The British Museum explores the explosion of British satire on ceramics and in prints during the Georgian period including a selection of fascinating Napoleonic themed objects
Ceramics are rarely confrontational, yet when printed with political messages with a powerful agenda, they are transformed.
These Napoleonic-era prints and pots reflect a period when the threat of Bogey – Napoleon Bonaparte – saw an outpouring of satirical material in Britain that reflected the national mood of defiance – and fear of a French invasion.
They can be seen in a new display, Pots with Attitude: British Satire on Ceramics, 1760-1830, at the British Museum exploring satirical ceramics in the Georgian era.
This was an era when political blunders and royal scandals were caricatured for the pleasure of Georgian society and with the invention of fine creamware (cream-coloured earthenware) and the development of transfer-printing on glazed clay in the 1750s, British printed satire began appearing on pottery.
Hand coloured prints parodied the political and social elite, and while these were sold to the urban upper-classes, a more widespread audience in inns, taverns and cottages, enjoyed these same messages on common pottery.
“A feisty, pint-sized John Bull with a blood stained sword has sliced off his toes”
The Napoleonic-era pots carry some of the more hard-hitting imagery from the golden age of British satirical cartooning. During the threat to Britain and its empire from Bonaparte in 1803, prints as government funded propaganda by James Gillray and others stirred up the populace and belittled the Corsican as a diminutive and vulgar tyrant.
Just weeks before the collapse of the Peace of Amiens in May 1803, the caricaturist Charles Williams captured a colossal ‘Boney’ with a foot firmly planted in Germany about to straddle the English Channel. A feisty, pint-sized John Bull with a blood stained sword has sliced off his toes, while exclaiming ‘Paws off, Pompey’, associating Bonaparte with the hero of a popular novel, a lap-dog, known as ‘Pompey the Little’.
The image was immediately copied on ceramics by an unidentified pottery, perhaps in Staffordshire or Liverpool. Few of the ceramic manufacturers marked their ware, perhaps preferring anonymity.
The display is the first exhibition at the British Museum to focus on the display of printed ceramics alongside their engraved counterpart prints and draws on the British Museum’s rich collection of satirical and political prints as well as loans from a private collection.
Eighty objects, some of which have not been on display for decades, can be seen in the display. Primarily mugs and jugs, associated with hard drinking, ballad singing, public houses and other masculine spaces, the impact of satirical prints however spread beyond ceramics.
Other items included in the display are a cotton handkerchief with the “Peterloo Massacre” of 1819 and a grisly folding fan with hidden profiles of the executed French sovereigns, dated 1794. In all the objects, British values are on trial and any threat to social stability becomes a cause for ridicule.
The free display is part of a one-year Monument Trust-funded curatorial project to research and champion links between 18th-century prints and ceramics.
Pots with Attitude: British Satire on Ceramics, 1760-1830 is at the British Museum until Tuesday March 13 2018 in Room 90a, Prints and Drawings Gallery.