Wednesday 29 April 2015

Book Review: Bonaparte and the British - Clayton & O'Connell

'Museums have exploited Napoleon's fame from 1815 to the present...'

Not only does the British Museum continue the above-mentioned tradition, it also owes its very existence, in its current form, to emulation of Napoleon's cultural legacy. [1] 

Bonaparte and the British is a sumptuously illustrated compendium of Napoleonic-themed visual delights, produced to accompany the show of the same name at the British Museum (the show runs from 5th Feb to 16th Aug, 2015). The vast majority of the exhibits, splendidly reproduced in this very handsome volume, are prints, a medium that was then enjoying a golden age in Britain.

In the background of Gillray's Slippery Weather we see Hannah Humphrey's
print-shop window. As ever an appreciative crowd is assembled to admire the
many topical caricatures, a good deal of which are Gillray's own designs.

The book begins, after a brief scene-setting introduction, with two short chapters about the British and French uses of prints at the time. Their titles, 'The London Print Trade: Commerce, Patriotism and Propaganda', and 'Napoleon and the Print as Propaganda' give you an idea of their general content, as well as signalling an intent to give an even-handed treatment to a traditionally partisan subject. After that the prints and other exhibits, 165 in total - beginning with a print of Napoleon as First Consul, and ending with a plaster cast of his death mask - are grouped into 10 sections, following the chronology of Napoleon's life during the tumultuous period of history which has subsequently borne his name:

The young general
Consul and peacemaker
Little Boney and the invasion threat
Trafalgar and Austerlitz: triumph and disaster
Spain and Russia
Leipzig and the collapse of empire
Peace of Paris, Elba and Waterloo
After Waterloo 

Canova's neo-classical portrait bust of Napoleon.

I don't know whether it's a change in me, a change in the institution of the BM itself, or something else entirely, but ever since hearing the museum's director, Neil MacGregor, present the absolutely wonderful series A History of the World in 100 Objects [2], I've found myself able to become interested in, even sometimes fascinated by, a far wider range of exhibits than I was before.

In the exhibition and this catalogue there are, as well as the very numerous prints, a number of ancillary objects, such as coins, medals, pottery and suchlike - even some genuine Napoleonic 'relics' - as well as a few examples of the more ordinary categories like drawings and sculpture, which, if you take the trouble to read about them, offer up all kinds of fascinating insights.

But the stars of the show are undoubtedly the beautifully reproduced prints. These range from earnestly pro-Napoleonic images, mostly but not exclusively French, via examples of straightforward classical allegory and beautifully depicted battle scenes, to the satirical prints of numerous nations, chiefly - and unsurprisingly given the title of the book and exhibition - British. The works of these British artists, and James Gillray's most of all, show very clearly why this is regarded as a golden age of English satirical printmaking.

The whole of The Plumb Pudding In Danger,
a cropped version of which appears of the
cover of this excellent book.

Gillray is undoubtedly the star of the earlier part of this period, with Cruikshank (son George, as opposed to father Isaac) perhaps taking over this position in the later stages. Gillray in particular, whose life story would make an interesting subject in itself, is confirmed as the master of the satirical print. His memorable images - 'The Plum Pudding In Danger' (above), for example, which features on the cover - are biting and exuberant: masterpieces of invention, design and execution, as well as fascinating studies in the attitudes of the day, they crown both book and show.

The modern notion, an idea that's only really held sway for a tiny proportion of the history of art, in which an artist is not only the maker of their art but the originator of the ideas, is dangerous when applied here. Gillray's first images show sympathy for the Enlightenment ideals of Revolutionary France, but the vast bulk of British satirical prints, including his, are very much the propaganda of the establishment Tory right. 

Whatever artists like Gillray felt personally, they were, for the most part, acting on the instructions and in the pay of the British establishment. Gillray himself, for example, being the recipient of a government 'pension'. This was actually a wage, and not what we think of as a pension: he was abandoned to poverty and insanity in the end! The text of Bonaparte and the British illuminates the close relationships between artists and politicians, with much of Gillray's most political work being very minutely directed by the high ranking Tory George Canning.

Maniac ravings: alas poor Gillray, twas he who
actually went insane, and not 'Little Boney'!

