From Walpole's Bottom to Major's Underpants: Cartoonists Have Let Recent Prime Ministers off Lightly Compared with Their Eighteenth-Century Predecessors

By Baker, Kenneth | History Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

From Walpole's Bottom to Major's Underpants: Cartoonists Have Let Recent Prime Ministers off Lightly Compared with Their Eighteenth-Century Predecessors


Baker, Kenneth, History Review


Kenneth Baker argues that cartoonists have let recent Prime Ministers off lightly compared with their eighteenth-century predecessors

Political cartoons and the office of Prime Minister both became established in the 1770s. They grew alongside each other and established a strange relationship which was to show itself in mutual interdependence. Michael Cummings, the contemporary cartoonist, has said that a Prime Minister to a cartoonist is as bricks to a builder -- `Without Prime Ministers we'd all be redundant'. It was so from the very start. Similarly, politicians need cartoonists, for to be caricatured is a sign that they have arrived.

Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister for twenty-one years -- a record not yet surpassed -- and he was the first to get it in the neck from cartoonists. He dominated the political scene and revelled in the title of `The Big Man'. His power depended upon the manipulation of corruption through the sale of government jobs. One print shows Walpole's great naked bottom straddling the Treasury, for if you wanted to get on in the early 18th Century, you had to kiss Walpole's bottom. In a way, it was rather flattering because a Big Man had a big bottom. Walpole did not like the cartoons and he had some of the printsellers imprisoned for a few days. But, rather more subtly, he commissioned flattering prints of himself this was the first salvo in the first media campaign.

Even at that early stage it was clear that cartoonists need a big target. To draw well they need a William Pitt, a Disraeli, a Churchill or a Thatcher, and these were political giants. The lesser figures that follow them are not so interesting. In 1801, Addington followed Pitt -- `Pitt is to Addington as London is to Paddington'. In 1846, little John Russell followed the great Victorian Prime Minister, Robert Peel, and Bonar Law followed Lloyd George in 1923. All were portrayed as little men who could not fill their predecessors' shoes.

In the days before photography, politicians were recognised from their cartoons. From the 1730s to 1820s, individual cartoons were sold in print shops -- sixpence plain, a shilling coloured. Cartoonists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Richard Newton and George Cruikshank would etch their drawings on to a copperplate, and then a few hundred copies were printed to be sold hot off the press as the up-to-date comment of the day. At first, these prints were passed around coffee houses in St James's, Pall Mall, Piccadilly and the Strand, where they were seen by only a few of the political insiders. But when prints were hung up in shop windows, any passer-by could see them, and this was how politicians came to be recognised by the public.

Georgian obscenity

No punches were spared. The 18th Century was a period of violence and sexual explicitness, and the cartoons reflect this. Defecation, urination and fornication appear frequently. In one cartoon of the extraordinary coalition of North and Fox in 1783 -- it was as if John Major and Tony Blair had formed a Government -- the two parties are shown defecating into a common chamberpot, which the Devil is stirring. Shelburne, Prime Minister for six months in 1782, suffered the indignity of having his male member shown. William Pitt the Younger, the leader of the British against Napoleon, was depicted as being blind drunk, which he quite often was.

Pitt did not like these cartoons and his friends bribed the greatest political English cartoonist, James Gillray, to portray him in a more favourable light. It worked. George IV also did not like being portrayed as a lecherous old goat and he paid 100 [pounds sterling] to George Cruikshank -- the receipt is in the Royal Library at Windsor -- to ensure he was not cartooned in an immoral position. However, not even the King could stop the cartoonists portraying him during the great divorce wrangle with Caroline in anything but a prurient, lecherous light. …

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