Mr Punch and the Iron Duke
The Duke of Wellington proved a gift to the cartoonists of 'Punch' - he was a figure the magazine's readership would recognise, and he did not look unlike Mr Punch himself.
Writing of the 'queen's business' which had aroused such popular interest in 1820, the Duke of Buckingham noted in no uncertain terms that Caroline's cause '... had enjoyed every assistance which a considerable portion of the press could afford it... George Cruickshank manufactured the most stinging satires and the most ludicrous caricatures'. What Buckingham failed to realise however, was that Cruickshank's unprecedented success lay chiefly in his ability to identify and encapsulate popular opinion. Indeed, over the ensuing three decades, there was a veritable mushrooming both of the newspaper and periodical press, in an attempt to satisfy the intellectual needs of an increasingly politicised nation. With the relative decline in popularity after 1832 of the political caricature in the Cruickshank tradition, as sold in the form of individual prints, there was consequently room on the market for a new form of caricature in popular journalism. It was in this context that Punch was launched in 1841.
By the time of its fiftieth birthday, Punch was unrivalled both as a comic paper, and as a barometer of respectable middle-class attitudes. One should not assume however, that this stance had entirely characterised the paper from the outset, or that its format was particularly novel. As its subtitle (The London Charivari), suggested, the intention was to imitate the popular Parisian journal which was built around its large satirical drawings; and it was in Paris in 1835 that Douglas Jerrold and William Makepeace Thackeray first mooted the idea of a British counterpart. Yet this is to oversimplify matters, for the ideas of illustrated journalism in general and comic papers in particular, were very much in the air in the years after the Reform Bill. Several abortive ventures included Punch in their title, and at least three unstamped penny weeklies of the 1830s had made a feature of a front page political woodcut. Those with a purely working class outlook, however, were very much the exceptions, and not surprisingly shortlived. More important as a forerunner of Punch was Gilbert a'Becket’s Figaro in London (1831-9), whose innovation lay in the use of caricature as a leading feature in every article. As the leading authority on caricature, Dorothy George, has put it:
The marriage of caricature and journalism, so often attempted, was established, but hardly became respectable before 1841, with the appearance of Punch, a vastly improved Figaro costing threepence.
Today, Punch's early numbers are best remembered for their political content, but it should perhaps be noted that the most constant, and certainly most professional concern, was dramatic criticism. There is more than an element of truth in the accusation that its politics were essentially amateurish. Mr Punch was a warm-hearted humourist, patriot and moral teacher, but with no set targets or party political standpoint. Instead, he championed the oppressed and exposed the follies of others in every walk of life by espousing Radical causes in a manner that avoided vulgarity by being caustic rather than scurrilous. His initial appeal was thus to the lower ranks of the middle class, but as the paper's cohesion and financial stability increased, so there was a corresponding growth in readership amongst the middle classes in general.
There was a good a priori case that Punch and the Duke of Wellington would commend themselves to each other. The latter had lent himself ideally to the caricaturist's pen ever since he sprung to national pre-eminence after Talavera in 1809, with his slim figure, long upper lip, prominent chin and incomparable nose. By the time that he became prime minister in 1828, he was the favourite subject of both William Heath and John Doyle. The 'Portrait of a Noble Duke' and 'A Wellington Boot, or the Head of the Army', are well known even today, and with Doyle's son Richard on the staff of Punch, there was a direct continuity with the earlier period. To have such a recognisable figure as Wellington to portray was in itself a great asset to the fledgling paper in establishing a link with its audience, for very few leading persons of the day would have been generally known on sight. It is worth remembering that when Wellington met Nelson at the Colonial Office in September 1805, the latter had had to enquire from an official whom the then Sir Arthur Wellesley was. More surprising still was Wellington's comment with regard to someone so physically characteristic as Nelson that he knew him only 'from his likeness to his pictures and the loss of an arm'.
