Ideas that add up #169

The greatest of the Gillray prints is “The Plumb Pudding in Danger”, an amazing image of two voracious western leaders carving up the globe between them. Which is the greater villain, Napoleon who confines his attentions to Europe, or the stick-insect-like Pitt, who looks set to gobble the rest?

Harry Eyres on the British Museum’s Bonaparte and the British exhibition, in ‘The Slow Lane’, FT Weekend March 7th, 2015

by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 26 February 1805

by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 26 February 1805

How about that? A well-known figure publicly skewers his country for its predatory imperialism, and compares the prime minister unfavourably with the national enemy, a demonic militarist who was at the time half way through subjugating the continent.

Gillray was one of the period’s most successful caricaturists. He had a £200 per year pension from 1797-1801 for producing images, aka propaganda, in support of British government policies and aims, but was also unafraid to call it like he saw it. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent stroke of satire today. The history of the Empire, including the conquest and colonization that created it, has been sanitized and sanctified. The wars were mostly glorious, the project was mostly benign, and the occasional spot of unpleasantness – the inevitable torture and butchery of foreigners on their own lands – has been swept under the memory rug. Some do question our country’s recent military actions in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and scoff at the politicians responsible, but the old Empire remains somehow off-limits: inviolable and beyond the reach of serious satire. 

Times have changed. A shock to realize that educated minds 200 years ago were possibly more, rather than less, open and tolerant than ours today. Heartening, though, to read that Gillray was neither imprisoned nor killed for this etching, and that the image was not censored.

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