28 December 2012
A Christmas Greeting from the Debtors Prison
We all know how much Christmas can put a strain on the purse strings, the urge to make this year the 'Best Christmas Ever', but in this series of satirical prints by James Gillray (published 1830), poor old Farmer Giles has taken it all too far! He sits, on the Christmas of 1829, in the dark and dingy cell of a debtor's prison, where those unable to pay their bills were sent. You can find out more about Birmingham's own debtor's prison on the High Street here. Around Farmer Giles you can see the bills piled up, an empty bottle, and in his hand he holds a letter that informs him that his children have all been sent to the workhouse. But life was not always like this for the Giles family, this print is fourth in a set of four, and although the third print is missing, the first two show how Giles got himself and his family in this position.
Christmas in 1800 was typical of what you might expect of a well-to-do farmer's family, with everyone tucked around the kitchen table, the children, with a stool on the floor, all eating heartily and being merry. Even the dog is in on the Christmas feast.
The Christmas of 1809 was a much grander affair, now within the drawing room with a servant who is bringing in festive tipples, but the dog is not quite so content- no scraps off the table this year. Farmer Giles shows off his daughter's musical talents which she has learnt at school. Learning away from home, especially for girls, was a flamboyant sign of wealth. The family seem hearty and rosy cheeked, yet the guests seem not to be enjoying themselves quite so much...the pretences are perhaps not impressing them as much as the Giles's would like.
The 1819 print is missing from the set, so we can only imagine how much further Farmer Giles has taken his Christmas spending.
Let's hope that you're Christmas spending hasn't left you in quite such a state, and have had a wonderful festive season.