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Conception beyond Expression; or The Acme of Pictorial Criticism

  • Object:

    Satirical etching

  • Place of origin:

    London (published)

  • Date:

    1829 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Phillips, John (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Etching, ink on paper, hand-coloured with watercolour

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Miss A. St J. Gray

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 120, The Wolfson Galleries, case 17, shelf DR3

Object Type
This is an etched caricature - a type of print which pokes fun at the folly or foibles of an individual or society. It is printed by means of etching. In etching, the design is marked out by drawing with an etching needle into a thin waxy layer - known as 'the ground' - coating a metal printing plate. The channels drawn into the wax expose the metal beneath. The waxed plate is then dipped in acid, which eats into the metal not protected by 'the ground', and so creates the grooves that hold the ink from which the image is to be printed. Subsequent to that process, this print was coloured in by hand with watercolour paint, ready to catch the public's eye when displayed in a printseller's window.

Subjects Depicted
The caricature satirises exhibition-goers, dressed in the fashion of 1829, in a room at the Royal Academy, London. The walls are packed from skirting board to ceiling with an interlocking arrangement of pictures. In the foreground, a man in dandified dress gestures at one of the pictures, seeking a response from the bluff country gentleman dressed like John Bull (the personification of unsophisticated rural Englishness). This man is unable to express his response to art in any meaningful way - 'Why, I like it; but it wants a kind of - you understand - you see it's a - see there, it wants - the colouring is - a - you see - that is ...'. The caricature ridicules both his painful ignorance and the ludicrous pretentiousness of the surroundings he has found himself in.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, caricature became a social institution, an art form in its own right, and a major vehicle for political and social comment. Its aim was to ridicule and castigate by means of a humorous distortion of the truth. Thanks to the talents of masters of satire such as James Gillray (1756-1815) and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), caricatures became the bestsellers of the day.

Physical description

Satirical etching showing fashionable people attending an art exhibition.

Place of Origin

London (published)


1829 (made)


Phillips, John (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Etching, ink on paper, hand-coloured with watercolour

Marks and inscriptions

Signed 'J. Phillips. fec.'


Height: 19.7 cm inside edge of mount, Width: 18 cm inside edge of mount

Object history note

By John Phillips (active about 1820-1850)

Descriptive line

John Phillips. Conception Beyond Expression; or The Acme of Pictorial Criticism. London, 1829.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design and Department of Paintings, Accessions 1936, London: Board of Education, 1937.

Labels and date

British Galleries:
By the early 19th century newspapers and periodicals were publishing lengthy reviews of art exhibitions. The ability to comment on pictures in public galleries using the proper vocabulary and showing aesthetic discrimination was considered a necessary social skill. Here an exhibition visitor aspires to this but is mocked for being at a loss for the proper words. [27/03/2003]


Printing ink


Etching; Hand-colouring


Prints; Caricatures & Cartoons; Satire; Class; Printmaking techniques; Fashion; Clothing; Men's clothes; Women's clothes


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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