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Venereal Disease in Late Georgian Satirical Artwork

Anya Griffiths | University of York

Recent studies have estimated that over one in five Georgian Londoners were infected with syphilis. Venereal disease was not only prolific in the population of Georgian Britain, but also an object of fascination in Georgian popular culture. Specifically, the treatment of venereal disease became a hugely lucrative business through the emerging medium of print advertising. By the 1790s, advertisements for medical goods had come to dominate the pages of English newspapers. One of the most frequently advertised products was 'Leake's Genuine Pills'. Patented in 1753, 'Leake’s Pilula salutaria’ (or, more commonly, ‘pills’) had become notorious as a venereal treatment throughout Georgian England. Products such as these generated thousands of pounds annually, and streets were lined with advertisements for these medicines. The growth in medical advertisements and the dominance of branded venereal treatments in this industry resulted in distinct brand identity and the adoption of a language of ‘euphemism’. Products such as Leake’s pills and Velno’s syrup became so recognisable through their advertising that their names alone represented venereal disease. In the late 1700s, another industry was growing in popularity— satirical artwork, pioneered by caricaturists such as William Hogarth, James Gillray, and Thomas Rowlandson. This emerging genre of popular art had become synonymous with the gaudy and vulgar elements of Georgian culture, particularly the reliance on taboo imagery. As such, many satirical artists used venereal disease, and the notorious ‘cures’ for these conditions, as a visual metaphor in their artwork. This was particularly popular as a tool in satirising popular figures. By eschewing the physical symptoms of venereal infection and depicting medical products themselves, satirists subtly referenced sexual deviancy in their work.

Perhaps the satirical cartoon which most epitomises the genre is Gillray’s 1792 satire of George IV, then Prince of Wales, titled ‘A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion’. This image depicts the prince as the epitome of indulgence. Lounging in a chair, the prince is surrounded by indulgent food, alcohol bottles, and an assortment of medicines. To the bottom of the frame is a boiling pot, sat atop a collection of receipts and bills, that lay ignored in the prince’s pursuit of pleasure. What is of particular interest to historians are the details included by caricaturists in their work. Many of the medicine bottles are labelled as branded treatments. One small bottle, barely visible to the average viewer, is labelled ‘Leake’s Pills’. This was likely used as a tool to speculate and satirise the health and behaviour of popular figures without depicting individuals as physically diseased. Many of the most satirised diseases, notably syphilis and gout, were considered diseases of lifestyle, and heavily stigmatised. As a result, using the medical treatment as an artistic tool allowed for artists to push the boundaries of taboo, without upsetting Georgian sensibilities. This caricature of the Prince of Wales is one of many which used the venereal medical bottle to comment upon their credibility, personal relationships, and character of popular figures.

King George IV, depicted here during his tenure as the Prince of Wales, sits in an arm chair raising a fork to his mouth, surrounded by discarded alcohol bottles, food, dice games and medicine bottles. On a small table sits a boiling pot on top of bills and receipts. In small lettering on two of the medicine bottles reads ‘Leake’s Pills’, and ‘Velno’s Vegetable Syrup’.
James Gillray, 1792. 'A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion'. NPG D33359.

Although the Prince of Wales was the most frequent target of the caricaturist’s eye, few, if any, popular figures were safe from the scathing insinuation of sexual deviance. Satirical art reflected the wider Georgian obsession with sex. Rates of venereal infection were high, and the numbers of sex workers and brothels were increasing. Crucially, the expansion of newspapers across England allowed for scandals, such as crime, disease, and the debauchery of popular figures to become far more accessible knowledge. This was the environment in which graphic satire flourished, and amongst the subjects who frequent the work of Gillray are army generals, politicians, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Nonetheless, the importance of these medical products as visual symbolism is clear. This not only provides a way in which we can interpret Georgian satirical artwork, but it also allows us to interpret the significance of these medical products in wider Georgian society and culture. This highlights a crucial period in the formation of print advertising, as well as the emergence of brand identity and name recognition in modern consumer society. This article focuses on a selection of Gillray’s prints and his use of venereal treatments as a ‘satirical tool’ in his scathing caricatures of the Prince of Wales.

