John Bull

John Bull as a Symbol
John Bull is a national caricature who appeared in the Eighteenth Century and is still familiar today. Britain's national symbols, personifications of the homeland and its public virtues, are, historically speaking, relatively young. They emerged as we know them about the mid-Nineteenth Century as high Victorian cartoonists' stereotypes. Until recently, most historians treated these national symbols as self-evident ornaments or fixed, unchanging icons. This interpretation guarantees that the modern viewer will fail to grasp the crucial role these satiric figures played in the growth of English patriotism and chauvinism, in the development of national and regional self-images and stereotypes, and in the political dialogue of the latter half of the Eighteenth Century. When examined as part of a visual chronicle, their metamorphosis allows us not only to focus on the rise of patriotism noted by so many in the late Eighteenth Century, but also to trace shifts in public opinion.

Britannia, used by the Romans on a first century AD coin to celebrate their subjugation of the British Isles, was revived in the Sixteenth Century to express the emerging glory of England, later Britain. Her menagerie, especially the lion, and bulldog or mastiff, are offspring of a medieval emblematic tradition. These icons were first used by the English elite in the late 1500s, in emblem books, in masques and on coins to inspire dynastic and national loyalties. John Bull appeared in the early Eighteenth Century. By the 1780s artists and authors were depicting John Bull's family and an assortment of animals in political prints to symbolist the nation and national character. More often than not they were victims of tyranny, party politics, government policy or foreign powers. Their appearance varied with their role. Only after the Napoleonic Wars did artists, publicists, propagandists, and later advertisers, transform John Bull into a stolid country squire, the embodiment of bourgeois English and British character, and convert Britannia at the same time into a matronly Graeco-Roman goddess, the visual 17 representation national virtues.

This transformation of these national symbols both in their physical appearance and roles reflects a changing British set of political values and shifting moral imperatives. A closer study of this glossary of symbols in transition within their historical context provides one of the keys to understanding the development of late Georgian and Victorian political culture and English, later British, self-image. The changing appearance of these national icons indicates a shift from Georgian discontent to high Victorian self-satisfaction. "Georgian impudence", Draper Hill observed in Mr. Gillray, the Caricaturist, "yielded to Victorian dignity when the litter proved a more saleable commodity". Likewise, their transformation offers some clues as to how and why the establishment appropriated these images for their own use, as for example, when Liberty was reconstructed in France or America into a patriotic female warrior.

When Britannia, personifying the nation, and John Bull, expressing the English national character, showed up in political illustrations in the 1750s, satirical prints were a growing form of popular entertainment, and becoming a part of the political process. The golden Age of the English satirical print - the era of Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank - is the result of artists and printers, inspired by a dynamic political culture and popular demand, creatively melding two emblems, symbolic traditions: largely developed in the Renaissance, and caricature, a special individual technique of graphic satire of the Baroque period, imported from Italy in the Eighteenth Century.

Verbal and visual satire were joined together in England. By the 1750s literary political satire was already an established genre, in prose and on stage, exemplified in the works of Swift, Defoe, Pope and Gay. In the late 17j0s, Arthur Pond's etchings, after Pier Leone Ghezzi's caricature portraits, introduced the English elite to the art of personal caricature: the deliberate distortion of an individual's features or aura, designed both to ridicule and to explain. Caricature was art instant hit among the English upper classes.

Initially caricature was an upper-class insiders game, but it soon became a popular and effective political weapon. In the 1750s, Lord George Townshend attacked his adversaries through caricature, circulating them among his friends and potential allies.

Richard Godfrey in a 1985 essay on English caricature asserts: "Townshend was the fist amateur to convert a sophisticated private amusement into a rancorous public activity". William Hogarth and others, meanwhile, expanded and extended visual satire and individual caricature, maliciously blending them with the abusive emblematic satirical conventions. These engravings, highlighting the foibles, vices, and weaknesses of the human comedy sold widely. These prints were an expression of what Roy Porter called "that alert middling urban culture so conspicuously neglected by eighteenth-century historians from E.P. Thompson to J.C. Clark". In London this visual satire became an effective device to attack one's political rivals or highlight the era's problems; a part of the political process, not incidental to it. The artists regularly reworked the national symbols, playing with an expanding iconic vocabulary, responding to their popularity and the temper of the times.

