If you think modern political satires are cruel at times, take a journey back 200 years for the crass display of bodily functions as satire was not just normal, but applauded when applied to the enemy.
One such enemy being Napoleon Bonaparte, and the British Museum has lain on a lavish exhibition of contemporary prints and cartoons in what is fast becoming one of my favourite rooms within the museum.
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.
Two large spaces are filled with prints adorning the walls, and a few glass cabinets of related curiosities.
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 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.
I tend to find cartoons often convey an aspect of history that is sometimes lost in the traditional narratives which focus on the facts of the event, but overlook the opinions of the people. Political cartoons show up the ugly prejudices directly and graphically, but do so in an aesthetically delightful manner.
The exhibition is open until 16th August, and is free to visit.
The timing of the exhibition is no coincidence either — marking as it does the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
In related news, expect a large display to go on show at the Duke of Wellington’s home next to Hyde Park later this month.