James Gillray is, as regular visitors to the salon well know, something of a hero of mine. In his work one is transported back into the Georgian era but not the fine world conjured by the great portraitists and landscape artists, rather a somewhat more bawdy, earthy version of the long 18th century. In Gillray's works one can hear the bustle of the streets, see the people who hid beneath the wigs and panniers and smell the odours of the great Georgian city of London.
The work that has caught my eye today is The Whore's Last Shift, a work completed in February 1779. It is, to my mind, one of Gillray's finest pieces and presents a starkly honest look at the life of one of those infamous Covent Garden ladies so associated with the pleasure houses of the long 18th century.
From the neck up the lady conjures up nothing but fashion. She wears her hair in an elaborate style, adorned with decoration and plumage that would no doubt make this particular lady most eye-catching as she promenades. The rest of the picture tells a somewhat different story, one that is borne out by the title and sad circumstances of the lady at the centre of the etching.
The woman is washing her last shift in a cracked chamber pot, itself balanced somewhat precariously on a broken chair. Naked save for her badly-holed stockings and garters she concentrates on her lonely task in a room that does not speak of success and extravagance, but of poverty and misery.
Her bright frock and hat are cast aside though in considerably better condition than the rumpled bed or peeling plaster on the walls. A furious cat howls on the window ledge, a far cry from Hogath's faithful pug, and she has decorated her room with a broadside ballad ironically titled, "The comforts of Single Life. An Old Song".
Gillray does not seek to make a judgement about the woman's place in the world nor her circumstances, but instead presents the scene and invites the viewer to make their own conclusions. There is no moral conclusion here but instead a hundred different stories and scenes.
The one thing we can be sure of is that, once she is swathed in her gown, fashionable hair towering over her, this unfortunate lady would cut a far finer figure. Gillray has afforded us a glimpse beneath the petticoats of this particular lady, and it is a sorry story indeed.