I find myself these days full of feelings of dissent and resistance but looking for more whimsical ways to express the same, as you can’t be strident all the time. It’s boring, and exhausting. So a flashing reference caught my attention, to a dinner party in Baltimore in February of 1777 attended by two of the most strident people in history: John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. The next day, John noted in his diary [II, 434]: Last evening I supped with my friends, Dr. Rush and Mr. Sargeant, at Mrs. Page’s, over the bridge. The two Colonel Lees, Dr. Wisherspoon, Mr. Adams, Mr. Gerry, Dr. Brownson, made the company. They have a fashion, in this town, of reversing the picture of King George III in such families as have it. One of these topsy-turvy kings was hung up in the room where we supped, and under it were written these lines, by Mr. Throop, as we are told: Behold the man, who had it in his power/ To make a kingdom tremble and adore, Intoxicate with folly. See his head Placed where the meanest of his subjects tread. Like Lucier, the giddy tyrant fell; He lifts his heal to Heaven, but points his head to Hell.

George III

King George III by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, National Trust, Uppark

Well I like this “fashion”, and can certainly think of one or two people I’d like to turn upside down at the moment. I’m sure we all can. Apologies to my British friends: I couldn’t find an image of a Baltimore dining room with a topsy-turvy portrait of King George, so I simply turned him upside down myself. But we must note that like so many of their revolutionary sensibilities, the new Americans were simply following a British example: in this case the “world turned upside down” sentiments of the English Revolution in the previous century. The leader of that revolution, Oliver Cromwell, was himself turned upside down when an Indian monarchist of the Victorian era purchased his portrait and displayed it topsy-turvy in a delayed protest of the regicide: the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery followed suit when it acquired the portrait, and Tate Britain when it exhibited it. Another topsy-turvy ruler is Philip V of Spain, whose portrait is traditionally upended in the Almodí Museum in Xàtiva, in retribution for the burning of the city at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Topsy Turvy Tate cromwell_for_web_0

Robert Walker (in the style of), Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

Topsy Turvy King 2

The first Bourbon King of Spain, Philip V.

Later in the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the upside-down, topsy-turvy motif was mostly used in a satirical or critical way, the point having been established: “it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head” (in the words of my favorite queen, Elizabeth I, to make up for turning George III upside down) or something’s not right here. There was also a two-sides-of-the-same-coin message in some topsy-turvy images, as well as a general sense of we’re being tossed about/PLAYED. That’s how I feel.

topsy turvy collage

TOpsy Turvy Economy 1979 Jean-Michel Folon Smithsonian NPGTopsy-turvy “Talons” Kaiser Wilhelm I and Emperor Napoleon III, 1878, Victoria & Albert Museum; the Topsy-turvy Economy, 1978, Jean Michel Folon, Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery.

9 responses to “Topsy-Turvy

  • Donnalee

    Like in tarot cards, where the cards reversed can mean either the opposite or a most emphatic repetition of the upright–so a ruler upside down might be so negligible as to hardly exist, or may be a giant elephant in the room.


    • daseger

      Thanks, Donalee—I’ve got to look into the context of that Wilhelm/Napoleon image a bit more, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Donnalee

        I just sort of connected the ideas in a rather random way, so you can make up anything you want. Tarot cards reversed have many other meanings, so pretty much anything would work somehow depending on context…as an aside, Mary Greer has the very best book on tarot reversals, so anyone into the subject might really enjoy looking through it.


  • lifeinkarolingston

    I like upside-down idea 😊


  • Brian Bixby

    There’s another tradition of criticizing overbearing Presidents as kings. I don’t know how many were so drawn in cartoons, but the one of Andrew Jackson (gee, and whose favorite President is he?) comes to mind:


  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Interesting piece. I always enjoy reading about the observations of John Adams.

    You also mentioned, “The leader of that revolution, Oliver Cromwell, was himself turned upside down … and displayed it [the portrait] topsy-turvy in a delayed protest of the regicide.”

    Regicide was not his only crime. I grew up in an Irish household where just the mention of Oliver Cromwell sent shivers up my spine for his deeds in Ireland 300+ years before. My dear mother would say, “He drove the Irish to the sea,” and “To hell or Connaught.”

    I still have pause when I pass his statue near the grounds of Parliament…


    • daseger

      Cromwell is such a divisive figure—I certainly can understand how anyone with Irish blood could detest him. I detest Charles I so much that I see him in a BIT more of a favorable light, but only towards the beginning of his career…


  • Helen Breen

    Hi again Donna, since you mentioned Charles I, I would like to suggest a book to your readers – KILLERS OF THE KING, THE MEN WHO DARED TO EXECUTE CHARLES I by Charles Earl Spencer (aka Princess Diana’s younger brother). It was pretty gruesome the lengths that Charles II and Co. went to seek vengeance for this regicide. The chase went across the pond to some locales in New England near here if I remember correctly.

    I heard Spencer discuss this book at the Boston Athenaeum a few years back – quite a handsome and charming fellow…


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