Britannia began as a mere emblem but she evolved into a moral symbol. For linguistic reasons, the Greeks and Romans imposed pleasant feminine names on abstractions such as patriotism and countries. Britannia first appeared on the reverse side of a Roman coin in AD119-122 during Hadrian's reign. Ironically, her debut celebrated the Roman victory over a people she would later defend. The Roman representation of Britannia has remained essentially unchanged: a classically draped goddess seated three-quarters left, holding a spear in her right hand, with her left forearm resting on her shield.

After the Romans left, Britannia vanished until the Sixteenth Century when she reappeared as a visual and literary symbol. The English now mixed her with the image of Boudica, the female rebel warrior of A.D. 60, in their efforts to flatter Gloriana. During the early 1600s Britannia materialised as the visual image that, just slightly altered, survives to this day. Her noble spirit and values were invoked in emblematic books and in masques at the courts of the Stuarts, James l and Charles 1. Dutch medals, during their mid-Seventeenth Century propaganda campaign against England, portrayed Britannia in unflattering, even insulting poses. During Charles ll's reign, Britannia returned to British money her face alleged to be one of the king's numerous favourites, Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond. Britannia sat with a spear in her right hand, an olive branch or twig in her left, leaning her left forearm on a shield decorated by the cross of St George and the saltire of St Andrew, or more rarely, the royal coat of arms. As the Minerva or Pallas Athene of Britain, she was on British coins to stay. During the reign of George III Britannia's spear was replaced by Neptune's trident, and she acquired a plumed helmet.

In the late 1700s Britannia, youthful goddess, personified the nation, though whether that nation was England or Britain depended on the subject and intent of the artist. She embodied numerous Virtues, particularly those associated with national and public life: patriotism, honesty, selflessness, discipline, simplicity. She also guaranteed English freedoms - especially Liberty, the female personification of a free people. Liberty was sketched as a soft-featured maiden, in classical tunic or simple dress, bareheaded, distinguished from the other traditional female allegorical figures by a liberty cap on a pole. More often than not Britannia was portrayed as the innocent guardian abused, insulted, even raped or martyred.

In the mid-Nineteenth Century, Britannia began to appear in magazine cartoons as a classical matriarch usually representing the nation, and as the apotheosis of values central to the dominant elites, Justice, Liberty and The Empire. By the end of her lengthy reign, Queen Victoria was often conflated or even confused with Britannia, who had become a massive Graeco-Roman matron, the symbol of imperialism and its implied virtues. Since that era, artists, writers, playwrights, poets, and publicists have blended legendary heroines, classical symbols, ruling queens, and most recently a female prime minister, with heroic ideals they deemed proper and necessary for their purposes. Eventually propaganda became, as Marina Warner in Monuments and Maidens effectively demonstrates, "Britannia's chief theatre of activity".

John Bull emerged much, much later. In 1712, John Arbuthnot, physician mathematician, satirist and Tory partisan, published five pamphlets, later reissued as The History of John Bull. He used Bull as a political weapon against the Whigs and their conduct of the War of the Spanish Succession, the court intrigues of the Marlboroughs, the religious squabbles of the Church of England and the Dissenting Sects and burdensome, unjust taxes. Arbuthnot described Bull vividly:

[He was] [. . .] an honest plain-dealing Fellow, Cholerick, Bold and of a very inconstant Temper [. . .] ruddy and plump with a pair of cheeks like a Trumpeter [. . .] John was quick and understood his business very well, but no man was more careless, in looking into his Accounts or more cheated by Partners, Apprentices or Servants: This was occasioned by his being a boon companion, loving his Bottle and his Diversions; for to say Truth, No Man kept a better house than John, nor spent his money more generously.