Some of the satirical printmakers lend their talents to polemicists on either side of the political divide, and there certainly were also dissenting voices. It's fascinating to view and read this material and contemplate the interplay between the apparent freedom of the prints to say many diverse and sometimes shocking things, and the reality of control and repression, a story played out in Britain and elsewhere (e.g. Czarist Russia) as well as Napoleonic Europe. [3] 

In some ways the Napoleonic wars are far from over: Andrew Roberts' recent Napoleon The Great seeks to rehabilitate Bonaparte for an English readership that can't quite shake off images - the 'Corsican Upstart' or 'Little Boney' - so assiduously fostered by much of the printed propaganda shown here. Confronted with page after page of the extravagantly exaggerated vitriol known as the 'Black Legend' it's hard not to conclude that Napoleon had become the repository for all the bilious outpourings of anti-enlightenment conservatism. 

Bonaparte's alleged atrocities are rehearsed and recited ad nauseum in many of the prints shown here, alongside frequent evocations of Napoleon as in league with Satan. It's hard not to feel that there was something rotten at the heart of establishment British attitudes towards Napoleon. It was this sort of material that helped turn William Cobbet from a royalist to a reformer: having been appalled at the way Napoleon was being caricatured, he would soon see himself mercilessly lampooned in the works of Gillray and others. 

George Cruikshank: Murat reviewing the Grand Army.

The powers on British right were merciless to their own perceived 'enemies within', such as Cobbett, or the Whig Charles James Fox (see Gillray's Tree of Liberty print, not in this book or show, but reproduced near the end of this post). Napoleon had hoped that he could win over the Ancien Regime powers, and be accepted into their circle, hence his marriage to Marie Louise. 

But ultimately, far from securing a place at the top table, Napoleon evolved into the official and remarkably singular focal point, at first metaphorically and finally, at the Congress of Vienna, literally, for the reactionary backlash of the Ancien Regime against Enlightenment ideas. [4] By making Bonaparte the fall guy, they were able to distract their own peoples from the backward looking autocratic natures of the regimes and social orders those same people were fighting and dying to uphold.

Rowlandson casts Bonaparte as the
spawn of Satan, in The Devils Darling.

A young civic Napoleon, in a watercolour
by Edouard Detaille, wearing the outfit of an
Academcian (This doesn't appear in the book). 

Napoleon's rise to prominence was achieved on the back of his successful defence of post-revolutionary France, so it could be argued that the Ancien Regime powers created him as much as Revolutionary France herself ever did. Who knows if Volney's description of the young Napoleon as 'member of the National Institute, peacemaker of Europe' might not have been a true and accurate description, had post-revolutionary France been left alone? 

Once the brief peace of Amiens ended, when England declared war on France, the perpetual assault on the country viewed as the hotbed of revolution by those Ancien Regime powers was resumed. They never let up until after Waterloo. Apart from a few debacles (in South America and Holland), Britain's active role was limited. Thanks to the audacity of Nelson, which cost him his life, we scored two notable naval successes. But on land our only sizeable contribution, until Waterloo (and even there we were only a small part of a mixed allied force) was the Iberian or Peninsular campaign, which didn't get off to the best of starts.

Gillray's amazing Grand Coronation Procession of Napoleone. Using the Italianate forms of Buonaparte's name was a favourite ruse of Boney-baiting Brit hacks. 

As Napoleon's French media liked to point out, England's chiefly role was as agitator and financial backer (see two prints down). It was the wars France's enemies continually made upon her, funded by British money (the need to fund these wars saw the introduction of income tax here in Britain) that raised Napoleon, and as long as Britain bankrolled successive coalitions - seven formed against France in this period - his gift for swift and decisive warmaking would help him become ever more powerful. So it could be argued that they effectively forced him into becoming the caricature warmonger they had always made him out to be.

On the other hand it has to be borne in mind that he himself said 'Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest alone can maintain me'. But this was, I believe, something he said in his memoirs, when a lifetime of near continual conflict lay behind him. Napoleon also said that 'History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon'. It's interesting that, in relation to the history of his times, the argument rumbles on.

John Bull's Luncheon, another Gillray gem.

I've always felt mystified, even somewhat ashamed, at the way Britain has viewed it's roles in relation to both revolutionary America and revolutionary France: we lost our war with the U.S, and don't talk much about it. But we were instrumental in helping defeat a similar move towards more democratic society in France, and have crowed about it ever since. Of course there were those, from Fox and the Hollands to Byron and Cobbett, who felt at the time that there was something amiss in the caricatured vilification of Napoleon.

Fortunately the book and the show include both the official and the dissenting British views, as well as those of our allies and adversaries. And just as there was here, there was a diversity of opinion amongst the French, from royalists to Bonapartists, and beyond. The image of the British as a 'nation of slaves' fighting and financing wars to prevent the spread of liberty was a central plank in Napoleon's propaganda. This was a view rarely aired this side of The Channel, the or since. It's good that this show doesn't gloss over these other views.

