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Historical Art, Martin Act, Animal Rights Trial Scene, Antique Print, mid 19th Century


P. Mathews, Stourbridge (after)
Charles Hunt (engraver)
The Trial of “Bill Burn,” Under Martin’s Act
Ackermann & Co., London: 2nd Quarter 19th C. but after August 1838
Hand-colored aquatint
16.25 x 22 inches, image
19.5 x 23.25 inches, overall

A donkey serves as a witness in a British court against his owner, who has been charged with animal cruelty for burdening the donkey by making n him carry a load of produce. In this satirical scenario of the prosecution of his owner under the landmark Martin’s Act, a statute enacted in Britain in the year this print was made, to protect animals from abuse. Sponsored by Member of Parliament Richard Martin of Galway (1754-1834), the law n focused on farm animals such as cattle, horses and sheep, making it an offense for anyone — including the owner — to abuse, beat or mistreat n these animals. Initially, advocates against animal cruelty had difficulty enforcing the law, as magistrates were reluctant to convict offenders. n The act was passed in 1822 and Martin became a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals two years later.


The original painting sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in November 2003; it probably was originally painted for Lady Lyttleton, Hagley Hall. In this picture, the donkey is in the courtroom, relieved of its burden of baskets of produce, which are on the floor, while the owner thumbs his nose. A copy of the Martin Act bill is on the floor behind the donkey’s hind legs, suggesting that it is “asinine.” The name of “Bill Burn,” given to the donkey’s owner in this print, is a play on what the satirist thinks should be done with Martin’s law.

A “Comic Song” in the bottom margin regarding the print was apparently a parody of another popular comic song of the period “If I’d a Donkey what wouldn’t go:”

“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.”

This is explained in a bill posted to the wall under the clock in the print explaining the inspiration of the artist P. Mathews: “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.”

The man in the lower left corner is leaning on a crate apparently containing the original painting on which the print is based. On the crate is written: “#2 The Lady Lyttleton. Hagley near Stourbridge, Worestershr. Painting keep dry. Per Amateur.” It can be posited that this man leaning on the crate is the artist (a self portrait referring to himself in a humorously self-deprecating way as an amateur), and that Lady Lyttleton was the patron for whom the original painting was made.

Charles Hunt was a British artist.

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 with the usual light toning, soiling, wear, soft creases. Upper and side margins a bit short but ample, with minor short tears (professionally restored) and remnants of tape residue verso.


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

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.

Additional information


19th Century