Who's Who

From Britannia to Maggie: The Fall and Rise of John Bull's Descendants

Roy T Matthews and Peter Mellini argue that the last 100 years have brought mixed fortunes for Britain’s family of national symbols.

At the height of Britain’s world power in the mid-nineteenth century John Bull’s family, the symbols that personified the nation and its national character, were ‘manufactured’ or ‘improved’ by artists as part of the complex process of inventing traditions to mould a national society. By the height of the Victorian era, Britannia had evolved into a matronly battleaxe. She personified Great Britain, and certain virtues, such as Truth, Justice, Bravery, and The Empire. Like the mature Victoria, with whom she was often confused, she radiated decorum, respectability, and to our eyes, kitsch. On occasion, she, like John Bull, was victimised by her friends and enemies abroad.

Bull began his career in 1712 as a patriotic victim, the put-upon common man. By the 1790s he had evolved into a radical patriot-lout, often depicted with obscene disrespect by Gillray and others. Early in Victoria's reign, old John was finally 'captured' by the governing classes for their purposes, and civilized by artists and writers in the new middle- class periodicals, especially Punch. Leech’s and Tenniel's portly squire was a symbol of bourgeois self- justification. He represented and reflected the values of the high Victorian commercial and county gentry: their delight in success and material prosperity; their reverence for decorum; their stuffy conservatism and strident chauvinism (sec 'John Bull's Family Arises' History Today, May, 1987).

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