By Colin Jones (Guest Contributor)
Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’ (1792) shows the startling transformation of an ululating, toothless old harridan (in the top right of the image) into the coyest and smiliest young miss (bottom left). This savagely humorous image was – ironically no doubt – ‘dedicated with respect to the Hon.ble Lady Archer’. Lady Sarah Archer was one of London’s fast set which was notorious for their gambling habits. Rowlandson was thus reflecting the values of the growing campaign at this time targeting gambling as a solvent of aristocratic solvency and morals. A gender issue was also at play: the domestic ideology then emergent held that women belonged not at the gaming table but at the hearth.
But there is a French influence here too which has escaped detection. Rowlandson was a regular visitor to Paris. On his most recent prior visit there in 1787, he is likely to have seen the ‘Self-Portrait’ that Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun displayed at the Louvre that year. The smiling portrait shocked connoisseurs within French high society and created quite a stir. Portraying a respectable woman opening her mouth to smile while revealing white teeth broke every rule in Western art’s book of convention. Rowlandson may well have been similarly critical. British travellers to eighteenth-century Paris noted (and often bemoaned) a propensity to smile as a national characteristic of the French. And indeed, examined closely, the woman in the ultimate stage of Rowlandson’s transformation scene bears a more than passing ressemblance to the Vigée Le Brun painting. Smile, teeth, tilt of the head, big hair, vaguely oriental headgear, graciously-draped left forearm – all suggests a deliberate satire of a notorious image.
One wonders too whether in his stay in Paris in 1787, Rowlandson also got to hear of the experiments being undertaken by Nicolas Dubois de Chémant to create the world’s first porcelain dentures? Marketed from 1788, they crossed the Channel, and by 1792, when Rowlandson composed his print, were on sale in London, from Dubois’s Soho outlet. Were the denture-set that ‘Miss Archer’ was inserting into her aristocratic mouth one of Dubois de Chémant’s finest? Beneath the anti-aristocratic and gendered politics of the image – produced just as France were embarking on the revolutionary Wars – there lurks a Francophobia that was a distinguishing feature of the Golden Age of British Caricature.
Colin Jones is Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London. His latest book, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris, was published by Oxford University Press.