Grey Room

Trompe L’oeil and Financial Risk in the Age of Paper

Maggie Cao

Carrington Bowles (publisher). The Bubblers Medley, or a Sketch of the Times: Being Europe’s Memorial for the Year 1720, 1721. Engraving. © Trustees of the British Museum.


Three hundred years ago, in the summer of 1720, the bursting of the South Sea Bubble marked the first recorded stock market crash. The ensuing financial crisis provided great fodder for the British satirical press, which took to caricaturing both the company’s gullible victims and manipulative executives. Among the rich material trove of that historical moment are a pair of prints published by the London shop of John Bowles and Carington Bowles. Titled The Bubblers Medley, or A Sketch of the Times: Being Europe’s Memorial for the Year 1720, the prints depict a scattered array of paper artifacts in collage-like, random fashion. Sheets overlap and furl on the edges, creating a trompe l’oeil effect that encourages viewers to misread the artwork as a collection of the actual ephemera it represents.

Trompe l’oeil–style prints like these, also called medley prints, developed in 1700s London, and in the century that followed they enjoyed episodic popularity, often at moments of fiscal uncertainty. As Mark Hallett argues, this print type, like other satirical images referencing public discourses and debates, was meant to be read as well as viewed. The prints used the conceit of illusionism—a literal “fooling the eye”—to bring political and economic deceptions to the fore.