Broadly speaking, Punch had two guises in which it could present the Duke. The more common in the later 1840s – partly through his resuming his old post as Commander-in-Chief in 1842, and partly by his retirement from active politics in 1846 – was in Field Marshal's uniform. But it is not unusual to find him drawn in his impeccable civilian dress of tight breeches, frock coat and top hat. The erstwhile Opposition Whip Thomas Creevey, invariably referred to Wellington as 'the Beau' because of his fastidious civilian dress in the Peninsular. Along with 'Nosey', these were just two sobriquets which found consummation in caricature long before the metallic adjective did. In the later 1840s there is even the occasional cartoon showing the Duke wearing spectacles, something he rarely did in public, since he had always taken a particular pride in his eyesight.
In fact, Wellington more than a little resembled Mr Punch himself, a realisation that the paper exploited to the fullest advantage; and the two greatest heroes of the age would often be seen conferring or conducting reviews together. Punch did of course often grossly exaggerate in its portrayals – it must be considered doubtful whether Palmerston ever did suck much straw or Mr Gladstone wear such high collars – but those of Wellington were amongst its finest. It is a fair measure of Punch's achievement that Palmerston, surprised by the Welsh postman who spoke as if he knew him, was told, 'seen your picture in Punch, my lord'.
The Duke's own predilection for cartoons was so well known to contemporaries that in 1829 he was depicted surrounded by a body of urchins, looking into Thomas McLean's print shop in the Haymarket. Mrs Arbuthnot's journal for September 15th of the same year corroborates the point by recalling how Wellington showed her a print of himself reading a copy of The Times to George IV: 'The likeness of the king and himself are perfect & the whole thing excellent, and he enjoyed it as much as anyone cd'.
Such a reaction is on reflection a little surprising, for it contrasts sharply with what was commonly assumed to be an unqualified contempt for publicity in general. Whether Wellington actually wrote to Harriet Wilson to 'publish and be damned', such a remark clearly accords well with his authenticated observation to Mrs Norton that 'I have been much exposed to authors'. The paradox is explained in part by the Duke's sense of humour, which was genuine enough – he had himself dubbed the Duke of Kent as 'the Corporal', from his untidy appearance, and Mrs Arbuthnot as 'La Tyranna' – but perhaps more particularly from his even keener sense of the ridiculous. Of the latter, examples abound, as it was often his habit in answering the letters of those seeking favours, to dwell upon the illogicality of their applications. But perhaps the most famous example of all occurred during the 1812 retreat from Burgos, when, riding in search of those who had disobeyed his marching instructions, he encountered Jack Talbot who should have been in charge of the baggage train but had lost contact with it. Furious though he was, Wellington saw the absurdity of the situation: 'Well, I can't be surprised... for I cannot find my army'.
More seriously, Wellington may well have been impressed by the differing impacts of the cartoon and the newspaper, as the former essentially poked fun, whilst the latter could inflame opinion. Even if the occasional cartoonist's attack were somewhat risque, he was never of the opinion that an attack on the individual could do much harm. Conversely, newspapers, as Wellington noted in 1831, had made tremendous strides over the previous generation in guiding public opinion. When directed against the country's institutions they could even exert a subversive influence as, to his mind, the Reform Act had demonstrated only too well. Yet this forced recognition of their power only reiterated his determination to have no traffic with them. Neither, in the final analysis, should we overstress Wellington's preference for the cartoon. Lord Lyndhurst only half knew his man when he suggested in September 1835 that the Duke might be interested in employing Robert Cruickshank (George's brother and at that moment in the Fleet prison), as a satirist in the Conservative cause. In this context, cartoons were 'weapons of no slight power, & might be used with great effect in periods of excitement like the present or during... an Election'. For Wellington, this placed them on a par with newspapers; and he therefore abruptly vetoed the idea.