Francois II Partant Pour La Guerre: an anonymous French
engraving shows a fat red-coated personification of Britain
handing Francis II of Austria a bag of money. The figure behind
the curtain talks of conserving British lives at the exepnse of
their allies' populations.

Tim Clayton and Sheila O'Connell have written a clear, informative, and fairly well balanced text. They go further than most British writers in pointing out the multiple readings of these histories that are possible. But it's still, as the exhibition's title says, a resolutely British story. More than the still-vexed politics, which continue to present a conundrum Britain and Europe struggle to solve, it's the pictures of prints and other objects that are the main attraction in this book: there are lots of fantastic memorable images here, as well as some that are less delightful but still very interesting. Gillray's work is what I enjoy looking at the most, even if I don't always like the propaganda he's peddling.

Francois Aubertin, Passage du Grand St. Bernard.

There are also some terrifically beautiful 'straight' prints, such as Francois Aubertin's Passage du Grand St. Bernard, a French print celebrating an early and audacious move by the young Napoleon, or Matthew DuBourg's Field of Waterloo, an incredible work that beautifully depicts a truly appalling scene, the bloody aftermath of the battle that ended Napoleon's career. Dubourg was of French extraction, but worked in England. It's interesting that his mixed cultural heritage resonates with the scene he depicts, in which the various nationalities are reduced to a common suffering. The Field of Waterloo is hardly the sort of triumphalist image that many in Britain favoured. 

Matthew Dubourg, The Field of Waterloo.

Of particular interest to wargamers, perhaps, in addition to the magnificent images by Aubertin and Dubourg (see above), is a series of panoramic Watercolours, painted only days after the battles at Waterloo and Quatre Bras. Rather ghoulishly corpses can be spotted here or there in the fields, and troops and civilians are also evident sparsely populating what had been only days before close-packed scenes of carnage. These watercolours show the battlefields as they were at the time, and would presumably be useful to gamers seeking to recreate the battle and the terrain, as no doubt many will attempt to do this year. [5]

This is a gem of a book, produced to accompany a fascinating show. I already had Mark Bryant's The Napoleonic Wars in Cartoon, which is a fun but comparatively superficial look at much of the same material. This gorgeous volume allows one to explore similar territory in much greater breadth and depth. I love it, and think it's an essential purchase for the Napoleonic history nut.


[1] P. 197:  'Earlier museums had been based on the personal collections of monarchs and aristocrats... Napoleon introduced the notion of a collection of treasures as a public asset that conferred prestige on the nation. The desire to emulate Napoleon's Louvre was at least part of the motive for parliament's support of the development of the British Museum...'

This particular image is not in the show or the book, but it
depicts a view of the British. popular in Napoleonic France,
as badly dressed and unable to relate properly to their
harridan womenfolk.

[2] This utterly brilliant series is available in several formats. Here are a few useful links:
--- The book (paperback from Amazon) - paperback
--- BBC podcasts (my favourite format!) - podcasts
--- And finally, here's a link to the BM page for AHOW - british museum

[3] France and the other European nations had their own traditions of printmaking and satire, and the balance between freedom and censorship outside the British Isles shows, in both similar and different ways, how Napoleonic France, its empire, and these other nations dealt with similar issues. But obviously the focus here is mostly on Britain and France, with other nations, Russia and Spain for example, being treated in a subsidiary manner.

Gillray's The Tree of Liberty: Whig politician Charles James Fox
earned the undying emnity of the Tory right for his liberal views.
Here he's taken on the guise of the Satanic serpent, tempting
John Bull. This is another image not actually in the book or show.

[4] There were those, from Lord and Lady Holland, to the poet Byron, who loved Napoleon. And even those critical of 'Jacobinism', like William Cobbett, found the excessivly propagandist vilification of an obviously enlightened man distasteful and dishonest. The book illustrates some Napoleonic 'relics' that once belonged to Byron, and quotes his anti-Wellingtonian views as expressed in Canto IX of Don Juan:

'The World, not the World's masters, will decide,
And I shall be delighted to learn who,
Save you and yours, have gained by Waterloo?'

[5] Does anyone know if the observation derrick (behind the French lines) pictured in one of these images was erected before of after the battle?

1 comment:

  1. Very good review,criticizing the ignominous vilification
    Of Napoleon by British caricaturists.
    Very fair towards Napoleon and justly criticizing his
    enemies,who prevented a more extensive modification and modernisation of Europe which might arguably have spared
    Europe a lot of conflict in the 19th and 20th centuries.