Figure 6: Lord North
Given the shortcuts publishers of pictorial histories felt constrained to make in their illustrative material, success in conveying adequately the historical significance of historical figures depended largely on the degree to which visual representations of them had fixed themselves in the popular mind. Readers demanded some recognizable features in the pictorial representations of their heroes. The limitations of woodcut technology made it difficult for illustrators and engravers like Croome and Devereux to satisfy this need for discernible profiles, and in the case of historical figures without certified visual identities, failures of artistic execution were often fatal to reputations. Although the crude reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington probably contained enough recognizable points of reference to achieve its desired heroic effect, a decidedly unflattering portrait of Lord North by Devereux almost certainly did not. [Image 26] The deficiencies evident in the illustration may not be attributable wholly to a failure of technique, of course; one could view North’s portrait as intentionally comic in the best tradition of sardonic political cartoonists such as Hogarth. But no other portrait in Frost’s volumes assumes such a tone, and Frost’s literary portrait of North is more charitable than satirical intentions would allow. In Frost’s narrative the British prime minister is described as a misguided but respectable opponent to the revolutionary cause. Whether the result of a failure of technique or a deliberate social commentary, the unflattering portrait did little to improve North’s reputation with readers. In the case of North the absence of a fixed visual image in the public mind with which to overcome Devereux’s uncomplimentary depiction left the prime minister vulnerable to visual misinterpretation in ways that Washington’s was not.