His original talent... for the humorous department of the graphic art was well known. He was an honorary exhibitor at Somerset House for many years, where his scenes of humour at Bartholomew Fair, and village fêtes abounding with character, often amused the public. He... designed with a whimsicality of appropriation, that Gillray, or even George Cruikshank himself, might have envied.
- Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, 1830, Vol. 1, p.274.
John Nixon was born in the summer of 1755, the oldest of four sons of the City merchant Robert Nixon and his wife Lucretia. Little is known about his formative years or his origins artist but it seems reasonable to assume that, like most young men from his background, he would have received some formal instruction in art as part of his education and that he may have entertained some hopes of pursuing a career as an artist. He entered the Royal Academy sometime around 1779-1780 and by 1781 had achieved the distinction of having his work exhibited. He has also become active in the London print trade around this time and by 1779 a number of his designs for caricatures had been engraved and published by notable London print shops.
Nixon was a committed artist who practiced his craft assiduously but his work with pen and brush was always characterised more by enthusiasm than by technical skill. In 1783 or 1784 it would appear as though any hopes Nixon may have had of becoming a professional artist were finally relinquished when he and his younger brother Richard set themselves up as Irish factors and began trading from premises located at 4 Cateaton Street in the City. The business flourished and within a few years the Nixon brothers were able to purchase a large set of warehouses on nearby Basinghall Street. The upper story of this building was then converted into a handsome set of rooms from which the two Nixon brothers, who would remain lifelong bachelors, could entertain their large circle of friends and business acquaintances. Entertaining appears to have come naturally to John Nixon. He was a gregarious, fun-loving, fellow who made friends easily and used his fortune to maintain a lavish table and a well-stocked wine cellar. Henry Angelo, who was to become of his closest friends, fondly recalled that even intimate dinners at Nixon's apartments would involve at least a dozen guests, several courses and numerous bottles of good wine. Wealth also allowed Nixon to continue to indulge in his passion for art and he was undertake several drawing and painting holidays during his lifetime, visiting places like Bath, Brighton and even Paris during the short-lived peace of 1814-15.
Nixon's interest in the arts was also reflected in the company he kept and by the time he reached his early thirties he had collected a close-knit group of friends about him that included Thomas Rowlandson; Henry Angelo; the actor Jack Bannister; the controversial poet John Wolcot; the famous mezzotinter John Raphael Smith; and the well-known art collector Mathew Michell. It is likely that Nixon and Rowlandson first became acquainted whilst they were studying at the Royal Academy. They presumably bonded over a mutual interest in landscape art (both men submitted similar views of the Serpentine River for the Academy's 1784 exhibition) as well as a shared interest in gambling, the theatre and of course, caricature. Indeed, the friendship seems to have blossomed into a creative partnership within relatively short-order, as the first of many prints to appear carrying both their names was published on 1st November 1784.
|Nixon & Rowlandson, New Invented Elastic Breeches, 1784|
It seems likely that Nixon also became acquainted with James Gillray around this time. Both men were active in the Royal Academy during the late 1770s and ealry 1780s and Gillray is thought to have engraved at least one caricature by Nixon for William Humphrey in December 1779 . There is however no evidence to suggest that they became friends and indeed this is perhaps not surprising when one compares the jovial, good humored, personality on display Nixon's work with the dark and acerbic nature of Gillray's output.
Although Nixon's career as an amateur caricaturist was to cover a period of almost thirty years, the bulk of the prints which carry his name were produced during the 1780s and early 1790s. These were years in which London's print shops experienced something of a boom and the increased consumption of graphic satire inevitably pushed up demand for the services of talented amateurs like John Nixon. The number of newspaper adverts which appeared in the London press during the late 1770s and early 1780s, encouraging members of the public to come forward with ideas for new caricatures, suggests that the free labour and access to fashionable tittle-tattle provided by amateurs was vital to the success of many print shops and the middling and lower end of the market.
