Depicted roasting in hell or as a spider spinning a web around Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte is the subject of a colourful exhibition of historical satire opening at London’s British Museum on Thursday.
Published in 1808, “The Corsican spider in his web” by Thomas Rowlandson is one of dozens of drawings, posters and other prints on display until August 16.
The exhibition, “Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon” charts the rise of the young general, ending with the downfall of the Emperor who once had Europe at his feet.
Bonaparte, who lived from 1769 to 1821, was a “charismatic enemy” with a reputation as a short, angry man: an irresistible subject for caricatures, according to historian Tim Clayton, a Napoleon expert.
“He had the misfortune to come along at exactly the wrong moment,” Clayton said.
“I don’t suppose anybody in history had been vilified and ridiculed in the way that Napoleon was vilified and ridiculed ever before.”
Flattering portraits and memorabilia collected by British admirers in the 1790s gives way to mockery, as Napoleon becomes more of a threat to Britain.
By the time the two countries are at war in 1803, noted British cartoonist James Gillray portrays Napoleon being roasted over a fire by the devil in “The Corsican pest or Belzebub going to supper”.
Mocking Napoleon as “Little Boney” and perpetuating the idea he was small in stature helped diminish the feeling of threat.
“Because you were frightened of him, you had to belittle him, make him seem not so frightening,” said curator Sheila O’Connell.
“So you made him a little tiny person. And that is how he’s remained in the British consciousness ever since.”
– Propaganda tool –
“Little Boney” appears again in 1812 as Napoleon’s Russian campaign turns into a disaster.
A cartoon by William Elmes called “General Frost shaving Little Boney” shows the cold as a monster crushing the French armies and trapping Napoleon’s feet in ice.
Sold for an average of between 1 and 4 shillings each, the drawings were particularly popular in shops frequented by the London elite.
Used as a propaganda tool and sometimes controlled by the government, the satires helped forge a sense of British unity and shaped the way Napoleon was perceived through generations.
“They do have an influence on shaping people image of Napoleon. The idea that Napoleon is a little, angry chap sticks,” Clayton said.
“The fact that he was actually of average height seems to have escaped everybody’s attention.”
Cartoonists are kinder when Napoleon is less of a threat, and at times some Britons displayed admiration for the emperor.
One example is a bronze bust of Napoleon, carved in the style of a Roman emperor with idealised features, and installed in 1818 in a British aristocrat’s garden.
Featured at the entrance to the exhibition, the bust has a call for the emperor to return from exile in Saint Helena engraved at its base.