The satirical cartoons of James Gillray were renowned in their day. Their electric colours, surreal imagery and scorning wit provided biting commentary to rival the most callous political tract, broadside, song or speech.
Displayed in the window of Hannah Humphreys’ print shop, fights would break out to see the latest work. An émigré wrote in 1802,
‘The enthusiasm is indescribable, when the next drawing appears; it is veritable madness. You have to make your way through the crowd with your fists’.
A powerful asset
Caricatures, once a social curiosity, had become powerful political tools. Some of the raunchier London images of French royalty played a major role in the downfall of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Pitt’s Tory government was also acutely aware of the power of satire, and secretly put Gillray on the payroll from 1797.
One of the primary victims of Gillray’s etching knife was Napoleon, who was in no doubt about the potential potency of vindictive cartoons. On exile in Elba, he admitted Gillray’s caricatures were more damaging than a dozen generals.
The Egyptian expedition
In 1798, Napoleon led a military expedition to Egypt, which served as a springboard to political power. It was at this point that Gillray began his shrewd attacks.
In ‘Buonaparte leaving Egypt’, Gillray depicted Napoleon’s escape from the Mediterranean campaign in 1799, which was considered a despicable act of betrayal. The campaign, which aimed to defend trade interests and weaken British connections to India, was in a state of hopelessness.
The letters between French generals revealed the despair:
‘I could never have believed General Bonaparte would have abandoned us in the condition in which we were; without money, without powder, without ball . . . more than a third of the army destroyed … and the enemy but eight days march from us!’
In Gillray’s print, the figurehead of the tender is double-headed, signifying Napoleon’s duplicity. As he looks back sly and smug, a mob of emaciated French soldiers desperately hurry towards their leader, still faithful as they are unaware of the betrayal.
In another print, named ‘Buonaparte, hearing of Nelson’s victory, swears by his sword, to extirpate the English from the earth.’, Gillray depicts the moment Napoleon hears of Nelson’s great naval victory at the Nile in 1798.
In an enormous speech bubble, he declares
‘What? our Fleet captur’d & destroy’d by the Slaves of Britain?’, and announces his plans for an obelisk to be inscribed ‘To Buanoparte Conqueror of the World, & extirpater of the English Nation.’
This was a reference to an announcement Napoleon made in 1797:
‘[France] must destroy the English monarchy, or expect itself to be destroyed by these intriguing and enterprising islanders…Let us concentrate all our efforts on the navy and annihilate England. That done, Europe is at our feet.’
‘Little Boney’ is born
In 1803, Napoleon assembled over 100,000 invasion troops at Boulogne, announcing:
‘All my thoughts are directed towards England. I want only for a favourable wind to plant the Imperial Eagle on the Tower of London’
In light of this terrifying prospect, Gillray raised his game and created one of his greatest legacies – the myth of ‘Little Boney’.
Despite never seeing Napoleon in the flesh, Gillray’s imagery of Napoleon was so powerful that it perpetuated a myth of an entire personality.
He became known as a spoilt little man who compensated for his lack of height by seeking power, war, and conquest. In reality, he stood at average height. As he was often surrounded by the Imperial Guard, who were generally tall, the perception of his small stature was consolidated.
Stereotypical attributes of Gillray’s Napoleon included a huge cocked hat with a tricolour plume, an a tricolour sash, a huge scabbard or immense spurs on Hessian boots. His oversized clothing makes mockery of him, too small for his worldly ambitions.
Later that year, Napoleon’s short temper had become notorious after an outburst during a meeting with the British Ambassador Lord Whitworth in March 1803. The British press reported he threatened an invasion of England with 400,000 or 500,000 men.
Gillray depicted the moment Napoleon read these newspaper reports in ‘Maniac Raving’s-or-Little Boney in a Strong Fit.’. Stamping in fury with fists clenched, his frantic gestures have overturned a table and left a terrestrial globe to loll on the floor – next to his oversized plumed cocked hat, of course.
The subject of his raging tantrum is revealed in the explosive swirling text, reading,
‘English Newspapers- English Newspapers!!! Oh, English Newspapers!!! hated & Betray’d by the French! – Despised by the English! & Laughed at, by the whole World!!! Treason! Treason! Treason!’ … Invasion! Invasion! \ Four Hundred & Eighty Thousand Frenchmen \ British Slavery – & everlasting Chains! everlasting Chains.’
As preparations were made on both sides of the channel for the anticipated invasion, Gillray produced images of unapologetic propaganda. In ‘Buonaparte, 48 Hours after Landing.’, published in July 1803, Napoleon’s head is proudly held on a pitchfork by John Bull, as one of the 615,000 armed yokels who stood ready to fight.
‘Ha! my little Boney! – what do’st think of Johnny Bull now? – Plunder Old England! hayy?’
The Plumb-pudding in danger
Gillray’s most famous image is undoubtedly ‘The Plumb-pudding in danger – or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper’, published in 26 February 1805.
Martin Rowson described it as,
‘probably the most famous political cartoon of all time … stolen over and over and over again by cartoonists ever since’.
Carving up the world with British Prime Minister William Pitt, ‘Little Boney’ just about perches on the edge of his chair as he cuts a slice marked ‘Europe’ .
St. George and the Dragon
In a pastiche of history painting, Gillray created ‘St. George and the Dragon’ in 1805. Whilst George III acts out St George, and Britannia is the fair maiden, Napoleon plays a dragon.
With a barbed fang and flames issuing from his mouth, a sword-cut has gashed his skull, and cut his crown in two. His large wings combined with the legs and talons of a beast of prey echo questions of his identity, mainly provoked by his dual loyalties to Corsica and France.