Inspired by Arbuthnot's character, Bull cropped up in popular literature during the middle third of Eighteenth Century; an evolving image in search of an illustrator. Nearly fifty years went by before visual satirists began to use him to embody the cares and trials of England. When he appeared he was the miserable common man, usually mistreated and misunderstood. Not until the 1790s did what John Brewer labels "the bovine Briton" out-number the portrayals of him as the wretched victim. According to Draper Hill, in James Gillray's depictions, "John, the common man at the mercy of his betters, seldom stands for the entire nation as Britannia does". And poor Bull rarely performs in an aggressive capacity. Hill noted that: "Devotedly patriotic, he exists primarily as an object for harassment and exploitation". Similarly, Dorothy George concluded from her cataloguing of Georgian visual satire that the cartoonists treated John Bull ambivalently, because the "subtle process of democratisation" was still going on in Britain. Since Bull was not standardised, she concluded that he possessed a double image: "the typical Englishman (the bearer of burdens who grumbles and pays)" and the "mouthpiece of collective opinion". After 1792 John Bull served in cartoons as a soldier and sailor against Napoleon. Bull as the "uncouth yokel" embodied naivete, shrewdness and malice. At the same time, in Dr George's view, he represented a "splendid personification of changing mental climates and shifting currents of opinion", which often placed him "outside the governing class".

Whatever shape and age the cartoonists gave John Bull until the 1790s, he usually was a put-upon radical patriot. As Hugh Cunningham pointed out in "Will the real John Bull stand up Please", by the 1770s, patriotism, defined in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (1755 edition) as "one whose ruling passion is love of his country" had been captured by the English radically such as Wilkes. "A patriot" wrote Cunningham "had become someone whose ruling passion was the assertion of the rights of the freeborn Englishman". Now one can comprehend why in 1775 Johnson (a model for John Bull himself) grumbled to Boswell that "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels".

Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, and George Cruikshank portrayed Bull in similar ways, notwithstanding their own unique artistic styles. While John's physical appearance often bore the mark of the individual artist, he still emerged as the hapless wretch. However, when the British beat Napoleon on the high seas, as in the Battle of the Nile, or later at Waterloo, John Bull was pictured as a triumphant bully. John's portly size served as perfect foil to Napoleon's petite frame. Thus the chubby Englishman was ultimately better off physically and mentally than the "enslaved" Frenchman. Although Bull was usually well fed, occasionally victorious, and certainly more blessed than the "enslaved" sans-culotte, he seldom exuded self-confidence, for he was not yet convinced of his own power and influence.

In the 1820s John Doyle or H.B. (grandfather of Arthur Conan Doyle), the most influential English cartoonist in the transitional stage from the rowdy Georgian to the more decorous Victorian era, dressed John Bull as a country squire rather than as an unkempt bumpkin. He smoothed out his rough manners to make him more acceptable to middle-class Victorian tastes. David Low, the cartoonist, acerbically characterised this bowdlerisation of political cartooning by the Victorians: "Satire was shooed up a back street as too vulgar for the vulgas, and it's place was filled by facetiousness and whimsy" Between 1815 and 1840 John Bull's shape, dress and manners increasingly came to represent what Cunningham characterises as "the super-ego of the governing classes", rather than the anti-hero, the patriotic abused common man.

By the l840s John Bull was undergoing a transformation in role. Carlyle, with his tongue ponderously buried in his own cheek, lauded old John in Past and Present as "a born Conservative", the typical Englishman:

[. . .] the stupidest in speech, the wisest in action [. . .] slow to believe in novelties; patient of much error in actualities; deeply and forever certain of the greatness that is in Law, in Custom once solemnly established, and now long recognised as just and final - True O Radical Reformer, there is no Custom that can, properly speaking, be final; none [...] [...] His epic "be a mighty Empire slowly built together, a mighty series of Heroic Deeds - a mighty Conquest over chaos"

William Newman copied John Bull in Punch but John Leech really established the civilised Bull, who was to remain largely unchanged from 1840 until 1930. Leech's and Punch's Bull was a successful country squire, clad in a double-vested swallow-tail coat, cravat, riding breeches, gaiters and boots with his watch fob dangling over a substantial belly, two evident signs of middle-class order and prosperity. Leech's Britannia evolved more and more into an abstraction, a matronly female battleaxe, an icon of patriotic virtues rather than the collective will or national personality associated with John Bull. In a sense she exemplified the perfect Victorian woman as well as the nation's ideals, and, increasingly she became associated (or confused?) with Queen Victoria.