In Gillray’s ‘A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion’, a passing viewer would likely not have interpreted the prince’s physical depiction as representative of sexual deviance. Rather, the physical depiction of the prince— with his protruding stomach and the tablecloth over his calf— is intended to be read as gout. Indeed, Gillray utilised such imagery in his famous satires centred on gout itself. Gout has been known throughout history as ‘rich man’s disease’ and has been considered a disease of gluttony and drunkenness. As such, it was another frequent tool used by Georgian satirists to critique popular figures. Similarly to venereal disease, Gillray rarely depicted physical symptoms of gout. Instead, Gillray often depicted gout by showing figures with their legs raised, bandaged or obscured. The latter of which is visible in his 1792 satire of the Prince of Wales. In this image, the bottles of Leake’s pills and Velno’s syrup are used to depict the prince as promiscuous, however, this symbolism requires a far more detailed eye. It is this which is prevalent across many of Gillray’s prints. When he is at his most scathing, the political environment its most tumultuous, or his subject the most scandalous, there always sits a small pill bottle somewhere in the frame.

Three figures are seated around a punch bowl, each visually representing a medical condition referred to in the title. The man who represents gout, features many of the visual symbolism Gillray used in representing this condition in his work. The man’s legs are raised, splayed outwards and seemingly bandaged. The man’s right leg is also partially covered by his coat, which drapes over his calf. This became a visual symbol often utilised in Gillray’s work to infer the swelling of legs due to gout, without physically depicting this.
James Gillray, 1799. ‘Punch cures the gout, - the colic, - and the 'tisick'. NPG D12701.

What is most interesting is where and how satirists like Gillray depicted venereal medications. Many of Gillray’s caricatures of George, Prince of Wales, satirised his political and personal escapades. 'A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion', published in 1792, alludes to the regency crisis of the late 1780s and the prince’s perceived ineptitude in matters of government in favour of self-indulgence. Following a period of particular ill health for King George III, discussions in parliament were raised about the necessity of a regency, where Prince George would function as the ‘regent’ for affairs of state. Attempts to pass a Regency Bill were racked with controversy. Political debates surrounding the prince’s powers of authority and his reputation for ‘improper’ behaviour came under further scrutiny. The prince had previously caused controversy for his illegal marriage in 1785 to the catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert, and frequent speculation followed about his many mistresses as he remained single. Furthermore, by the early 1790s, the prince’s reputation was particularly poor. In addition to his relationships, the prince’s spending had led him into considerable debt. His financial situation became so severe parliament granted the prince over £160,000 to settle his debts, equating to over twenty million pounds today. As such, the appearance of venereal cures in the image is likely referring to his rumoured relationships with less than ‘proper’ partners. Gillray’s use of venereal medicines and the inclusion of receipts and bills suggests that the prince was not only indulgent in his spending, but also his relationships, and the implications of this on his supposed ability to lead the country in the event of a regency, is clear.

By 1795, the Prince of Wales had fallen further into debt and remained single. An ultimatum was given by the King, where if the prince married a ‘suitable’ wife, his father would pay off his debts. On the eve of the prince’s marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (his first cousin), Gillray once again satirised the prince’s reputation. Produced in 1795, ‘The Lover’s Dream’ depicts the sleeping prince amongst a dreamscape of other popular figures. The king appears above his sleeping figure clutching a bag with “£150,000 per Ann’ written across, representing the agreed allowance to cover the prince’s expenses and debts on condition of his marriage. His soon-to-be wife reaches towards the prince, with a crown hovering above his head, whilst his mistresses and political opponents look on. Gillray depicts the prince’s choice to marry as representative of his increasing suitability as a political figure. Gillray’s depiction is made clearer by its inclusion of many visual elements which appeared in his earlier satire of the prince. However, Gillray represents the prince as forgoing these previous vices. A barrel and glass of port roll away from the prince, and two jockeys on horseback race out of the frame of the image. Similarly, a bottle of ‘Velno’s syrup’ a notorious venereal treatment is visible. Nevertheless, where Velno’s syrup had sat clearly in the frame atop the prince’s shelf in earlier works of Gillray’s, in this work the venereal treatment lays discarded in a chamber pot beside the bed. Gillray depicts the prince as discarding these vices to pursue his new path, when considering the crown to be laid on his head by his wife in the artwork, a path leading to the throne.

