This print was one of over a thousand satires produced by the celebrated caricaturist, James Gillray, who became known as the ‘father of the political cartoon’. In the 18th century, cartoons and caricatures were a popular way of mocking the establishment and calling them to account. They would be discussed and enjoyed in shop windows, coffee houses and taverns. The arrival of the industrial printing press in the 1800s helped to spread them far and wide, through broadsides (posters), newspapers and pamphlets. This one was inspired by the resumed hostilities and ongoing rivalry between Britain and France in 1805.
The two people caricatured in this print are Prime Minister William Pitt (the younger), representing Britain and its empire, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France. Between them, the two are carving up a pudding that represents the world. Britain and France were at war almost constantly between 1793 and 1815. Bonaparte became Emperor in December 1804 and, when this print was published in February 1805, was open to a new treaty with Britain. The cartoon mocks the idea that the two countries could peacefully work together. Gillray is suggesting that the two ambitious empires will be unable to share the world between them, and must inevitably fight to the finish.
Pitt uses his trident-shaped fork to skewer a large chunk of ocean, symbolic of Britain’s desire for global naval supremacy. Napoleon, meanwhile, attempts to satisfy his appetite by carving off France, Holland, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and the Mediterranean. Gillray depicts both leaders as somewhat unnatural characters. Pitt is caricatured as unhealthily skinny, while Napoleon is tiny, with a beak-like nose and manic expression. Both are shown greedily slicing apart the world, unaware of the other’s equally ravenous appetite – suggesting they will shortly come into conflict.
It was an accurate prediction. Later that year, the Battle of Trafalgar confirmed Britain’s naval supremacy, while Napoleon’s defeat of Austria at Ulm and Russia at Austerlitz confirmed his dominance of mainland Europe.
Gillray died in 1815, but he continues to influence present-day cartoonists. The central idea of ‘The Plumb-pudding in danger’, in particular, has been much copied. Cartoonist Martin Rowson has gone so far as to claim that it is ‘probably the most famous political cartoon of all time.’
Did you know..?
It is a myth that Napoleon was very short. At about 5ft 6in he was average height for the time. The myth is directly influenced by Gillray, who consistently drew him as ‘Little Boney’, a tiny figure dwarfed by his British opponents and those around him.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.
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This object is in the collection of National Portrait Gallery