If Leech conventionalised Britannia and Bull, John Tenniel, his successor at Punch perfected the high Victorian stereotypes of Great Britain's national symbols. During his lengthy career Tenniel put Bull in many moods and situations, but old John always possessed all the proper and prosperous attributes of a stout upper middle-class Victorian, even when moved to anger or harassed by others. What mattered to Tenniel and to Punch's audience was dignity and discretion, not impudence. Tenniel's Britannia radiated Victorian decorum, respectability and to our eyes, kitsch. Her manner and behaviour elevated her to a plane reminiscent of the allegories and abstractions portrayed centuries earlier in the emblem books. Middle-class Victorian propriety and militant nationalism were transformed into Britannia's sisters, Truth, Bravery, and Bereavement. David Low claimed that Tenniel recruited not only Britannia but her entire family on the "permanent staff-so-to-speak of Cartooning". In Tenniel's cartooning world, Low in his 1942 essay "British Cartoonists" observed:

The goddesses Germania, Columbia, La Belle France, Russia, Erin and the rest appeared engaged in lofty commerce one with another so frequently that they gradually created a world of their own. One lost sight of their symbolic mission and grew interested in them for their own sakes - in the sympathetic hand-clasps they would give one another in their times of disaster; the frigid glances when relations were strained; the laurel wreaths they would place upon the tombs of one another's latest dead statesmen.

Tenniel's talents, Punch's influence, and the public mood fostered most other satirical artists to render Bull and Britannia in similar style and form. Both were now identified with Great Britain at the peak of her industrial and imperial might. As long as Britannia continued to rule the waves, these national symbols, along with the Lion and the Bulldog, were rendered as essentially positive images. As warriors for the cause they embodied imperial Great Britain. They were not, however, without their rivals or their critics.

In Disraeli's two nations, another more popular version of the national character, Ally Sloper, emerged in 1884 in the first of the comics. To H.G. Wells, A. Sloper, esq, the F.O.M. and M.F.K.O.M.I.E. ("Friend of Man" and "Most Frequently Kicked Out Man in Europe") irreverent, ribald, and randy was the new urban John Bull. The ubiquitous Sloper demonstrates that the masses never entirely accepted the classes version of the national character. Still Bull and his naval cousin, Jack Tar, generally thrived until the end of the First World War, outlasting Sloper as a symbol for British character, virtues and products.

Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, as the British dominance in the world waned, and the governing classes' control at home over the political process began to be challenged, a few artists and illustrators started to depict the nationalities in less flattering ways. These visual satirists, such as Phil May, publishing in Australia, Max Beerbohm, Aubrey Beardsley, and two incisive outsiders, Cynicus (Martin Anderson) a Scot, and Will Dyson, an Australian, reacted to the uncertainties, self-delusions and hypocrisy of their era, and reworked John Bull's family to reflect their perceptions.

John Bull reached a peak of popularity towards the end of the Victorian and early Edwardian periods. He was still an important symbol of determination and grit in the Second World War but he has not been used as much in the Post-War period and since decolonisation. In many ways he epitomised the Imperial ethic, but without an Empire, he has become anachronistic.

by Peter Mellini

John Bull
John Bull
Podcast from the ODNB
Further Reading
The History of John Bull
by John Arbuthnot

Political Prints in the Age of Hogarth
by Herbert Atherton

The English Satirical Print
Ed by Michael Duffy

English Political Caricature
by M Dorothy George

English Caricature
by Richard Godfrey

British Cartoonists, Caricaturists and Comic Artist
by David Low

Popular and Polite Art in the Age of Hogarth and Fielding
by Ronald Paulson

Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation
by Ben Rogers

Symbolic Characters

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by Stephen Luscombe