Nixon was primarily a social satirist and an analysis of the prints held in the British Museum collection would suggest that caricatures focusing on subjects at the more innocuous end of the satirical canon - fashion, the professions, country folk in London etc., - accounted for roughly two-thirds of his total output. The law and legal profession seems to have been one of the few coherent themes to reoccur in Nixon's social satires and he was also to produce a number of designs depicting real or imagined courtroom scenes. These prints demonstrate a close adherence to the eighteenth century satirical convention of presenting members of the legal profession as greedy, corrupt or hypocritical and the 1794 print The Bosky Magistrate, which was designed by Nixon and engraved by J.C. Ziegler for William Holland in 1794, provides a perfect example of the representation of justice in Nixon's caricatures. Here we can see a remorseful young man being brought before a country magistrate on a charge relating to some indiscretion with a beautiful young lady. The image of the accused, whose sober dress and crestfallen appearance is the very image of contrition, stands in stark contrast with that of the drunken, leering, magistrate, who presides over a courtroom that is littered with images of Bacchanalian excess.
|Nixon & Ziegler, The Bosky Magistrate, 1796|
However, we should be careful not to see images such as this as evidence that Nixon was trying to impart a particular moral, or even political, judgement. Hostile depictions of clergymen, doctors and lawyers had been a been a feature of English satire since the early 1700s and the audience for such images would have understood and viewed them in a purely ephemeral and humorous context. Indeed, the writer John Brown noted that such expressions of ridicule were an essential feature of the social fabric of eighteenth century Britain:
For in fact, do not we see every different Party and Association of Men despising and deriding each other according to their various Manner of Thought, Speech and Action? Does not the Courtier deride the Fox-hunter, and the Fox-hunter the Courtier? What is more ridiculous to a Beau, than a Philosopher: to a Philosopher than a Beau? Drunkards are the jest of sober men, and sober men of Drunkards. Physicians, Lawyers, Soldiers, Priests and Freethinkers are standing subjects of ridicule to one another... What superior Airs of Mirth and Gayety [sic] may be seen in a Club of Citizens, passing Judgement on the Scotch... whilst at the other End of the Town, the stream of ridicule runs as strong on the manners on the manners and dialect of the Exchange...
- Essays on the Characteristics, 1755, pp. 48 - 54.
It therefore seems possible that, far from attacking the legal profession, prints such as Nixon's were often consumed by members of the very professions which were being depicted and they may even have provided Nixon and other caricaturists with information and hints for their designs. For example, the 1779 print The Magisterial Bruisers depicts a drunken brawl which took place between the Lord Mayor and the magistrate William Plomer in backroom of the Old Bailey. The incident does not appear to have been widely reported in London's press prior to the print's publication and this leads us towards the conclusion that a report of the event may have been passed to Nixon by someone who was present.
|Nixon & Humphrey, The Magisterial Bruisers, 1779|
In tone and manner Nixon's prints can often be compared with those of Thomas Rowlandson. An engraving style based upon the use of precise lines, banks of tight hatching and fondness for dot and stipple is certainly suggestive of Rowlandson's influence, as is the repeated depiction of humorous scenes connected with travel through the provinces and the conviviality of London's nightlife. Nixon's work never quite takes off in the same way as Rowlandson's though and he often seems to have favoured a more conventional, set-piece, style in which the printed image is dominated by just the principle figures of a particular design. His depiction of the crowd for example, is notably more sparing and less enthusiastic than Rowlandson's and whereas Rowlandson's crowds jostle for space with the protagonists in a print, Nixon's remain firmly relegated to a background role as amused spectators. They are the visual equivalent of canned laughter.
