Room 3: The French
Maniac Raving’s – or – Little Boney in a Strong Fit
James Gillray, 24 May 1803
At the start of the 19th century, Britain faced a new foe: Napoleon Bonaparte. Fearful of his ever expanding dominance of Europe and the possibility of a British invasion, the land was abuzz with ‘scarlet fever’.
In light of this, Gillray and his fellow satirists attacked the Emperor in the best way they could. They created one of the greatest myths in history: the idea that Napoleon was short. In fact, he was of average height for the time and probably stood taller than Nelson.
Nevertheless, a new power hungry, tantrum-ridden character – ‘Little Boney’ – was born. He is the subject of this print, with fists clenched and his face contorted with fury. He stamps on piles of British newspapers, which are strewn among other casualties of his irascible temper: a chair, table, a (now-broken) globe and a huge plumed cocked hat. And out come his lashings of rage in great long tongues of white-hot flame: ‘Oh, English Newspapers!!!’, ‘Treason! Treason! Treason!’, ‘Insolence of British Parliament’, ‘Oh cursed Liberty of ye British press!’, ‘Invasion! Invasion!’.
‘The Plumb-pudding in danger – or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper’
James Gillray, 26 February 1805
This is Gillray’s most famous work. William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, is calm and confident, dressed in military attire and a cocked tricorn hat. His dinner guest, Napoleon, is stockier and smaller with a large hooked nose and twitching eyes. He’s sporting the uniform of the French Imperial Army, and he is dwarfed by an enormous bicorn hat with towering feathers.
The pair tuck into what appears to be an enormous steaming boiled pudding: a ‘juicy, round, delicious-looking plump raisin dumpling’. But the raisin marbling of this steaming orb sketches out the shapes of countries and continents of the globe. It’s a clever analogy: a visual representation of Britain and France’s dominance of the world. Napoleon has sliced off Spain, France, Holland and most of Europe. Pitt has gone for the Atlantic Ocean, the Americas and the West Indies.
A Shakespeare misquote hammers home the greed of these politicians: ‘the great Globe itself and all which it inherit is too small to satisfy such insatiable appetites.’