Bonaparte and the British
prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon

5 February – 16 August 2015

Recommend this exhibition

James Gillray (1756–1815), The plumb-pudding in danger: -or-state epicures taking un petit souper. Hand-coloured etching, 1805.

Anonymous, La famille Anglaise au Museum à Paris. Hand-coloured etching, 1814.

This exhibition will focus on the printed propaganda that either reviled or glorified Napoleon Bonaparte, on both sides of the English Channel. It explores how his formidable career coincided with the peak of political satire as an art form.

2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – the final undoing of brilliant French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). The exhibition will include works by British and French satirists who were inspired by political and military tensions to exploit a new visual language combining caricature and traditional satire with the vigorous narrative introduced by Hogarth earlier in the century.

The print trade had already made the work of contemporary British artists familiar across Europe. Continental collectors devoured the products of the London publishers, and artists across Europe were inspired by British satires.

James Gillray (1756 - 1815), The First Kiss this Ten Years! Hand-coloured etching and aquatint, 1803.

Auguste Gaspard Louis Boucher Desnoyers (1779 - 1857) after François Gérard (1770–1837), Napoleon le Grand. Etching and engraving, 1808.

Cast of the Death Mask of Napoleon. Plaster of Paris, 1830s.

This exhibition includes work by James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Richard Newton and George Cruikshank, some of the most thoughtful and inventive artists of their day.

The range and depth of the British Museum’s collection allows the satirical printmakers’ approach to be compared with that of portraitists and others who tended to represent a more sober view of Napoleon.

The exhibition begins with portraits of the handsome young general from the mid-1790s and ends with a cast of his death mask and other memorabilia acquired by British admirers.

Along the way, the prints will examine key moments in the British response to Napoleon – exultation at Nelson’s triumph in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, celebration of the Peace of Amiens in 1802, fear of invasion in 1803, the death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and Napoleon’s triumph at Austerlitz, delight at his military defeats from 1812 onwards, culminating in his exile to Elba in 1814.

1815 sees triumphalism after Waterloo and final exile to St Helena, but some prints reflect an ambiguous view of the fallen emperor and doubts about the restoration of the French king Louis XVIII.

Exhibition catalogue

The catalogue for this exhibition is published by The British Museum Press: Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon, by Tim Clayton and Sheila O'Connell. With stunning illustrations showing the intricately detailed prints in full colour this book brings to life a key period in European history. Paperback, £25.