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History, Law Animal Rights Trial, Antique Print, London, Mid 19th Century


P. Mathews, Stourbridge (after and publisher)
Charles Hunt (engraver)
The Trial of “Bill Burn,” Under Martin’s Act
Ackermann & Co., London: c. 1838-1840s
Hand-colored aquatint
16.5 x 22 inches, image
21 x 25 inches, plate mark
21.5 x 27 inches, overall

An engraving of a fictitious court scene showing a donkey called as a witness against its owner who has been charged with animal cruelty. It relates to the Martin’s Act, a groundbreaking statute enacted in 1822 in Great Britain to protect animals from abuse. The print illustrates a comic song of that period describing the first prosecution under that law. The donkey is shown in the center of the courtroom having dropped the vegetable produce that he was carrying, with a copy of the Martin’s Act behind the donkey’s hind legs. The owner thumbs his nose at the donkey. A crate in the lower left corner — containing the original painting on which the print is based — is identified as “#2 The Lady Lyttleton. Hagley near Stourbridge, Worestershr. Painting keep dry. Per Amateur.” The man leaning on the crate is presumably the artist (a self portrait referring to himself in a humorously self-deprecating way as an amateur). Lady Lyttleton of Hagley Hall is thought to have been the patron for whom the painting was made. As a side note, the original painting was sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in November 2003.

Product description continues below.


A portion of a stanza from the “Comic Song” is printed in the bottom margin:

“Bill’s Donkey Then Was Brought Into Court,
Who Caused of Course a Deal of Sport;
He Cocked His Ears and Op’d His Jaws,
As Tho’ He Meant to Plead His Cause.”

The artist, P. Matthews, gives credit for the song in a broadside shown posted to the wall under the clock in the print: “First Offence! Public Notice. Whereas P. Mathews having been convicted [of] stealing material from a comic song and murdering the subject, craves the pardon of the critics of Hagley Bazaar, Aug. 1838.” In other words, the artist indicates in the print that the illustration is based on the popular comic song of the period about an owner prosecuted under the act for cruelty to his donkey.  This and other historical aspects underlying the print are further explained at length in a scholarly article by Ivan Kreilkamp:

The inauguration of the world’s first organized animal welfare movement can be dated to 1822 or 1824 in London, with the 1822 passing of the “Act to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of Cattle”—subsequently popularly known as Martin’s Act, after its sponsor, the Irish M.P. Richard Martin—and the 1824 founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). This particular moment was a culmination, however, of debates, arguments, and appeals that had steadily intensified throughout the previous century.

[* * *]

For Martin’s Bill to become law, however, it had to pass through what was in effect a final crucible of laughter and ridicule, one that reminds us that the cultural role of “defender of animals” had become widely associated, at this period, with possibly-insane preachers, over-sensitive Evangelicals, and poets. “In the Commons,” one historian reports, “Martin’s bill was greeted with the usual storm of laughter, ridicule, and outraged hostility, as its opponents rose to denounce it. Their arguments had not changed since a decade before;” the “animated debate [was] infused with ridicule, scoffing, and general hilarity (Shevelow 247, 249).  The Times report of the initial, failed 1821 attempt by Martin to present the bill suggests an atmosphere of schoolboy hilarity in the Commons:

Mr. Alderman C. Smith . . . thought that asses should also be protected from the cruelty to which they were so often exposed.  (Laughter.)  The hon. Alderman went on to show the humanity and the necessity of affording protection to asses; but we could not catch the particulars of his remarks, owing to the noise and laughter which prevailed.  He continued by moving an amendment that, after the word “horses” the word “asses” should be inserted.  (Loud laughter followed this amendment, which was considerably increased when it was put by the chairman) (London Times 2 June 1821)

[* * *]

Shortly after the ratification of the Act, a popular comic song was published in London offering a tribute to Richard Martin.  If to ridicule is to “turn into a jest” or joke, this song was, perhaps, the literal jest attached to the “ridiculed” Martin’s Act.  Based on the actual trial of a costermonger who was the first person prosecuted under the Act, it tells the tale of two donkey owners, a kind one (narrating the tale) and a cruel one, Bill, who beats his animal.

