Little Boney and the Satirist

Alice Loxton

The Corsican Ogre was short wasn’t he?
The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State Epicures taking un Petit Souper, by Gillray
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It’s one of history’s greatest myths: Napoleon Bonaparte was short. This is not quite true. In 1815 an English captain described him as “a remarkably strong, well-built man, about five feet seven inches high”. He was above average height of the time, and would have probably stood taller than Nelson.

So how did this idea come to take such a strong hold on our collective imagination?

Historians generally point to two details. Firstly, Napoleon was always surrounded by his Imperial Guard – a group of broad, tall soldiers who dwarfed anyone they came across. Secondly, at Napoleon’s death in 1821 his body measured five feet two inches “from the top of the head to the heels”. But this was conducted by a French physician, for whom an inch equated to 2.7cm (British inches came to 2.5cm).

But, these hiccups weren’t enough to permanently alter a great legacy. They played second fiddle to a force far more powerful – a tenacious and deliberate campaign which concocted an entirely new personality for the emperor: a ranting, spoilt, tiny man, throwing tantrums to achieve his insatiable ambition.

The source of this attack was not from any government propaganda office or famous writer. The culprit in question was an artist. A shy, introspective loner who worked in the dingy backstreets of Piccadilly, etching and engraving plates of copper to create his weapon: satirical prints. Prints which were so biting, so cutting, so surreal, that life-long reputations could be destroyed in an instant.

This printmaker went by the name of James Gillray. By the turn of the century Gillray was famed across Europe, and widely considered the greatest artist of the day.

No one in British society had been untouched by his etching needle – politicians had been ridiculed as everything from toadstools to sherry to sharks, and royals had been stripped of any illusion of dignity. So as Napoleon Bonaparte shot to power, it’s no surprise he took centre stage as the next Gillrayic victim.

By 1803, Napoleon had his eyes firmly set on across the channel: “With God’s help I will put an end to the future and very existence of England.” The Grande Armée – which would peak at some 167,000 Frenchmen – prepared for invasion on the cliff tops of Boulogne. Britons had every reason to lie awake at night.

It was in this frenzied year that Gillray created “German Nonchalence, or the Vexation of Little Boney”. Surrounded by looming grenadier figures, the emperor, with arms and legs stretched out like a helpless child, erupts in a rage, spluttering out words, “Ha, devil! – go away! Impertinent! – go away! – is there a Man on Earth who does not Worship little Boney? – Soldiers! to Arms! revenge!”.

But most importantly, Napoleon was shrunk to a diminutive height: Little Boney was born.

On 24 May 1803, a week after war resumed, Gillray fired off another attack. It was inspired by a famous incident when Napoleon acted in “total want of dignity”: convulsed by a fit of rage he stormed out of a meeting with the British Ambassador. This full-blown toddler tantrum was immortalised in Gillray’s “Maniac Raving’s – or – Little Boney in a Strong Fit.” With fists clenched and a face contorted with fury, Napoleon furiously stamps on the 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.

His thoughts are betrayed by great long tongues of white-hot flame, exploding from Napoleon’s brain: “Oh, English Newspapers!!!”, “Treason! Treason! Treason!”, “Insolence of British Parliament”, “Oh cursed Liberty of ye British press!”, “Invasion! Invasion!”, “Four Hundred & Eighty Thousand Frenchmen”, “British Slavery – & everlasting Chains!”.

The world’s most powerful man was being reduced to a terrible toddler. This was killer content which crowds went wild for as they peered into the windows of Hannah Humphrey’s printshop, on 27 St James’s Street, where they were displayed. It was the Beatlemania of the day: “The enthusiasm is indescribable when the next drawing appears; it is a veritable madness. You have to make your way in through the crowd with your fists”.

Just a month later, on 26th June 1803, another print graced the print shop window. As Piccadilly pedestrians gazed through the glass, they would have seen a familiar figure, George III, peering at a tiny man in his hand. This was no toy soldier or model. This was – to their delight – Napoleon.

Cast as characters from Gulliver’s Travels, Bonaparte plays Gulliver and George III takes the King of Brobdingnag. Addressing Napoleon as “My little Friend Grildrig”, George III informs him that considered the French to be “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

Two years later, on the 16th February 1805, Gillray created the most famous work of his career: “The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State Epicures taking un Petit Souper”. This tête-à-tête between Pitt and Napoleon would have been the most remarkable restaurant booking in history. The British Prime Minister William Pitt is calm and confident, donning military attire and a cocked tricorn hat. His dinner guest, Mr Bonaparte, is stockier and smaller with a large hooked nose and twitching eyes. He’s sporting the uniform of the Imperial French Army, and dwarfed by an enormous bicorn hat with towering feathers.

The pair tuck into what appears to be an enormous steaming boiled pudding – which on closer inspection, is the globe itself. Both take enormous portions, reflecting their position in world politics. Napoleon has sliced off Spain, France, Holland and most of Europe, and Pitt’s gone for the Atlantic Ocean, the Americas and 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.”

A year later, Gillray took Little Boney out of the restaurant and put him in the kitchen as a gingerbread baker. But this was no ordinary kitchen. This contained quite an incredible piece of equipment, a “New French Oven for Imperial Gingerbread.”. Out of the furnace Chef Bonaparte draws a freshly baked batch of Kings – a play on his new role as ‘king-maker’ of Europe. Below the oven lies the residue – an “Ash Hole for broken Gingerbread”, where Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Holland and Austria lie in pieces – swept to destruction by the Corsican broom.

And the idea of Little Boney was also sweeping across the continent. Gillray’s prints were so instantly effective that within less than a decade, Napoleon’s reputation had been damaged forever. In exile on Elba, it’s said that Napoleon considered a Gillray satire did him more damage than a dozen British generals.

It was only through Gillray’s particular skill set – a sharp wit, a vivacious cynicism, professional artistic skill and creative vision – from which an entire personality, believable and vivid, could be created. It is a strange twist that Napoleon and Gillray – two geniuses of their field – are remembered by the world in the same way: the myth of ‘Little Boney’.

Alice Loxton is a historian and author of Uproar! Satire, Scandal & Printmakers in Georgian London.