Dame Britannia's Family. The Spoilt Child Gets All
Department: Decorative Art
Accession Number: 2004.1302
This lithograph is by the artist Tom Merry and was created in 1890. It was published in the St Stephen's Review by The Publishing Company of 21 John Street, London. Its title is, 'Dame Britannia's Family. The Spoilt Child Gets All'.
The scene is composed of Dame Britannia and three male figures, each of which symbolises a different part of Britain. This is reflected by the bib each of the characters is wearing.
The figure draped in the Irish standard is causing chaos, tipping over cups and plates of food that have been offered to him. Dame Britannia (representing the unified Britain) exclaims, 'Drat the Child! The more I give him the worse he gets!'
The boy symbolising England asks, 'Please Mammy if Pat won't have it give Sandy and me some'. The figure representing Scotland complains, 'We are so hungry'. Both have empty plates in front of them.
As suggested in this image, relations between Britain and Ireland were strained during the reign of Queen Victoria. There was considerable social, economic and political unrest in Ireland during the 1800s. The Irish famine occurred from 1845-1850. This was caused by the failure of the potato crop that was a staple of the Irish diet. Over one million people died of starvation. During the famine up to two million people emigrated from Ireland to Britain and the United States.
The situation in Ireland improved for a few decades after the famine. The large scale emigration and low land rents reduced the pressure on the agricultural economy and standards of living became more comfortable. This situation changed in the 1870s. Cheap meat and corn began to be imported from North America in large quantities. This competition drove prices down which proved to be disastrous. Many tenant farmers were evicted by landowners as they could not pay their land rent.
The Land League was formed in 1879 to campaign for the rights of tenant farmers in Ireland. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone, drafted the Land Act in 1881. This was intended to give tenant farmers more rights. Courts were also set up to control land rents.
There are a number of references to the Land Act and other political acts in the image. The cup offered to the Irish diner by Dame Britannia is labelled 'Land Act'. The slices of bread falling from an upturned plate are labelled, 'Land Transfer', 'Land Acts' and 'Church Disestablishment'. This refers to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870. This reduced the land ownership of the church.
The image is very much a product of its time. It reflects the British perception of Ireland in the late 1800s as a place of social unrest despite the political reforms being passed with the aim of easing the situation.
Dame Britannia is serving tea, an important social occasion in Victorian Britain. She is using a teapot typical of the sort made in Sheffield during the mid to late 1800s. Like the example in this image, these teapots often had hand chased decoration of flowers or leaves. Their curving lines give them an organic feel, which is complemented by the fact that they often have a flower finial (or knob) on their lid.
These teapots were often made in Britannia metal, a relatively cheap material similar to pewter. They were sometimes also electroplated to give them an attractive finish. A large number of teapots very similar to the one in this image were made by the firm James Dixon & Sons. A large teapot with chased decoration retailed at 36 shillings. A plain version cost 29 shillings. Matching coffee pots, cream jugs and sugar basins were available.
This work forms part of the Bill Brown Collection. Supported by The Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Friends of Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust.