Exhibition: Bonaparte and the British

Saturday 14 March 2015 by

British Museum, London

If I’m nerdy about any period in history, it’s the Napoleonic era. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte dominated Europe, and Britain spent much of that time at war. It was the era of Nelson and Emma Hamilton, British naval superiority and Wellington, revolution and royalty. Think Hornblower, Les Miserables, and Sharpe.

And, for much of this time, the propaganda trail came in to its own. British and French satirists blossomed with so much political and military manoeuvring; and on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, the British Museum are running a special exhibition to celebrate the greatest satirists of the time.

From 5th February to 16th August, you can visit the British Museum to view the printed propaganda that surrounded Napoleon and his counterparts. Political satire was at its peak, and the newspapers were filled with caricatures of their political leaders.

Bonaparte, British Museum, James Gillray, Satire, Art, The plumb-pudding in danger,  State epicures taking un petit souper

James Gillray (1756-1815), ‘The plumb-pudding in danger -or- state epicures taking un petit souper’. Hand-coloured etching. 1805

Open late on Fridays, it was dark and raining when I eventually made it to the Museum. Hidden in a far corner, the rooms are relatively bare apart from gleaming glass cabinets ranging along the walls, and a couple of eagle-adorned flags. Start on the left side of the room, and the prints run in chronological order, complete with notes about their artists, the reasoning behind them, and the moo of the country at the time. There are coins and keepsakes from Napoleon (including a lock of his hair), including favourable portraits and his final death mask. It features Nelson, Wellington, and the Emperor’s exile to both Elba and St Helena.

But the prints reflect the changing mood of the public; there were conflicting emotions about Napoleon, alternately hailing him as a hero and the devil, and the prints show this. British politicians are mocked as pantomime figures, and even Nelson and Wellington suffer under the penmanship of the satirists. Artists include James Gillray, Richard Newton and George Cruikshank, and their artwork is clear and concise.

If you’re as big a fan of the Napoleonic era as I am, this is a must-see exhibition, charting the wars in bright, colourful prints (with many a fart-joke thrown in). It made me laugh out loud, the humour never aging even in 200 years. Napoleon is a curious figure, still mysterious and surrounded by rumour and supposition. It is not hard to see how the propaganda train fuelled the gossip fires.

Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon
5th February – 16th August 2015
Free entry (open late Fridays)
Room 90

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