The Prince of Wales, sleeps in bed with a crown floating over his head. Leaning towards the Prince is his future wife Princess Caroline. To the left of the Prince’s bed are the King and Queen, the king holds a money bag which reads ‘£150000 Pr Ann’, representing the money paid to the Prince to clear his debt on condition of his marriage. Other popular figures are fleeing from the Prince’s bedside, representing the Prince’s rejection of his vices, by carrying dice and jockeys. Amongst these figures is the Prince’s mistress Maria Fitzherbert. Below the bed rolls a cask of port, and sits a chamber pot containing a bottle of ‘Velno’s’.
James Gillray, 1795. ‘The Lover's Dream’. BM 1868,0808.6404

What is particularly striking in Gillray’s artwork is how subtly these venereal treatments are used to infer sexual promiscuity. Where Gillray depicts the prince's other ‘vices’-gambling, opulent meals, and alcohol, it is remarkably clear. It is rare to come across a satire of the regent prince that does not feature a grand meal, bottles of port, or a set of dice. Although the cultural depictions of the prince as a glutton and a spendthrift certainly did impact his perceived suitability as a public figure, his sexual exploits remained even more taboo. The nature of the prince’s personal relationships was frequently the object of gossip and speculation in both popular culture, such as satire, and political discussion. After only a year of marriage, the prince and his wife were formally separated, and the prince sought a divorce, which Caroline refused. Subsequently, the prince remained attached to his first and illegitimate wife, Maria Fitzherbet, for the duration of his life, in addition to taking on several high-profile mistresses. Although the prince's cultural identity was largely shaped by his lacklustre reputation, for a caricaturist to physically depict the prince as infected with a venereal illness would likely have proven far too shocking and defamatory. Although many satirical artworks depicted sex workers, brothels, and even venereal hospitals, these images still often did not depict the visceral physical symptoms of venereal infection. As such, although satirical artists, such as Gillray, did seek to push boundaries of taboo, they were still unwilling to depict content of a graphic nature, including disease, nudity and extreme violence. Instead, for caricaturists, venereal treatments became a visual motif for sexual debauchery and infection. The use of a brand name alone is sufficient for those who know the product’s true nature to interpret the critique. The popularity of these products as a visual symbol used by satirists further indicates just how common advertisements for these products became.

Viewing Georgian satirical cartoons is not only of interest to the art historian, but they also provide invaluable insight for the historian of medicine, economics, royalty, politics, sexuality, and many more. Nonetheless, perhaps what they achieve most is allowing for reflection by us, the contemporary viewers. Indeed, all the elements that made graphic satire the exciting and controversial medium it was— sex, inside jokes, political commentary, and a surprising amount of product placement, that still catch our eye today.


Further Reading:

  • Alice Loxton, UPROAR!: Satire, Scandal and Printmakers in Georgian London (London: Icon Books, 2023).

  • Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London (London: Atlantic Books, 2007).

  • Roy Porter, Quacks: Fakers and Charlatans in Medicine (London: NPI Media Group, 2000).

  • David Francis Taylor: The Politics of Parody: A Literary History of Caricature, 1760-1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).


Anya Griffiths (she/her) is a PhD student in History at the University of York focusing on the medical marketplace of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britain. Following the completion of her BSc in Biology and the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester, Anya was funded by the Wellcome Trust to complete a master’s degree in Medical History and Humanities at York. Anya is also a director of SfSSW C.I.C, a research and support organisation for sex workers which is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

LinkedIn: Anya Griffiths


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