Room 2: Government
Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis
James Gillray, 8 April 1793
This beautifully rendered image depicts the challenges faced by William Pitt in the 1790s, in the years following the outbreak of the French Revolution. It is inspired by the tale of Scylla and Charybdis, from Greek mythology, where sailors were forced ‘to choose the lesser of two evils’.
Pitt travels with Britannia on a vessel, The Constitution, which is dangerously low in the water. Their destination is a distant island, the ‘Haven of Public Happiness’. On Pitt’s portside is the lair of Scylla, or the ‘Rock of Democracy’. Surmounting the rocks is a bonnet rouge with a cocarde tricolore: the uniform of the French revolutionaries. And emerging from this libertarian lair are the ‘Dogs of Scylla’ – British politicians sympathetic to the radical cause – silently tracking the boat with shark-like menace.
On the starboard side is Charybdis, a terrifying whirlpool. In Gillray’s re-telling, this is the ‘Whirlpool of Arbitrary Power’ and, just visible in the murky waters, a royal crown is submerged and upturned. It’s a danger Pitt must avoid – the nepotism and old corruption of monarchical government, where decision making lies with those elected through rotten and pocket boroughs.
An excrescence;-a fungus;-alias-a toad-stool upon a dung-hill
James Gillray, 20 December 1791
What a surreal way to present a Prime Minister! No doubt this image surprised and delighted the crowds of Piccadilly when it was first displayed.
At first glance, this is a scene of nature: a toadstool growing out of a rotten dunghill. Yet look closer. This dunghill is a crown, and the horrid ‘Excrescence’, or the great ‘Fungus’ growing from the it is the morphed face of Pitt, his long nose and double chin perfectly filling the requirements of a prime mushroom. What does it mean? Perhaps Gillray’s alluding to a rotten government, or perhaps it symbolises corruption at the heart of power, where Pitt is no more than a mere appendage of the king’s regime.
James Gillray, 10 March 1805
In this print, Gillray takes us to what appears to be a wine cellar, with rows and rows of bottles. But this is no ordinary cellar. This is some sick, psychedelic science experiment. For in these bottles are the heads of Pitt’s political enemies, fizzing and fuming at their imprisonment. There’s Fox, labelled ‘True French Wine’, and his fellow Whig MPs: William Windham, labelled ‘Brandy and Water’ and George Tierney, labelled ‘a Glass of All-Sorts’.
They watch as the bottle of Old Sherry – containing the head of Richard Brinsley Sheridan – explodes before them. Out bursts ‘Old Puns’, ‘Groans of Disappointment’, ‘Stolen Jests’, ‘Invectives’, ‘Lame Puns’, ‘Loyal Boastings’, ‘Dramatic Ravings’, ‘Low Scurrilities’, ‘Stale Jokes’ and ‘Fibs, Fibs, Fibs!’.
On closer inspection, this is no wine cellar, but the House of Commons itself, where the house is listening to another of Sheridan’s long, rambling pontifications. “Tho’ he does not very often address the House,” Gillray tells us in the text below, “when he does, he always thinks proper to pay off all arrears … like a Bottle just uncork’d bursts all at once, into an explosion of Froth & Air … whether they have any relation or not to the Subject under discussion.”