Three artists and their use of political comment in their work

Three artists and their use of political comment in their work: William Hogarth, 1697-1764, James Gillray, 1756-1815, Gerald Scarfe, born 1936


William Hogarth, The Invasion, Plate 1; France, 1756, engraving

Here is Hogarth’s representation of the malnourished French soldier, who frequents inns dedicated to the symbol of French slavery and poverty: the wooden shoe (sabot). Through the window are visible the dry bones of a small joint of beef. A monk and soldiers prepare to invade Britain with torture equipment, whilst cooking up a last meal of frogs. The writing on the flag on the right suggests that the French are eager to enjoy the abundance of food and drink across the Channel.


William Hogarth, O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’), 1748, oil on canvas, 79 x 95 cm, Tate Britain, London, UK

This painting is Hogarth’s comment on his second visit to France in the summer of 1748, when he was arrested as a spy while sketching the arms of England on the old city gate at Calais. The contemporary diarist George Vertue records in August 1748 that Hogarth and Francis Hayman were ‘attempting to draw some Views of Fortifications &c. were surprized & clapt into the Bastile. from whence they were soon glad to return to England’ (‘Vertue Note Books III’, Walpole Society, vol.22, Oxford 1934, p.142). Hogarth took his revenge with this painting. The title was taken from a popular tune of the day, which extolled roast beef as the symbol of Britain’s wealth and power.
Numerous xenophobic references indicate Hogarth’s low opinion of the French. The huge side of British beef at the exact centre of the picture, destined for the English inn at Calais, is neatly balanced by the scrawny French soldier at the other side of the drawbridge. A fat friar, the only well-nourished Frenchman in the picture, covetously pokes the beef. In the right foreground, a starving Jacobite sits with his pathetic meal of an onion and a piece of bread, his overturned cup beside him. The Jacobites, the Scotsmen who fled to France after the unsuccessful Scottish rebellion of 1745, are further symbolised by the black crow which perches atop the stone cross above the drawbridge. In the tableau framed by the gate, a white dove hangs on an inn sign above the cross – a satirisation of the Catholic Church. The fish-wives in the left foreground ridicule a skate whose unpleasantly human features resemble their own. To the left of the gate, framed by vegetables, sits Hogarth himself. As he sketches the drawbridge, the arresting officer’s hand clasps his shoulder.


James Gillray, ‘French democrats surprising the royal runaways’, 1791, hand-coloured etching, published by Hannah Humphrey, 25 x 35 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

1791 – Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790 had fractured opinion in Britain. From now on supporters of events in France could be seen as dangerous liberals. Here a French mob composed of ‘working men’ (see the implements of trade they are waving) uses excessive force to recapture the French royal family, who tried to escape the country in 1791. The French stereotype is now more bloodthirsty and savage than that of Hogarth’s prints. Notice Gillray does not spare the cowardly royal family either.


James Gillray, French Liberty. British Slavery, 1792, hand-coloured etching, published by Hannah Humphrey, 25 x 35 cm, British Museum, London, UK

Here, a new figure emerges: that of the sans culotte. So-called in France because they wore full trousers rather than knee-breaches, in England the term was translated in literal sense as ‘without trousers’. The Frenchman thanks his country for his freedom while munching on raw onions, while his English counterpart gorges on a table of food as he curses his taxes. The use of a well-fed John Bull was a popular choice when used in contrast with the French revolutionaries as the juxtaposition emphasised England’s prosperity while simultaneously denigrating France.


James Gilray, Petit souper, a la Parisienne; -or- a family of sans-culottes refreshing, after the fatigues of the day, 1792, hand-coloured etching, published by Hannah Humphrey, 25 x 35 cm, British Museum, London, UK

This caricature was inspired by news in London of the September Massacres in Paris (2-6 September 1792). Victims of the massacres are devoured by the sharp-toothed, cannibalistic monsters the revolution had brought into existence. The world has been turned upside down and the lowest in society rule – or in this case, eat – the highest. Gillray was also clearly enjoying taking the stereotype of the revolutionaries projected by anti-radicals in England to the extreme.


James Gillray, Dumourier dining in State at St Jame’s, 1793, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK

Gillray has ironically inscribed this print with the words pro bono publico [for the public good]. The French general, Charles François Dumouriez (his name was anglicised in England), is invited to dine by the Opposition Whigs, Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Joseph Priestley, defender of the French Revolution. They offer their guest William Pitt’s head, a crown and a mitre, three symbols of the English constitution, parliament, the monarchy and the Church. All the dishes are garnished with frogs. The use of eating as a means of conveying the balance of power is used repeatedly in the caricatures from this period.


Gerald Scarfe, Cameron refuses to swallow French horsemeat, 10 February 2013, The Sunday Times, London, UK

Caricature of specific politicians – representing Cameron’s disdain for French viewpoint, as portrayed by President Hollande.


Gerald Scarfe, German Eagle

Scarfe observing the power, within Europe, of the Germans (Merkel) over the French and British.


Gerald Scarfe, Le Coq Macron, Twitter, 6 May 2017

Scarfe observation on the most recent French presidential elections. Less pejorative in its view of the French, in general. Perhaps builds on broader understanding, within (at least some of) the British of French character and culture

TB,12 December, 2018, Meeting No 7

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