novels, two of them written with jointly with her sister, Margaret. For their excessively sentimental plots, a contemporary described any “breathlessly hyperbolic prose” as “minific." Minifie (now Gunning) took a hiatus from writing during the first twenty years of her marriage, but following the Gunningiad scandal in 1791, returned to print with published pamphlets, mostly attacking the Duke of Argyll, fiction, and one epic poem “Virginia and Virginias” that were clearly based off of her daughter’s experience. Her works concern aristocratic romance, domestic propriety, and sentimentality. Mrs. Susannah Gunning died on August 28, 1800 and was buried in Westminster Abbey (P. Perkins, Oxford DNB).


Interestingly, though she was the Marquis of Blanford’s grandmother, the Duchess of Bedford took the side of Miss and Mrs. Gunning, and kept them after General Gunning forced them out of house. The Duke of Marlborough was the fourth earl, father of the Marquis of Blanford, one of Elizabeth Gunning’s potential suitors in 1790 (T. Wright, James Gillray 124).


Associated Places: 

The Palace of Blenheim is the seat of the Dukedom of Marlborough. Construction began in 1705 at the expense of Queen Anne: the project was a victory prize to the John Churchill (and his heirs) for his victory over the French at Blenheim. The grant encapsulated 15,000 acres, what had been Royal Manor and Park in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, and was to be worth six thousand pound per year. Disagreements between the architect, playwright John Vanbrugh, and the Duchess, Sarah Churchill, delayed final completion to 1724. (S.J. Rogal, “Blenheim Palace Controversy,” 293).

Associated Texts: 

The Gunning family appeared in numerous prints following the scandal of 1791, and the guilt is attributed variously. Some of Gillray’s caricatures include Betty Gunning revived, or a Peep at the Conjuration of Mary Squires and the Gipsy Family, and Margaret’s Ghost, both from March 25. The Siege of Blenheim is one of eight that features Elizabeth Gunning. Mrs. Susannah published a letter following her and her daughter's expulsion, "A Letter from Mrs. Gunning to His Grace the Duke of Argyll." The letter declared he Gunning women's innocence and laid blame on General John Gunning's relations (P. Perkins, FIctional Identities" 85).

Subject: 

Elizabeth Gunning sits astride a cannon in the front foreground of the print, the skirt of a golden dress flying toward her face and revealing her legs and undergarments, her arms thrown open and back. She cries, “Oh Mother! Mother! My mask’d Battery is discovered, & we shall be blown up! Oh Mother Mother we must raise the siege immediately & take refuge under the Duchess’s cover’d way, & there act on the defensive: O Mother: Mother it’s all your fault, say what you will!” Out of the cannon love letters fly toward Blenheim Palace, set in the back of the print. The five letters contain small writing: “Letter forged by my Mother” “Forged Love Letter” – “Letter written by my daddy” – “Letter from Mary: written by myself” – “Letters in Answer to myself” – “Letter from Myself.” From the front middle window of the palace, the bare buttocks of the Duke of Marlborough shoots a stream of excrement across the palace’s grounds toward the Gunning family, Elizabeth in particular, overwhelming their attack. Elizabeth’s father, General John Gunning, is turned away from the females; his profile shows him sneaking away in uniform, his face turned such that no features are visible except a blank cheek. He says, “I find our Stratagem won’t take effect, & therefore I’ll be off; & menouevre;--any common soldier can lead on to an attack, but it requires the skill of a General to bring off his forces with honor after a defeat…” Mrs. Gunning, to the right of Elizabeth, looks to her daughter with a frightened face, her left hand raised in the air and her right hand holding a large feather quill emitting smoke to the back of the cannon. She wears a pink dress and declares her innocence, “Good Heavens! Who could have thought that the siege of a Coronet would have ended in smoke & stink! – well I’ll take my affidavit that I know nothing at all about the matter—” In the far right foreground of the print is the Duchess of Bedfordshire, wearing a blue dress whose hem rises above and slightly curls over the head of Mrs. Gunning. Her breast is exposed and she says, “Come under my Protection, dearys, I’ll hide you in Bedfordshire, & find one of my little Granny-boys, to play with Missy.” The full title and frame text read, “The Siege of BLENHEIM or the new system of GUNNING discovered__ Vide A bold stroke for a Husband___ dedicated to the Duke of A__ ”