The Duke's more mundane criticisms of the press, namely that it circulated rumour and falsehood on the one hand, or was unduly intrusive into private lives on the other, met with a good deal of sympathy from Punch. This was especially true with regard to the endless enquiries into the state of the Duke's health; he commented wryly to one of his Hampshire neighbours that the newspapers had reported him dead at least four times during the prorogation of 1839. Yet Punch could see the other side of the coin as well:
The paper knows many things about people that people themselves never dreamt of, for if 'the paper' were limited in its knowledge to facts, what on earth would become of the penny-a-liner?
Of course, Punch itself, if something less than a newspaper, was more than just a compendium of sketches. Its very first reference to Wellington proved that, for in a fictitious interview with Peel, Mr Punch countered the suggestion that Wellington should be Lord President of the Council in the new Cabinet:
Think twice there. The Duke will be a great check upon you. The Duke is now a little too old a mouser to enjoy Tory tricks. He has unfortunately a large amount of common sense... Besides, the Duke has another grievous weakness – he won't lie.
Although Punch was never very sure about the philosophy of Sir Rhubarb Pill, as it once dubbed the Prime Minister in a clever but shallow phrase, its comment on Wellington was perceptive. If the lesson of the 1841 general election was that the country desired a strong government, then the Duke was essential to the Cabinet because he would give moral backbone to its relatively untried personnel.
This, it must be admitted, was not a static image and, particularly following the bold administrative strokes of the 1842 budget, the focus of the government for Punch centred increasingly on Peel alone. Such a shift in emphasis was at least partly of Wellington's own making, for as early as August 1841, he had brought general opprobrium upon himself by making a public statement to the effect that the lower orders would only prosper if they were sober and industrious. In the short term, Punch was willing to attribute the outburst to his relative inexperience of British social conditions, but by the summer of 1843 there was an unequivocal revival of the allegation that he was indifferent to economic distress. This culminated inevitably in the reappearance of the 'King Arthur' cartoon, an idea that had first appeared when he became Prime Minister in 1828. Punch now depicted him taking a leading role in John Bull's play 'Petitioning: A Farce'; a resurrection of Wellington's infamous speech of 1821 when he had referred to a Hampshire County Meeting as a farce – a comment that was taken to mean that he did not know the peoples' rights, or that he held them in disrespect.
It was against this background of increasing unpopularity that Wellington reached his nadir in Punch as the agitation to repeal the Corn Laws reached its height. Interestingly, it was the Duke rather than Lord Stanley who was viewed as the chief Cabinet bulwark against repeal; and Punch's proposed remedy was uncompromising:
It is nonsense to say that because he won the Great Waterloo Stakes in 1815 he is able to run with other horses now – it is not fair that others should slacken their pace out of regard to him. We want to move on. Here is the old gentleman, because he couldn't go the pace in the Anti-Corn-Law coach, has stopped the carriage, sent back the horses on their haunches, up-set the coachman, and set the whole team in disorder... We are not going to bully the old Duke, but we assert that his time for going to grass has arrived... Punch means that the old Duke should no longer block up the great thoroughfare of Civilisation, that he should be quietly and respectfully eliminated.
Reasonable though these sentiments might have been for most of 1845, there can be no gainsaying that, but for Wellington's sense of loyalty to the Crown and belief in strong government, it would have been unlikely that Peel could have resumed office in December and carried repeal. Far from retracting its earlier comments however, Punch merely noted with some irony that only a tyrannic premier on the one hand, and a tearful monarch on the other, had prevailed upon the 'Sugar Duke' to stay in the government. It is true enough that Wellington remained at best lukewarm to the Corn Law question, but Punch was unfair in not recognising Wellington's very real contribution to Peel's triumph of 1846, namely his powers of management in the House of Lords. If his motives and outlook after Waterloo were so far out of touch with the spirit of the age, as to preclude it from being the 'Age of Wellington', it is difficult to see how the 'Age of Peel' would have prospered without him.
