The Plumb-Pudding in Danger

Britain and France had been at war for twelve years when James Gillray created what is now considered to be his greatest caricature: The Plumb-Pudding in Danger; – or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper.[1] With only a brief moment of amity between the two great European powers[2] – Britain was anxious as she anticipated an invasion from France. France desperately needed time to recuperate from the economic chaos which followed years of continuous warfare, In Britain, society was becoming increasingly restive – understanding that naval supremacy alone could not defeat the French.

The Plumb-Pudding served as Gillray’s retort to the later overtures uttered by the new Emperor for reconciliation with England in January, 1805[3]. It is evident that the satirist did not share Napoleon’s fleeting optimism. He depicts the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon Bonaparte at odds – seated before a steaming plum pudding in the form of a globe – Pitt claiming the Ocean and Napoleon hungrily carving Europe for himself.  Although Britain is left unscathed in the middle, her position is far from certain.

The fervent opposition between naval power and land supremacy is one of the most striking features of this satire. Pitt’s fork plunges into the Atlantic as though a trident, paring half of the globe away – including the lucrative West Indies – reaffirming Britain’s intention to monopolise world trade and develop her colonial empire. Napoleon’s fork[4] dives over Hanover, his eyes fixed on Europe; the homeland of the British Monarchy, occupied by France since 1803.

Notably, there is an uncharacteristic display of balance between the two figures. Gillray has not explicitly displayed bias in favour of the Prime Minister and there is no unequivocal display of British Supremacy. Before Pitt, a gold plate is emblazoned with the Royal Arms whilst his chair is embroidered with the Lion Rampant, and in front of Napoleon, a plate is etched with the Imperial Crown and his chair bears the Imperial Eagle clutching a liberté cap. The plumes of Napoleon’s hat have also been carefully coiffed by Gillray, to evoke the plumage of the French cockerel.

The satirist’s exaggeration of the two figures serves to amplify their likenesses; rather than detract from them. The wiry Pitt is shown with his similarly thin queue of hair, whilst his prominent nose and weak chin loom over proceedings. Napoleon, the grandiose Lilliputian, perched on the edge of his seat, his mouth open with anticipation, reveals incongruously large teeth beneath his hooked nose. This neutrality might have stemmed from Gillray’s dislike of Pitt, despite being granted a secret annual pension of two-hundred pounds by the Tory Government in exchange for the creation of satires mocking the Whig opposition.

Beyond the subject matter, The Plumb-Pudding is also a testament to Gillray’s talents as an artist. The rumbustious nature of Gillray’s satire, paired with his skill as a draughtsman, creates a wonderfully rich composition that maintains the clarity of his social commentary whilst encapsulating the opulence of the Regency style. Gillray’s aesthetic credo was a product of his studies at the Royal Academy and his apprenticeship to a letter-engraver; his etchings were clear and distinctive, precise of line with a boldness of colour that rendered him wholly distinct from his peers. This is a particularly fine example, embellished with superb original colour.

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[1] The attic of No. 27 St. James’s Street was to become the birthplace of this iconic etching; Gillray having followed his publisher Hannah Humphrey to her new premises in the year of 1797. Humphrey was to remain the satirist’s landlady until his death in 1815, and nursed him during periods of ill-health and melancholy that stemmed from his failing eyesight. The Plumb-Pudding was published only a year before Gillray began to lose his sight and six years before his attempted suicide.

[2] The Peace of Amiens lasted only a year, and was considered a brief respite from conflict. Preliminaries for the Peace of Amiens Treaty were signed on 1 October 1801 by Britain’s Foreign Secretary and a French Diplomat, Monsieur Otto and finalized the following March, briefly ending the eight years of war between Britain and France.

[3] Britain ended the Treaty of Amiens in 1803, but both France and Britain were aware that the treaty was only a temporary measure.

[4] Napoleon’s double-pronged fork – also known as a bident – is often associated with Pluto, ruler of the Underworld.