Enamel snuff box and cover, painted with the seated figure of John Wilkes

Birmingham, England, around AD 1770

The champion of parliamentary liberty and freedom of the press

John Wilkes (1727-97) is often called the founder of radicalism. He fought for freedom of the press to criticize ministers and report proceedings in Parliament, for security from arbitrary arrest and seizure of property, and for the rights of electors. Wilke's continuing challenges to government authority, even after he became a Member of Parliament in 1761, ensure that he never enjoyed ministerial office in the Whig government. He established a newspaper, the North Briton in 1762, which he used to launch bitter attacks on his political enemies. A parliamentary edition of the paper, No. 45, was published on 23 April 1763, and brought upon him the charge of seditious libel against the monarch, George III. Wilkes was arrested and expelled from the House of Commons. He made several spirited attempts from 1768 to 1774 to re-establish himself as a Member of Parliament, rousing storms of protest against the government. The cause of 'Wilkes and Liberty' rallied enormous support and sympathy throughout the country. Tokens, badges and brooches were produced in quantity, as was commemorative pottery and porcelain. The British Museum has a several items associated with Wilkes.

Birmingham was the main centre for the production of such small objects as enamel boxes, scent-bottles, plaques and candlesticks. The piece, made of copper, was coated in a thick white enamel using one of several different processes. It could then be painted, either free hand or following transfer-printed decoration.

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More information


, Wilkes and liberty, an exhibit (London, British Museum, 1969)

P.D.G. Thomas, John Wilkes, a friend to liber (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996)


Length: 7.100 cm
Width: 5.600 cm

Museum number

M&ME 1895,5-21,21


Gift of Sir A.W. Franks


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