This print was one of over a thousand satires produced by the celebrated caricaturist, James Gillray (1756-1815). It was published in 1805, and was inspired by the ongoing Anglo-French rivalry of the Napoleonic Wars.

The two people caricatured in this print are Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806), representing Britain and its empire, and Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the Emperor of the French. Between them, the two are carving up a boiled pudding that represents the world.

Britain and France were at war almost constantly between 1793 and 1815. The Peace of Amiens in 1803 brought a brief break in hostilities, but it collapsed later that year. Bonaparte became Emperor in December 1804, and when this print was published in February 1805, he was open to a new treaty with Britain. The cartoon, however, mocks the idea that the two countries could peacefully co-exist.

The cartoon is subtitled, ‘state epicures taking un petit souper’, and the quotation underneath (‘the great Globe itself and all which it inherit, is too small to satisfy such insatiable appetites’), is satirically attributed to Pitt’s former colleague, William Windham. In fact it comes from Shakespeare’s Tempest (Act IV, Scene 1). Gillray is suggesting that the two ambitious empires will be unable to share the world between them, and must inevitably fight to the finish.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), prime minister more or less unbroken since 1783, uses his trident-shaped fork to skewer a large chunk of ocean, symbolic of Britain’s desire for global naval supremacy. Unusually for him, he is depicted dressed in regimental uniform, as commandant of the Cinq Port Volunteers. Napoleon, meanwhile, attempts to satisfy his appetite by carving off France, Holland, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and the Mediterranean.

Gillray depicts both leaders as somewhat unnatural characters. Pitt is caricatured as unhealthily skinny: usually Britain was represented in cartoons by the figure of a fat “John Bull”, feasting on beef or plum pudding. Napoleon, meanwhile, is portrayed as dwarfish with a beak-like nose and manic expression. Both are shown greedily slicing apart the world, unaware of the other’s equally ravenous appetite – suggesting they will shortly come into conflict.

It was a safe prediction: the naval Battle of Trafalgar followed eight months later in 1805. While victory at Trafalgar confirmed Britain’s naval supremacy, Napoleon’s defeat of the Austrians at Ulm (16-19 October 1805), and the Russians at Austerlitz (2 December 1805) confirmed his dominance of mainland Europe.

Gillray’s print was published by his partner, Hannah Humphrey (1774-1817), on 26 February 1805. Humphrey owned a succession of London shops specialising in caricature, an increasingly popular genre in the early-19th century.

Going blind, depressed, and increasingly alcohol-dependent, Gillray had descended into insanity by 1811. He died just 17 days before the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. His influence, however, continues to be acknowledged by current-day cartoonists. The central idea of ‘The Plumb-pudding in danger’, in particular, has been much copied. Cartoonist Martin Rowson has gone so far as to claim that it is ‘probably the most famous political cartoon of all time.’

Find it here

This object is in the collection of National Portrait Gallery