Friday 11 March 2016


The second and final instalment in our look at two Regency caricature exhibitions, 'High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson' at Queens Gallery, and the British Museum's 'Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon'. The first part looked at their founding role in modern political cartooning. This time let's look at that age of Napoleon.

Those Revolting French

First just a smudge of history...

When the French first rose up, in 1789, British public opinion could often be sympathetic. However, though perhaps counter-intuitively, support for the Revolution didn't necessarily make you a revolutionary. It ranged from the truly radical, most famously expressed by Tom Paine, to the Whig – which blithely assumed things would end up with an English style constitutional monarchy. With Republicanism not considered as much of an option, France was assumed to be merely catching up. Whig leader Fox, for example, essentially took this position.

It can seem bizarre with our hindsight, but comparisons to the English Revolution, where a republic was declared, were made by its decriers. While its supporters preferred comparison to the later Glorious Revolution, where one King replaced another. (Generally 1648, where Roundhead fought Cavalier, was described as the English Civil War despite it actually being a revolution, while 1688 was dubbed the Glorious Revolution despite it being more of a Civil War. Terminology comes ready loaded.)

Yet many were to have their opinions changed by events such as the execution of the King and the Reign of Terror. These combined with domestic pressures, an increasing popular hostility plus greater censorship (called “Pitt's terror” by Fox).

All of which may well have happened to Gillray. In 1790 he produced a print called 'The Triumph of Liberty in the Freeing of the Bastille'. (Unreproduced in the show or companion book, and seemingly nowhere on-line. Perhaps Pitt's forces are still at work.) The same year he published ’France Freedom, Britain Slavery’ (below) in which France’s gains are played up in order to pillory Pitt. Yet notably he's lauding Jacques Necker, the figure carried aloft, whose reformist efforts so came to naught he ended up no more than a footnote to history. (I had to look him up, TBH.)

Then three years later he was back with another split-screen comparison ’French Liberty, British Slavery’ (below). The similar title is this time twisted into irony, the ragged, ravaged onion-chewing Frenchie contrasting with the stout, well-dressed Englishman. (A double for John Bull, if not named as him.) The food metaphor might be potent, for by then an artist's bread was buttered far better on the anti-Revolutionary side. In their guidebook Clayton and O'Connell suggest Gillray's change of heart was also influenced by “an elaborate wooing” involving the “stick” of threatened imprisonment and the “carrot” of a “pension” (read “bung”).

The clincher comes with the later 'L'Insurrection de L'Institut Amphibie' (1799, below). The ostensible target is the scholarly institute the French took with them on their invasion of Egypt. The clueless boffins are unable to harness the crocodiles, their useless books and diagrams littering the ground as they yelp in pain. But of course behind this is a metaphor for the hopelessness of revolution, a fool's errand undertaken only by unworldly intellectuals. Try to meddle with the natural order and you can expect to get bitten by reality. The fleeing figure on the right is dropping a book titled 'The Rights of the Crocodile', a clear parody of Paine's 'The Rights of Man'.

Rowlandson, meanwhile, only required the carrot and was soon hired by the Crown and Anchor Society to produce Royalist propaganda - his own years studying art in Paris quickly forgotten. (Though let's not forget Hogarth had already served up anti French propaganda even before the Revolution, so it was scarcely a stretch.) Formally, 'The Contrast' (1793, below) is another of his mismatched couples – but of quite a different kind, this time good order against foreign and malevolent disorder. English virtues are listed against France's post-Revolutionary failings which include, amusingly enough, madness, cruelty and injustice lined up alongside equality.

And with the caricaturists all enlisted it was time to open fire. Generally, French sympathies only enter the caricature prints negatively, as an object of criticism. (A history of radicalism and republicanism in art of this era lies elsewhere, though I can't imagine where you'd go.) Nevertheless, how that support is engaged with remains significant.

Generally, it is not the radical but the Whig position which is attacked. Supporters are gormlessly braying yes men, Napoleon’s useful idiots, rather than quislings or Jacobin fifth columnists. Perhaps the moneyed audience for the prints was primed to see Pitt and Fox as the full span of the political spectrum. Atop of which, even to engage with more radical opinion might have granted it some form of credence. Notably, this silence coincided with increasing censorship of radical media and suppression of groups. Radicalism wasn’t wrong so much as it was unspeakable.

