Exhibition review: Napoleon at the British Museum, Dulwich and Cambridge

A trio of exhibitions depicting contrasting views of Napoleon and his world delights Huon Mallalieu.

The most intriguing items in the British Museum’s ‘Bonaparte and the British’ exhibition are not strictly speaking relevant to the show’s theme of ‘prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon’, as they are neither prints nor propaganda. However, in this anniversary year, it would have been wilfully pedantic to omit the previously unknown series of drawings made on the body-strewn field of Waterloo just two and three days after the battle.

The artist was the first on the scene, beating even Denis Dighton and John Heaviside ‘Waterloo’ Clark, who made his nickname with prints of the dead and wounded. These watercolours of buildings and panoramas come from an album marked ‘T. Stoney’ in a private collection and are perhaps by Thomas Johnston Stoney (1780–1869), a member of a Tipperary family, although there is no other evidence for his being in Belgium at the time. The style might indicate a pupil of Malchair at Oxford. Whether by Stoney or not, the drawings have great immediacy.

Wartime propaganda was greatly professionalised during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, especially on the British side. Satirists and caricaturists were bought up wholesale. The greatest of them, James Gillray (Country Life, April 8) seems to have been first paid by the government in 1787, but this did not stop him engraving a pro-Revo-lutionary print in 1790. However, by the time of the execution of Louis XVI, he was producing strongly anti-Jacobin work.

Perhaps as a tweak of the reins, he was briefly arrested in 1796 and, from the next year to 1801, and again later, he was paid £200 a year by Pitt’s administration. The success of this form of warfare is shown by the numbers of copies made of British prints on the Continent as well as the numbers of anti-Napoleonic prints that were imported into Britain, despite the supposed blockade.

Caricatures had been used before, but never so effectively. During the 18th century, little attempt was made to produce accurate likenesses, identifi-cation being left to captions, and this remained true until the turn of the century and the brief Peace of Amiens. Up to that point, Bonaparte was portrayed as a generic sans-culotte, as often as not with bristling ‘French’ moustaches. It was Gillray who made his targets instantly recognisable as themselves, however much he exaggerated particular features, thus initiating the caricaturist’s shorthand conventions universally used today.

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The Napoleonic regime also made powerful use of visual propaganda, but, as in the arts generally, it imposed classical seriousness on its printmakers and was less adept at using satire. Bonaparte was presented as the handsome young general, the victorious hero and the wise and all-powerful Emperor Napoleon le Grand—very far from Gillray’s hyperactive jackanapes ‘Little Boney’. Only at the end of his reign did French caricaturists show him as less than resplendent, as in Frédéric Dubois’ Enfin Bonaparte met à l’éxécution son project de Descente en Angleterre, in which (un-historically) the furious Emperor at last lands in England but in chains.

At the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a smaller show, ‘Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Napoleon’s Draughts-man’, gives us a less bombastic side to Napoleon’s Court art. Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823) was born plain Pierre Prudon and altered his forename in homage to Rubens. It is said that his new surname showed a wish to gentrify himself, but he was, nonetheless, a supporter of the Revolution. He became a favourite not only of Napoleon, but of both his wives, perhaps partly because of his manner by contrast with David or Ingres. Napoleon called him ‘shy as a violet’ when awarding him the Lègion d’Honneur. To Joséphine, who sat to him 15 times, he was more ‘a friend than a painter’.

According to Delacroix, ‘Prud’hon’s true genius lay in allegory’ and oil paintings, based in Rubens but with a Romanticism pointing towards Géricault, bear this out. How-ever, his draughtsmanship is delicate and beautiful and the Dulwich show consists of characteristic chalk drawings on blue paper, 12 of them from the little-known Musée Baron Martin at Gray in Franche-Comté, and one from the British Museum, the only one in a British public collection. He was an enthusiastic and very sensitive life-draughtsman.

On a related theme is an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, which looks at the years after Waterloo, when French printmaking, particularly the new lithography, flourished and became the medium for artists and politicians—to disseminate their views to the masses.


‘Bonaparte and the British: prints and propaganda in the age of Napoleon’ is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until August 16 (020–7323 8299; www.britishmuseum.org)

‘Pierre-Paul Prud’hon: Napoleon’s Draughtsman’ is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, June 23–November 15 (020–8693 5254; www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk)

‘Modern Heroism: Printmaking and the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte’ is at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until June 28 (01223 332900; www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk)