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“not a still life but a rebus” 

Rhian Addison McCreanor

It is unsurprising that nothing survives of George Morland’s (1763–1804) studios as he was known at as many as thirty-two addresses within the span of the thirty years of his working life. However, the artist’s equipment was uniquely captured in a coloured mezzotint, Morland’s Emblematical Palette. 

A traditional wooden palette lies on a peach surface. The bird’s-eye perspective is contradicted by the objects sat upon the palette: a short-stemmed wine glass, two pipes and two pieces of chalk. A ‘Virginia’ tobacco box or ticket declares this is not a still life but a rebus, a visual and word puzzle popular in the eighteenth century, which Morland used in his own letters. The term ‘emblematical’ in the printed title confirms that we can analyse the mezzotint as a construction for the nineteenth-century viewer. The glass and pipes allude to Morland’s socialising and feature in his self-portraits; while also having a practical application as pipe chalk and the chalk pieces could be used for underdrawing. Thirteen colours span the top edge of the palette, with three areas of mixing below. The mint green in the centre bears a resemblance to the shape of the British Isles, while the crossing pipes and chalk echo an ‘X’ marking a spot – as a rebus, perhaps the creator was declaring Morland’s status as a British painter. Morland’s supposed signature, certainly not in his hand, features below the row of colours.

The mezzotint was engraved and published by landscape artists Samuel William Reynolds (1773–1835) and John Linnell (1792–1882) in 1806, a little over a year after Morland’s death. The lettering explains that Reynolds engraved the work directly from an original palette decorated by Morland. In early 1800, Morland moved to Lambeth Road, opposite tea gardens where he purportedly met other artists and declared the creation of an artists’ club, the ‘Knights of the Palette’. His former student, William Collins (1788–1847) described how Morland took a palette ‘and painted a bottle and glass, cross pipes […] and then set it round with colours’. If Morland did paint three-dimensional objects on a wooden palette, this accounts for the awkward perspective in the mezzotint, which is seemingly a copy of a trompe l’œil. Morland nailed the palette to the ceiling under which each knight would drink to their founder. Linnell and Reynolds included Collins’ account in the title plate, along with an epitaph penned by the biographer.

Thomas Gaugain after George Morland, Portrait of the artist after a self-portrait, 1804, etching, 45.4 x 52.2 cm. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum (1873,0510.2614)

Is this Morland’s rebus or Reynolds’ and Linnell’s? Regardless, this mezzotint made Morland’s posthumous identity synonymous with the palette. In an etching after a self-portrait,[1] Morland sits outside an inn without any equipment, his identity confirmed by a palette hanging behind him bearing his signature, while a miniature of the Emblematical Palette features in the title plate. Rather than qualifying his status as an artist by depicting himself in studio interior, Morland and his followers chose settings which reflected his oeuvre and used the palette to authenticate it as his working space. Morland’s physical palette moved from studio to studio, was affixed to a ceiling, only to became portable again when translated into print.

February 2024


[1] British Museum 1873,0510.2614.

Further reading 

Addison McCreanor, Rhian, ‘George Morland’, in Landscape Artists’ Studios in London, 1780–1850. University of York, unpublished PhD thesis.

Collins, William, Memoirs of a Painter: Being a Genuine Biographical Sketch of That Celebrated and Eccentric Genius, The Late Mr. George Morland, II. London: Printed by C. Stower for H.D. Symonds, 1805, 116–18. Accessible here, https://tinyurl.com/3tfhpp9u.

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