Georgian John Bull

Before he was tamed by respectable Victorians, the archetypal, bibulous Briton, beloved of cartoonists and satirists, embodied all the virtues and vices of the late 18th century and the scandal-rocked Regency. By Adrian Teal.

The caricature reproduced here, drawn in 1798 by the mighty James Gillray, shows the archetypal Englishman ‘John Bull’ bellyaching because he is being forced to eat countless captured French ships, served to him as ‘fricassées’ by Nelson and his victorious admirals. (Suspicions about foreign food are nothing new.) In the background the Whig grandees Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), early supporters of the French Revolution, flee with hands raised, fearing they will be served up for consumption next.

Gillray recognised a fundamental truth about the Brit, which is that he will always find something to moan about. His John Bull – or ‘Old Grumble Gizzard’ – is a different character from the figure he was to become in the ‘respectable’ Victorian age. In the pages of genteel Punch and in insipid satires elsewhere the John Bull of 19th-century cartoonists such as John Leech was a genial, avuncular figure, who embodied the best characteristics of a stalwart nation. Gillray’s generation knew rather better.

John Bull was the invention of a Scot. The Tory John Arbuthnot studied medicine at St Andrew’s, was a Fellow of the Royal Society and counted Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope among his friends. Swift said of him ‘he has more wit than we all have’ and that: ‘If there were a dozen Arbuthnots in the world, I would burn Gulliver’s Travels.’ Arbuthnot was appointed Queen Anne’s physician after he had the good fortune to be on hand to treat her husband, Prince George of Denmark, when, in 1705, he was taken ill at Epsom. In 1712 he published his four-part political allegory The History of John Bull, an attack on Whig foreign policy and the money men who were reaping the rewards of British intervention in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Arbuthnot’s John Bull is a lowly clothier who brings a protracted lawsuit (a metaphor for the war) against ‘Lewis Baboon’ (Louis Bourbon, king of France), which also involves ‘Philip Baboon’ (the Spanish king), ‘Nicholas Frog’ (Holland), Bull’s sister ‘Peg’ (Scotland) and numerous other avatars of nations, institutions, the military, politicians and the apparatus of state. For modern readers the satire in all of this has lost much of its bite. Arbuthnot’s enduring legacy is John Bull himself, who was portrayed as forthright, honest, bold, temperamental and fond of a drink. The very name ‘Bull’ evokes the Englishman’s bovine character and his famous love of beef, which led the French to nickname their oldest enemies, les rosbifs.

As the 18th century progressed John Bull was appropriated by countless hacks, caricaturists, satirists and propagandists and employed in any number of contexts to grind the axe of their particular cause or gripe. His Whiggish origins were not forgotten and he was usually portrayed wearing the blue and buff of that party. When George III’s hated Scottish minister Lord Bute was suffering an onslaught of satirical execration, John Bull was recruited to assist in the attack as a plain-speaking, beer-quaffing mouthpiece, suspicious of politicians and anything that wasn’t English and who was unshakeably patriotic, though irked by the taxation that was an inevitable consequence of war.

We caricaturists love a useful archetype and in the late 18th century our predecessors became obsessed with John Bull. In the context of the French Revolution and the wars that followed, John Bull was an invaluable incarnation of the humble Brit placed under mounting political, fiscal and military pressure. He was frequently portrayed as a coarse, dull-witted, victimised yokel, assailed on all sides by money-grubbing politicians, foreign warmongers and spendthrift royals. Gillray and his contemporaries put the poor blighter in any number of terrible predicaments, which included having his veins opened by ‘quack’ politicians; being forced through a mincer by Treasury officials; carrying insupportable burdens of taxation and debt while being belaboured with a brickbat by William Pitt the Younger; and being robbed at gunpoint on the highway, again by a tax-raising Pitt. As fear of the Jacobin sans culottes intensified, he was often shown as a muddleheaded pleb who didn’t know whether to embrace the sentiments of Vive la Liberté or God Save the King, while anti-Jacobin propagandists praised their own version of him for his supposed homespun good sense, patriotism and deference as France threatened invasion.

After Napoleon had been defeated and radicalism and the clamour for reform grew, John Bull was used in the propaganda war by both sides of the political schism. He was shown by radical hacks and satirists as a man bemused and angered by the profligacy of the turncoat Regent (who became George IV in 1820) and countermeasures were deemed necessary in worried royal circles. In the year of George’s coronation the Tory-supporting Theodore Hook established his weekly John Bull newspaper, which jibed viciously at George’s estranged wife, Queen Caroline, who had become a focus for public sympathy and Whig support. George later commented after only a few issues of John Bull that ‘neither he, nor his ministers, nor his parliament, nor his courts of justice all together, had done so much good as John Bull’.

When domestic politics settled down during the 19th century, John Bull donned what became his traditional uniform of top-hat, tailcoat and Union Flag waistcoat and often had a faithful bulldog for a companion. He became a bland, idealised, British Everyman figure, showing a dependable, jingoistic and whiskered face to the rest of the world. Later he began to turn up in everything from army recruitment posters to tyre advertisements. It is at this juncture that my interest in him begins to wane. For all his flaws, the Georgian John Bull, with his foaming pot of ale, his ruddy, bumpkin’s face, shifting allegiances and grouchy bewilderment, is the one to take to heart.

Adrian Teal is a caricaturist and cartoonist and the author and illustrator of The Gin Lane Gazette (Unbound, 2012).

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