Isaac Cruikshank's 'Bonne Farte Raising a Southerly Wind’ (1798, below) does show an army welcomed ashore by an English Jacobin. But the image is dominated by Bonaparte literally farting an invasive ill wind across the channel. Fox and his cohorts, standing up on a clifftop separate from the Jacobin, breathe this in - exulting “how fair is this southern breeze”. Useful idiots, too dumb to smell a stench.

The Black Legend of Little Boney

By 1799 Napoleon was already effectively in charge of France, though he wasn’t crowned Emperor for another five years. And after the chaos and bloody feuds of the Terror, his rule was first welcomed as a restoration of order. If you couldn’t have your wished-for constitutional monarchy, then the Napoleonic Code seemed a reasonable substitute. Fear of the mob, of no-one in charge, soon gave way to the fear of someone in charge. By 1803 the Napoleonic wars had started, clearly delineating the sides.

The increased targeting of Napoleon may partly have been down to practicality - satirists taking a gift when it was offered them, a single face to target rather than the bewildering succession of snuff reshuffles that had characterised the Terror. Though it’s notable that, in an era before photography, how his look can vary massively from artist to artist. In Isaac Cruikshank's 'Bounaparte at Rome Giving Audience in State' (1797, below), his first appearance in a political print, he's a louche, lanky long-haired youth, ill-manneredly kicking off the Pope's mitre. 

Later that same year Richard Newton's 'Bounaparte Establishing French Quarters in Italy' ( below), ostensibly depicts the same scene. Yet he's here a chubby brigand, an extra twenty years on him at least, with his square face and improbably curly moustache. And, just to make things more confusing, at times Cruikshank also gives him a moustache! John Bull is depicted much more consistently, and he was entirely fictitious.

Nevertheless, there's a set of tropes we see soon firming up, which are then stuck to fairly rigidly. Let's call this totem by the popular diminutive nickname 'Little Boney' (invented by Gillray), the better to separate what is often called the 'Black Legend' of anti-Napoleon propaganda from the actual historical figure.

First he is given the complex which was retrospectively named after him. He was a tin-pot tyrant who tried to compensate for his diminutive height by becoming the continent’s Dictator. (“They will have to look up to me then”, and so on.) Allegory allowed for this to be taken to extremes, for example in the anonymous 'John Bull Teazed by an Ear-Wig' (1803, below).

There's also a fixation on his Corsican birth, reflected in print titles, such as Gillray's 'The Corsican Beast' (1803) or Rowlandson's 'The Corsican Spider in his Web' (1808). His name is normally spelt in the Italianate fashion, 'Buonaparte', to reinforce this. (Though he'd actually been born just after the island became French.)

Then the reckless ambition that leads to. In Gillray's 'Bounaparte Hearing of Nelson's Victory' (1798) he swaggeringly demands an obelisk inscribed to him as “Conqueror of the World & extirpator of the English Nation”. While Cruikshank's 'Bounaparte! Ambition and Death!' (1814) is captioned “Bounaparte led on by ambition seeks the conquest of the world”, and shows him with a blood-drenched sword upraised at the globe.

And lunatic ambition soon gives way to outright lunacy. Gillray's 'Maniac Ravings' (1803, below) where he seems more beset by his own crazy thoughts and delusions than foreign opposition. They seem to have turned his office over and smashed his globe. (In a nice touch, as they fall his verbalised ravings become the parchments and papers which litter his office.)

But of course foreign opposition is just what happens, and his greatest accomplishment is to unite Europe against him. Prints often show other countries of Europe uniting against him, all previous rivalries forgotten.In for example in Rowlandson's 'The Corsican Tiger At Bay' (1808, below) he and the other nations of Europe are personified as fighting animals. (With only Britain remaining as the familiar human figure of John Bull.)

And so an excess of pride of course leads to a mighty fall. In Rowlandson's 'The Two Kings of Terror' (1813, below) Napoleon is faced off by the skeleton of death. (Presumably the second 'King'.) Its longer limbs are enhanced by it sitting on a gun barrel while he's placed diminutively on a drum. The upraised forearm and lower leg of the skeleton mark the mid-way point, while both it's foot and (behind them) the Allied troops push past the half-way mark. (The background figures are depicted so much more realistically they could almost be sitting before a painting.)

