"Mrs. Clarke is the Text." A Sermon Preach'd Before Royalty by the Rev.d Mr. O(mare)a
London: [N.P.], 1 April 1809.
London: [N.P.], 1 April 1809. First edition. Engraving and letterpress rebus on one sheet printed to recto only, measuring 300 x 250mm. A very nearly Fine example, with small spot to lower margin not affecting text and minor toning to edges. A scarce visual satire on the notorious courtesan Mary Anne Clarke and her political influence, OCLC records two hardcopies with libraries; the British Museum documents its own copy separately, accompanied by a translation of the rebus.
The infamous case of Mrs. Mary Anne Clark marks a distinct shift in cultural attitudes toward courtesans. During the 18th century rise of this class of women often called "The Great Impures" or "Toasts of the Town," courtesans were glamorous celebrities "engaged in complex relationships with aristocratic women" insofar as they were often acquaintances or friends; in both popular representations and in their own memoirs, these courtesans "appeared in opposition to the domestic ideal of middle-class femininity and her associated virtues of privacy, modesty, and chastity" (Culley). The individual and collective power of the Great Impures was economic (as they charged a high premium), social (as their presence was highly desirable at theatres and parties), and political (particularly as they engaged with members of the elite classes).
But as the 18th century gave way to 19th century conservatism, "the way such women's roles were publicly presented shifted, with courtesans seen less as social leaders than as immoral characters and political liabilities" (McCreery). In particular, as the English warred against Napoleon, there was a call to define Britishness as morally superior in contrast to the loose and licentious French. Clarke's situation is key example of this. Involved with the Duke of York from 1803 to 1806, Clarke became a political target in 1809 "when the Duke was charged with corruption for promoting officers from whom Clarke had allegedly taken bribes" (National Portrait Gallery). Both parties were dragged into the press and the courts as the public demanded a kind of exposure of vice in the upper classes; and the Duke ultimately renounced and accused Clarke in order to rescue himself. Clarke's public downfall was a notable but not an isolated incident, as the Great Impures began to fade and a more underground and gritty sex trade became the wider trend.
The present piece gives us a glimpse into contemporary attitudes towards Clarke, focusing on her paid assistance to the Rev. Barry O'Meara. Here depicted at the bedside between a lounging Duke of York and a ranting O'Meara, she is the intermediary between a representative of the state and one of the Church of England seeking greater profit and position. According to the British Museum translation, the Reverend calls upon "O dearest Angel, Mrs. Clarke" to intercede and encourage the Duke to provide him "a Bishopric; or, if it be more agreeable, let me be immediately made a Dean," naming her "the only Great Giver of Places in Church and State." By the end, it is clear, however, that profit is a concern on all sides, as he concludes "When I become great, you shall have the Money I promised." As the events of 1809 folded, a number of satirical engravings depicted O'Meara and Clarke's exchange. (Item #5539)