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Bonaparte, Prints and the Propaganda War

by Mark Hallett

  • 19 May 2015

As has become customary, the recent election campaign in the United Kingdom generated a spate of acidic cartoons focusing on our leading political figures. In the surreal, grotesque and comic satiric world created by such imagery, David Cameron’s head was sheathed in a condom, Ed Miliband mutated into a figure from Wallace and Gromit, and Nicola Sturgeon was transformed into the screeching mouthpiece of a many-headed Hydra. Cartoonists also turned to iconic historical figures to make their point. In January, Martin Rawson marked the beginning of the election campaign with a picture depicting Cameron as a plump, pink-skinned Napoleon, marching to Waterloo on a skeletal horse symbolising a cannibalised welfare state.

Published in The Guardian, 27 January 2015

The 100 Days, Published in The Guardian, 27 January 2015

Digital image courtesy of Martin Rowson

Rowson’s work not only punctures the pretensions and rhetoric of contemporary British politicians; it also offers a playful adaptation of the heroic imagery of Napoleon found in such nineteenth-century pictures as Charles August Steuben’s Napoleon at the Battlefield of Waterloo, 1815:

Print made by Mrs William Henry Simmons, after Baron Charles Guillaume Henri Auguste François Louis Steuben, mezzotint, ca. 1830s

Bonaparte at Waterloo. June 18th 1815, Print made by Mrs William Henry Simmons, after Baron Charles Guillaume Henri Auguste François Louis Steuben, mezzotint, ca. 1830s

At the same time, Rowson’s cartoon, with its focus on a diminutive, ridiculous leader and his deathly, skeletal companion, can be seen as a kind of successor to the mocking and sometimes shocking satirical prints produced in Napoleon’s own lifetime, including such works as Thomas Rowlandson’s The Two Kings of Terror, of 1813:

Published by Ackermann, London, 1813

Thomas Rowandson, The two kings of terror, Published by Ackermann, London, 1813

Digital image courtesy of Trustees of the British Museum.

The Napoleonic imagery, political bite and satiric invention that link Rawson’s and Rowlandson’s works together were themes that resonated at a PMC sponsored workshop that took place at the British Museum on May 8th, the day after the British election. Bonaparte, Prints and the Propaganda War was organised by the Centre’s Sarah Turner and Ella Fleming in collaboration with the print historians and curators Tim Clayton and Sheila O’Connell. It was designed to accompany Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon, the remarkable exhibition that Tim and Sheila have curated at the Museum, which includes Rowlandson’s vivid image, together with many others.

The May 8th workshop, which explored the European-wide workings of graphic satire and propaganda in the Napoleonic period, began with an early morning private view of the exhibition, followed by a series of talks by a distinguished group of art-historians and historians from France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

This was the programme:

Chair: Tim Clayton (The British Museum)

11.00 – 11.30 Pascal Dupuy (University of Rouen)
The British through French satirical prints (1800-1815)’

11.30 – 12.00 Dr. Wolfgang Cilleßen (Historisches Museum Frankfurt)
‘Fair Trade – Johann Wilck’s Burning of English Goods: Artistic, Social or Political Statement?

12.00 – 12.30 Dr. Rolf Reichardt
'Eagle against Extinguisher. Napoleonic propaganda by print during the Hundred Days'

12.30 – 13.00 General Discussion

Chair: Shelia O’Connell (The British Museum)

14.00 – 14.30 Jesusa Vega (Professor of the History of Modern and Contemporary art, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)
The changing image of Napoleon in Spain – presented by Shelia O’Connell

14.30 – 15.00 Dr. Gisela Vetter-Liebenow (Wilhelm Busch: Deutsches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst)
Der Pariser Nußknacker”: Some Aspects of German anti-Napoleonic caricatures

15.00 – 15.30 Alberto Milano (Scientific consultant Raccolta Bertarelli, Milan and Museo Per Via , Pieve Tesino)
Napoleone Ciarlatano, Commedia dell'Arte and street sales as political caricature’

Chair: Mark Hallett (The Paul Mellon Centre)

16.00 – 17.00 Wrap-up discussion

Bonaparte, Prints and the Propaganda War, which was attended by some 25 invited scholars and curators, was a great success, fostering a deeper understanding of the artistic, journalistic and political cross-fertilisations that took place across graphic satire in this era. Like many of our other workshops, it also provided a good opportunity for speakers and participants to exchange ideas and news, to talk about possible future collaborations, and to have a well-deserved glass of wine! This, all on a day when the parallels between contemporary political satire and that produced in the Napoleonic period seemed especially suggestive and potent.

(left to right) Pascal Dupuy, Gisela Vetter-Liebenow, Wolfgang Cillessen, Alberto Milano, Rolf Reichardt

Five speakers from Bonaparte, Prints and the Propaganda War workshop, (left to right) Pascal Dupuy, Gisela Vetter-Liebenow, Wolfgang Cillessen, Alberto Milano, Rolf Reichardt

About the author

  • Director at the Paul Mellon Centre