Wot makes me mention this this morn,
I seed that cruel chap, Bill Burn—
Whilst he was out a-crying his greens—
His donkey wollop with all his means.
He hit him o’er his head and thighs,
He brought the tears up in my eyes…

Bill’s donkey was ordered into court,
In which he caused a deal of sport;
He cock’d his ears, and ope’d his jaws,
As if he wished to plead his cause.
I prov’d I’d been uncommonly kind,
The ass got a verdict—Bill got fined;
For his worship and I were of one mind,
And he said:

If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go,
D’ye think I’d wollop him?  No, no, no!
But gentle means I’d try, d’ye see,
Because I hate all cruelty.
If all had been like me, in fact,
There ha’ been no occasion for Martin’s Act —
Dumb animals to prevent getting crackt
On the head.     (qtd. in Fairholme and Pain 33-4; also see Brown 18-19)

The song suggests that “if all had been like me,” the Act would have been unnecessary.  But it also seems slyly to allegorize the passing of Martin’s Act itself, with the donkey standing in court “as if he wished to plead his cause” a figure reminiscent of the “asses” on whose behalf Alderman Smith was so exercised: “the ass got a verdict” after all.

Whether more due to Martin’s own personal qualities and legislative skills, or to the slow shift in public consciousness having simply reached a tipping point, Martin had achieved something monumental, a national legislation testifying (if only to a point and provisionally) the legal personhood of certain nonhuman creatures, their standing as legal subjects possessing rights and protections beyond those due to them as possessions.  He did so in part, it would seem, by facing up to and rerouting the quality of ludicrousness, humor, and disbelieving laughter that had always accompanied any efforts to change the standing of animals.  The comic song about the two donkey-owners stands as an apt tribute to Martin’s legislative accomplishment, and even perhaps as a necessary ratification of it, in the way it in effect redirects and redefines the mocking laughter that would greet an animal in the courtroom.  The song now seems to accept an animal’s presence within the space of the law as a given: a cause for humor, yes, but not for “disgust” or a sense of the “prostitution of the dignity” of the court (to draw on language from James Granger’s postscript to his unpopular 1772 sermon).

Sponsored by Member of Parliament Richard Martin of Galway (1754-1834), the Martin’s Act (also known as the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822) outlawed the abuse of farm animals such as cattle, horses and sheep. Martin became a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shortly thereafter. Initially, advocates against animal cruelty had difficulty enforcing the law because magistrates were reluctant to convict offenders. The Martin’s Act was superseded by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1849.

Charles Hunt was a British engraver of horse and sporting subjects active during the 19th century. He came from a family of engravers and was noted for his fine engravings after Pollard, Alken, Herring and other painters working in the genre.

Ackermann & Co. was a prominent British publisher and printseller. The firm was founded by Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1834), publishing as R. Ackermann from 1795 to 1829. Ackermann was born in Germany and came to England in the 1780s. He pioneered lithography in Britain (though frequently working with color-printed etchings and aquatints), and became a leading publisher of fine colorplate books, decorative prints and magazines, as well as sheet music of the Regency period. In 1797, Ackermann relocated the business premises to 101 Strand, which were known by 1798 as “The Repository of Arts,” also the title of a periodical with a large number of prints that he published from 1809 to 1828. As suggested by the full title of the publication, Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics, the subject matter of the Repository was wide ranging. Among the most influential and popular images in the series were studies of Regency decorative arts, interior design and fashion, as well as various city and country views. Ackermann was a major patron of British artists and designers, notably the famous caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), whose works were featured in the famous set of London interiors and exteriors entitled Microcosm of London (R. Ackermann, London, 1808-10). Ackermann also manufactured and sold art supplies. In 1829, Rudolph transferred the business to three of his sons, who traded as Ackermann & Co. from 1829 to 1859. The business continued until the end of the 20th Century, last operating as Arthur Ackermann and Son (with offices in the 20th Century in London, Paris, Chicago and New York).

Condition: Generally very good, recently professionally cleaned and deacidified, with light remaining overall toning and wear, including some very faint browning from original backing.


“About Us.” The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Western Australia, Inc.

Bénézit, E. Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs. France: Librairie Gründ, 1966. Vol. 5, p. 30 (Hunt).

Kreilkamp, Ivan. “The Ass Got a Verdict: Martin’s Act and the Founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1822.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. (2 April 2020).

Maxted, Ian. “The London book trades 1775-1800: a preliminary checklist of members.” Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History. U.K.: Devon Library and Information Services. 24 January 2005. (4 May 2007).

“Rudolph Ackermann.” National Portrait Gallery. May 2007. (4 May 2007).

Sheridan, Patrick J., “Introduction to the History and Ethics of the use of Animals in Science.” The Biomedical Facility, University of California at Davis.

Siltzer, Frank. The Story of British Sporting Prints. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925. p. 166.

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19th Century