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.

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.

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