In the military sphere, Wellington was less of a direct target, although on more than one occasion Mr Punch severely upbraided him for speaking in favour of the retention of flogging. Conversely, he provided an ideal focus for Punch to reflect the widespread distrust felt for the army which, as an institution was both culturally and physically remote from the bulk of the population. In no instance was this better exemplified than with the continuing emphasis upon personal honour in military circles. The neurotic Earl of Cardigan had been tried before the House of Lords for duelling with an erstwhile captain of his regiment; and in 1843 public feeling was further affronted when Lt. Col. David Fawcett of the 55th Foot was killed in a duel by his brother-in-law, Lt. Alexander Munro of the Royal Horse Guards. Wellington was no doubt in sympathy with Punch's assessment of the affair as legalised murder, but his own duel of 1829 with Lord Winchelsea, for peculiarly Wellingtonian reasons, had indelibly imprinted itself upon the public mind. Consequently, he – and Peel – bore the brunt of the attack, especially when the latter refused the unfortunate widow's request for a pension.
The Duke's personal initiatives as Commander-in-Chief were not much criticised by Punch: the general order prohibiting tobacco in the officers' mess, and the new regulations of 1849 for candidates who wished to obtain a commission, were instead greeted with mirth. The principal reason for this was that Punch's chief military target was Prince Albert, the antipathy to whom lay in his being a foreigner, and in his rapid but seemingly unwarranted military promotion. It is typical of the paper's ambivalence that it met the Prince Consort's genuine attempts to ameliorate the lot of the ordinary soldier with derision rather than acclamation.
In fact, the criticism most levelled at Wellington the soldier, was of his alleged heartlessness towards Peninsular veterans, as compared with those who had served him at Waterloo and had at least received a medal in commemoration of their efforts. The annual Waterloo banquet, Punch noted, gave credence to the accusations, and moreover, was attended by officers, rather than by the rank and file. This was hardly fair. The fault lay rather with the nation at large, whose imagination had been caught by the immensity of the titanic struggle at Waterloo. It was neither Wellington's responsibility, nor indeed was it possible for him to act as a personal benefactor to a mass of ex-servicemen more than a generation after the battle. It was true that he did entertain a low regard for the raw material which entered the British army, whilst taking loyalty and heroism for granted, but he was always ready with a sovereign and acknowledgement for the genuine veteran who accosted him in the street. Indifferent then in some senses, he might well have been, but there is also much force in Larpent's remark that 'he has too much of everything and everybody in his way to think much of the absent'. The point about veterans was valid enough, but at best, Punch was being usefully unfair, since in blaming Wellington alone it was ignoring the disease for a symptom.
With Wellington's retirement from the forefront of the political stage in 1846, his Punch appearances understandably decreased, but a positive furore was created in the same year when Wyatt's forty-ton statue of the Duke on his horse, Copenhagen, was erected opposite Apsley House on the Decimus Burton triumphal arch. The only triumph so far as Punch could see – though with arch and statue together standing at over one hundred feet high, it was difficult to see anything at all in the immediate vicinity – was one 'of bad taste over public opinion'. A long campaign for its removal began, which only failed during Wellington's lifetime because of his personal intervention in the matter. It must be admitted that this was not a campaign primarily directed against the Duke, apart from the suggestion that public esteem would be better displayed in the shape of a military hospital. Rather, the outrage was a protest from the art world in general against what it saw as the latest in a long line of ungainly eyesores adorning the Metropolis, including Nelson's Column and the National Gallery. The most recurrent complaint from Punch for instance, was that the statue caricatured Wellington more than Doyle and Leech ever did. It also seized the opportunity to make another point in its attack on the filth of the capital; and that in the context of the statue at least, it was an advocate of 'Hero Wash-up'. On balance therefore, the sympathy accorded to Wellington during the affair, did much to restore Mr Punch's respect for him in his last years.
