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Dissolving the Bonds: Robert Sayer and John Bennett, Print Publishers in an Age of Revolution

This dissertation presents the first study of the British print publishers Robert Sayer (1726–1794) and John Bennett (c. 1745–1787). From 1748 to 1794, the two men ran one of the largest print- and map-publishing businesses in the London. The importance of their firm lay chiefly in its ability to influence the design, production, distribution, and consumption of prints across the British Empire and the European continent. In the 1770s, the publishers issued a series of mezzotints that responded to the conflict in the British colonies in North America. Though intended to be short-lived, one of them—"The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering"—instead became an enduring emblem of the American Revolution. Following this print from its creation, through its transatlantic travels, and into its nineteenth-century afterlives demonstrates that Sayer & Bennett’s publications significantly shaped how British and American viewers understood their changing empires in an age of revolution.

This dissertation argues for the necessity of foregrounding the publishers’ perspective in order to study the aesthetic, political, and social changes that occurred in the print-publishing industry in the second half of the eighteenth century. Arranged in roughly chronological order, each chapter examines Sayer’s priorities in a given decade alongside an aspect of the print-publishing business. Chapter 2 evaluates the audience for prints and the effects of print shops within the London streets. Chapter 3 reconstructs the relationships Sayer formed with the tradesmen he employed, since the significance of any one firm cannot be ascertained without an understanding of the industry as a whole. Chapter 4 returns "Tarring & Feathering" to its original political context to recover how its meaning shifted from specific and local to general and imperial. Chapter 5 posits a study of a visual culture of dissolution by tracing the material histories of the firm’s copper mezzotint plates, whose limited durability amplified their publisher’s tenuous mental stability. Finally, the epilogue investigates how translations across media in the nineteenth century transformed "Tarring & Feathering" into a trigger for cultural memories about national origins and a contested symbol of the dangers of popular democracy.