Reminding you of anyone yet? Think nearly a hundred and fifty years later. Like Hitler, Napoleon suffered from a height-based persecution complex manifesting as hubristic ambition, and was prone to fits of gibbering rage. Like Hitler, he wasn’t even from the country he showered in so much nationalistic pride. Like Hitler, in an act of grand folly he succeeded only in uniting everyone against him. Compare for example 'Maniac Ravings' to this Bernard Partridge cartoon from 'Punch'.

Yet of course, beyond the obvious point that they were both involved in expansionist European wars which drew in Britain, Napoleon and Hitler weren't particularly comparable figures. (Perhaps their only other similarity is a negative one - that despite the ceaseless mocking neither was unusually short for his day, with Hitler being taller than Churchill.) The point is that the needs of satire determine he be depicted in a certain way. There's a part written for him to play, whatever the truth of it.

The one big exception is the Corsican angle being attached to a largely invented narrative of lowly origins, painting a picture of a man not born to rule. For example Gillray's 'Democracy, or A Sketch of the Life of Bounaparte' (1800) depicts Napoleon born to “wretched Relatives in their native Poverty... Free Booters”, gnawing on bones, scarcely different to the dogs around them. Later he's shown sitting on a golden throne before “Sychophants and Parasites”. (Shown below with the first two frames enlarged.) This is the era where 'democracy' was a scare word, analogous to 'mob'.

Caricature Cannot Flatter

Let's close on Gillray's classic 'The Plum-Pudding in Danger' (1805, up top), which Martin Rowson has called “the greatest political cartoon ever… almost the type specimen of the medium”. In other words its not just the best we’ve seen yet, it’s the standard by which we judge all the others.

I first saw it in a school history class, and to my young eyes the meaning seemed clear. The two rulers are even divvying up the globe with geographical accuracy. While Napoleon slices into Europe, Pitt forks the Atlantic, suggesting (in the show's words) “colonial empire and a monopoly of seaborne trade”. (Though America itself was independent by then.) This was surely a plague on both houses, an expose of the greed inherent in all rulers. The problem of of the French Revolution wasn't that it had turned to anarchy but precisely that it hadn't. Instead it had produced yet another crowned despot. Napoleon and Pitt are presented as two variants on a theme, Pitt's upturned beak the complement to Napoleon's downturned schnozz.

And yet of course as we've seen Gillray was no anarchist. He led the comfortable life of a Regency gentleman, a situation abetted by regular sales of his work to other Regency gentlemen. But then again art criticism must ultimately be about the artwork. And look again at that print – it is an anarchist image, isn't it? It could adorn an Occupy leaflet today, just with Amazon and Monsanto replacing Pitt and Boney. In fact, if someone hasn't done that already I'll eat Napoleon's hat.

And despite Pitt's carrots and sticks, there was always that tendency. Because to some extent it's there in the form, like a DNA that can't be shaken off. There's a reason, after all, why 'Plum Pudding' became Gillray's most enduring image, and the one with the crocodiles hasn't. And isn't that reason because its so off the leash, so levelling, so even-handedly denunciatory?

Remember when right-wing rentagob David Starkey claimed the riots had happened because kids now spoke street slang innit, rather than the Queen's English dontchaknow? (The infamous “whites have become black” thing.) And of course the priggish little twerp was was being as absurd as he was racist and risible... yet hang on. Racist and risible certainly, but absurd?

How we speak isn't just some see-through container for what we say, like a cellophane wrapper. It imprints content, it frames certain utterances more easily than others. And cartoon and caricature are to art just what that kind of slang is to speech. Caricature can't flatter, so can have no friends in high places. It's a coarse jeer without the words to express respect for power. To misquote Jim Morrison, no-one here gets out unmocked. Anyone who gets placed in the frame gets pushed from his pedestal. The only way to keep away from it's levelling force is to keep outside the frame. But even that doesn’t work, because if you’re not in the picture you’re a nobody. 

Perhaps the bribes these artists received were less payments than payoffs. Like the barbarian warriors of latter-day Rome, you paid them to protect you not from others but from themselves. And remember how that ended up...

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