|Nixon, How to Avoid the Horse Duty, 1784|
The first political prints carrying Nixon's name appeared in the closing years of the American War of Independence and their rough handling of ministers who were perceived to be sympathetic to the King suggests that at this point in his life, Nixon was a supporter of the Patriot wing of the Whig party. In 1781 the print An Electioneering Procession from the M-n House to the G-d Hall was produced in an apparent attempt to bolster support for the Patriot candidate running for election in the City of London and in a print published the following year, titled Raising the Royal George, Nixon has Fox and Wilkes watching dispassionately as Lord Shelburne struggles to resurrect the political influence of a foundering King George III. Nixon's interest in political subjects seems to have waned in the immediate aftermath of the hotly contested Westminster election of 1784 and remained dormant until the summer of 1789 when a number of prints carrying his initials were published by the West End print shop of William Holland. Ban-yan Day on Board the Magnificent and Royal Dipping both suggest that Nixon's dislike of George III and eagerness to denigrate royal authority remained undiminished. The latter print in particular remains notable as being one of the few caricatures of the period to overtly hint at the King's madness by showing him the shaven hairstyle of the lunatic who had been confined to Bedlam. During 1791 he also offered S.W. Fores a number of designs which suggest he was an enthusiastic supporter of the first revolutionary upheavals to occur in France. In Le Gourmand, heavy birds fly slow. Delay breeds danger. A scene at Varennes June 21 1791 for example Nixon is surprisingly unsympathetic, even cruel, in its handling of the French royal family's unsuccessful attempt to flee Paris and seek shelter on Austrian soil. The escape attempt might have been successful, Nixon suggests, had it not been for the King's weight; the Queen's vanity; and the sickly disposition of the weakling Dauphin. The Wrangling Friends or Opposition in Danger, published in October the same year, also provides confirmation of the Nixon aligned himself with the Foxites when the Whig Party finally ruptured over the issue of whether to continue supporting the revolutionaries in France.
|Nixon & Cruikshank, Le Gourmand, heavy birds fly slow..., 1791|
|Nixon & Wells, Tria Juncta in Uno [Three Become One], 1780|
The content of Nixon's caricatures perhaps offers us one possible explanation for this sudden and apparently sincere conversion to the cause of conservatism. For all the expressions of support for Fox, Wilkes and the enemies of royal influence, which one can find in Nixon's earlier political satires, he had still produced prints which violently condemned the Dutch decision to enter war against Britain in 1780 and in 1790 he designed the triumphalist The English Ambassador and His Suite Before the King at Madrid as a response to criticism of the hardline policy Britain adopted towards Spain during the Nootka Sound crisis. Images such as these suggest that Nixon's loyalty to the Whigs was always tempered by a strong streak of patriotism and that, in the aftermath of the outbreak of war with France, he chose to disassociate himself from a Foxite faction that seemed to be sympathetic to Britain's enemies. We should also not overlook the fact that Nixon's wealth and status as a merchant and property holder of some consequence, would have always made him an unlikely supporter of the extreme levelling direction that was taken by the French revolutionaries after 1792.
Nixon was to give public expression to his newfound conservatism in the summer of 1793, when he wrote to the John Reeves with the suggestion for a new caricature that he hoped would counteract the efforts of English radicals to "spread... discontents... over every part of this Kingdom". The print's purpose, he wrote, was educational and it was "intended for the beer houses & other Places of Resort of the People in Trade". Acknowledging that his own skills as an engraver were probably insufficient for the complex design that he had in mind, he also suggested that "Mr Rowlandson... will do it more justice than anyone I know, & if it meet your approbations will set about it immediately". The finished print, titled French Liberty and published by the Association at some point during July 1793, was arguably Nixon's most accomplished political caricature.
|Nixon & Rowlandson, French Liberty, 1793|
Nixon seems to have withdrawn from political satire again in the years immediately following the outbreak of war with France. His name continued to appear on new caricatures but these dealt exclusively with lighthearted, humorous subjects and were usually produced with the aid of a professional engraver, suggesting Nixon's gradual withdrawal from the print-making process. It's possible that the events of 1792-3 left him disillusioned with politics, although if that was the case then it's heartening to note that they do not appear to have impacted on his personal life as he continued to produce caricatures for the publisher William Holland, even after Holland was jailed for a year for selling banned copies of Tom Paine's The Rights of Man. Alternatively, a more straightforward explanation might lay in the fact that Nixon's business interests and a newly acquired 90 acre country estate in Essex, occupied an increasing amount of his time.
The British Museum collection contains only eight satires by Nixon which were published after 1800, including most notably a pair of new political designs that we issued following the resumption of war with France in 1803. Nixon continued to paint however and many of his paintings from this period suggest that his fondness for depictions of moments of human drama would remain with him throughout his life.
|Nixon, Untitled watercolour scene of a monk attacking a young lady, 1812|
1. The print was titled Politeness and published by Humphrey on 1st December 1779. The entry in the British Museum Catalogue suggests that the design was either engraved by Gillray after an original drawing by Nixon, or that Gillray deliberately misappropriated Nixon's initials in order to boost sales of the print (as he would go to do with James Sayers in the early 1780s).