Caricature is visible metaphor. Expressed in words, the idea that 'Napoleon sliced off Europe as France's share of the global pudding while Pitt took the oceans for Britain,' is unremarkable. But drawn by Gillray, as The Plumb-pudding in Danger; - or - State Epicures taking un Petit Souper, it comes alive. The two men in absurdly large hats who stab vigorously at the pudding are grotesques. Pitt the Younger, almost skeletally lanky, nose pointed, chin receding, is the type of the aristocratic English silly ass; Napoleon, short, dark, goggle-eyed, that of the greasy wop in some Little England bestiary. But they are much more than stereotypes: each is also a portrait. Gillray's genius for satiric likeness peoples his stage with human beings, not with the puppets of lesser draughtsmen. Although he could exaggerate grossly - see Burke's sharp nose and Fox's blue chin - his knife goes deepest when, exercising his talent for delicately vicious moderation, he does little more than remove the cosmetic smoothing which innate kindness applies to the ugliest face. He emphasises traits of no particular horror so that when his victims are inserted - absurdly or scurrilously - into scenes of disgraceful licentiousness, convincing likeness makes the tar stick. Sometimes they are just straight portraits - and good ones.
LRB 21 June 2001 | PDF Download