Theme: 

The war metaphor relies on the cannon as a phallic symbol, the Gunning family name, General Gunning’s military status, and the military history of the Marlborough family (K. Hart, James Gillray, 27). The subtitle, “Vide__A bold stroke for a Husband,” is reflected by various allusions in the print, such as Elizabeth’s reference to her forgery-fire as a “Mask’d Battery.” Love letters fly out of the cannon upon which her legs are inappropriately spread and revealed; in this way, the cannon becomes a phallic symbol pointing to the impropriety of Miss Gunning’s motivations.


Scatological imagery was more prevalent in Gillray’s early caricature and in this print satirizes both sides of the Elizabeth Gunning scandal. The Duke of Marlborough’s ammunition depicted as feces flying from his own buttocks reduces the refined etiquette and prized military reputation of the nobility to animalistic and grotesque reactions. The presence of scatological imagery gestures to the idea of being a “stink” from a variety of angles—Elizabeth and her mother’s forgery and both her father’s betrayal and his abandonment.


The irony of the print arises in part from the inconsistency between what is said and what is done, a common manipulation of dialogue and action in Gillray’s caricature. For example, Mr. Gunning’s speech touts his own status as a general: “I find our Stratagem won’t take effect, & therefore I’ll be off; & menouevre;--any common soldier can lead on to an attack, but it requires the skill of a General to bring off his forces with honor after a defeat…” However, no other subjects in the print appear to hear him, and even alone, the retreat is clearly not an honorable one, covered as it is in feces: his dialogue is ironic within the picture presented by the print itself. Secondly, he purports to “bring off his forces,” but he had actually, in response to discovering his daughter and wife’s scandalous behavior, disenfranchised them: in the discourse between the print and the viewer (knowledgeable of the scandal) emerges a kind of dramatic irony, pictorially leveraged by Mr. Gunning’s profile in solitary escape.


Significance: 

This print both mocks the blatant attempts at advantageous marriage of the upper middle-class and laughs at the nobility’s refinement, military valor, and honor. This critique offers a meaningful view into Romantic culture’s view of women and women’s reaction of this view: by depicting wealth-hungry women as the (defeated) warriors, it advertises the unacceptability of overextending “feminine” power into the male sphere. The inappropriate visibility and spread of Elizabeth’s legs astride the war and phallic symbol is especially representative of the dangers of this type of impropriety. At the same time, Elizabeth Gunning provides only an extreme example of how a woman could negotiate her entrepreneurial—courtship and marriage.


From an aesthetic viewpoint, the print draws out the ironic disparity between the values in which Susannah’s sentimental fiction invests—such as domestic propriety, and the plot lines it develops, such as happy aristocratic marriages—and the values that the true story of chaos and shame, via a caricaturized illustration of it evince.


Function: 

As a social caricature satirizing a scandalous failure of the upper-class and nobility, The Siege is a piece of entertainment that relays the scandal a la mode to its viewers. It also provides one vehicle for chastisement of its victims’ behavior.

Bibliography: 

Hart, Katherine W. James Gillray: Prints by the Eighteenth Master of Caricature. Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2004.


Russel, Lady Constance. Three Generations of Fascinating Women and Sketches from Family History. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1905.


Perkins, Pam. “Gunning, Susannah (1739/40–1800).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. 1 April 2009 .


----. “The Fictional Identities of Elizabeth Gunning.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 83-98.


Rogal, Samuel J. “John Vanbrugh and the Blenheim Palace Controversy.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Dec., 1974), pp. 293-303.


Wright, Thomas, ed. The Works of James Gillray, the Caricaturist. London: Chatto and Windus, 1874.


Long Title: 

The Siege of BLENHEIM or the new system of GUNNING discovered__ Vide A bold stroke for a Husband___ dedicated to the Duke of A___