Amongst the innumerable suggestions for ways of disposing of the statue, perhaps the most constructive was that a series of them should be placed alternately with sixty-eight pounders upon the martello towers in the Channel, as part of the national defences against a possible French invasion. This was just one of the many strikes at what Punch saw as the overreaction of those in official circles to the renewed French threat, a reaction which Wellington epitomised, and to a large degree had created. However, Punch was as anti-French as anyone, and following Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat in 1851 resolved its internal dichotomy by advocating the formation of a volunteer corps to be known as the 'Punch Rifles'. Equally instructive of the paper's more defined petit bourgeois stance in the later 1840s was the near dearth of references to Wellington's activities in response to the great Chartist demonstration of April 1848. In theory the episode provided an ideal opening to reiterate the concept of a Duke who saw grave danger to the established order from every quarter. Instead, Punch chose to concentrate on the Chartists themselves, treating with derision both the movement's leadership and the many fictitious names attached to the petition for the six points of the charter.
Of course, the great value of something like Punch lies not only in its reflection of popular opinion towards important events and people, but also in noticing personal idiosyncrasies and weekly social comment, the nuances of which are otherwise apt to be lost to the historian. Under this head, one finds such things as the number of wedding breakfasts which Wellington attended, and, towards 1850, reference to the number of people claiming to be related to him! But most intriguing of all, there are a whole series of the important fullpage cartoons during the Peel government, of Wellington with Henry Brougham. Brougham's high stock, nose, and plaid trousers made him even more popular than Wellington with the caricaturists. Whig Lord Chancellor between 1830 and 1834, his volatile character and seemingly aggressive desire for office, had turned him into a sort of political freelance by the late 1830s. But Punch observed, as had the diarist Charles Greville, one consistent trait at least in that 'he grossly and incessantly flatters the Duke'. The end to which these obsequies were directed, and which Wellington did nothing to discourage, was, so Punch believed, a return to the Woolsack. Although generally antipathetical to Brougham's policies and behaviour, Wellington, it is true, was not altogether averse to seeing Brougham given some sort of office. Nevertheless, it seems more likely that Punch based its surmises upon the more tangible fact of Brougham's frequently occupying the Woulsack and virtually leading the Conservative party in the Lords because of Wellington's increasing deafness and the infrequent attendance of Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst.
What attracted Punch's attention most about Wellington himself, however, was his reputation for personally answering all correspondence. It was a reputation, that once established only compounded Wellington's dilemma by precipitating everyone to enquire of him about everything; or merely to ask his opinion in order to obtain his authograph. Moreover, he wrote with a brevity that Punch loved to imitate. Notwithstanding this, Punch still estimated that Wellington consumed more writing paper than six of the country's largest firms put together; and that were he to start an Apsley Times for the purpose of replying he would effect an enormous saving in postage.
However, Punch's 1850 suggestion that Wellington would go down to posterity as 'the polite letter-writer of the nineteenth century', was consigned to oblivion before it was mooted, for Punch itself had already coined and popularised the epithet of the 'Iron Duke'. Elizabeth Longford has erroneously stated that Punch's first usage of the term came in 1845 solely as a description of his epistolary style of writing, but there are at least two earlier examples. The first comes from the spring of 1844, when Punch was considering the most recently published volume of the Duke's despatches. These revealed that he had interposed with Blucher in the aftermath of Waterloo to prevent the Prussians from shooting Napoleon on the spot. It contrasted this magnanimity with the codicil in Bonaparte's will which had left 10,000 francs to the subaltern Cantillon, who had attempted to assassinate Wellington in Paris in 1818:
Be it understood that we are not blind idolators of the Duke of Wellington. He has made his political blunders, and in his time talked political nonsense as well as his inferiors. Moreover, he exhibits a defective sympathy with the people; as the Examiner has admirably said of him, he looks upon them as a mere appanage to the Crown. Certainly, the 'Iron Duke', wants a little kindly expansion towards the masses. Nevertheless, contrasting Wellington's answer to the proposed death of the ex-Emperor, with Napoleon's reward of the would-be assassin of the General, need we ask which is the Giant and which the Dwarf?
By the late 1840s the appellation had already come to stay. What should be noted though, is that the image which it most readily conjures up today – that of a commander indifferent to his troops' suffering – was; never implied. Indeed, one should not forget that the sense in which the 'iron' adjective is most appropriate, was in Wellington's resolve not only to resist being brutalised by war, but to be ever increasingly appalled by it. Never did Punch portray him in Palmerston's guise of a jingoistic John Bull.
Given these qualifications, there is much to be said for Punch's view of Wellington. It is refreshingly free of the idolatory which pervades so much contemporary comment. On the other hand, is it not so bigoted as to be unaware of his genuine humanitarian sympathies, but Punch saw that if these conflicted with questions of discipline, then it was the latter which usually prevailed. Yet however much Mr Punch might boast of his intimacy with the Duke, the portrayal was essentially two-dimensional. This, by the very nature of caricature, was inevitable, but misconceptions about Wellington arose as much as anything from his own silence when it came to explaining his actions. Hence the great importance, which it is easy to overlook, of the publication (from 1834), of many of his despatches by Lieutenant Colonel Gurwood.
Punch was not alone in being stunned by the revelation of incidents, such as that relating to Napoleon cited above. Lord Brougham told Gurwood that 'you have published a book which will live when we are in the dust and forgotten'; whilst Creevey confessed to have positively fallen in love with them, considering even the mellifluous style of Sir William Napier's Peninsular history but a poor comparison. Yet prior to their publication, as the Earl of Ellesmere noted in some bewilderment, it was rare for the Whigs to concede Wellington even an ounce of civil talent, whilst some of the more vindictive actually attributed his military successes to the exertions of able subordinates like Picton. Even with publication, the myths were not completely laid, for the exactitude and conciseness of Wellington's expression looked deceptively simple, until, as one contemporary shrewdly noted, one tried to emulate it. Creevey could, nevertheless, still refer to the Beau's 'comic simplicity', and whilst Punch was always ready to acknowledge Wellington's finer qualities, like his sense of duty, it never really grasped that they included a superior intelligence. The Duke himself recognised as much, telling Mrs Arbuthnot that 'it had always been his fate to be considered an ignorant fellow'.
When Wellington died in September 1852, Punch not only refrained from making any untoward comments, but on the contrary made a savage attack upon some anti-Wellington remarks which had appeared in the Galway Vindicator. 'King Arthur' for Punch, was now the King Arthur of legend; the man to whom the nation's Excalibur had been entrusted for so long, and whose ghost now surveyed the scramble for the most worthy successor. Like so many, Punch felt as if the Great Exhibition in its 'year of expectations' – when it had satirised the Duke for the last time on his assuming the post of Ranger of the Royal Parks – taken in conjunction with Wellington's death, symbolised the end of an era. The pageantry and expense of his funeral, for which in abstract terms it confessed a natural revulsion, could equally be defended in terms of trying to convey the sense of the nation's grief; and as a gesture to tyrants everywhere.
In terms of its own evolution, the event was also of great significance for Punch, as it heralded a new type of cartoon – the obituary. Of all the Wellington cartoons, this is the one least recognisable as the Duke, prompted no doubt by the desire to avoid any accusations of caricature. In fact it is impossible to mistake its deep sincerity with the saddened British lion beneath the portrait. It was a bold step that could hardly have been envisaged had Wellington died a decade before. The Duke may have been dead in 1852, but it might fairly be said that Punch had come of age.
R.E. Foster is working on his PhD thesis at the University of Southampton on Wellington’s County: Government and Community in Hapshire, 1820-1852. He was a prizewinner in the History Today 1982 Student Essay Competition.
- Of the several histories of Punch, both Max Spielman, The History of Punch (London, 1895), and R.C.G. Price, A History of Punch (London, 1957), are well worth consulting.
- For Wellington, the best of several modem lives is Elizabeth Longford's two volume Wellington (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 196972), although Philip Guedella, The Duke (London, 1931), and G.R. Gleig, Life of Arthur, Duke of Wellington (London, 1889), still retain considerable merit.
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