As this print wasn’t published until 1871, I feel like a bit of a cheat posting an image of it on a blog that usually concerns itself with the history of visual satire in the Georgian period. However in this case I think we can make an exception, not only because it was one of the last prints produced by the eminent Georgian caricaturist and illustrator George Cruikshank, but also because the image itself is so obviously a deliberate attempt to evoke the spirit and style the so-called ‘golden age of British caricature’. And besides, it’s such a fantastic-looking print that I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to prattle on about it.
It was engraved and published by the 79 year old Cruikshank during June 1871, shortly after the Paris Commune had been decisively crushed by the French army following several days of open warfare on the city’s streets. Here the Communard forces are depicted as a gigantic wild-eyed demon that comes stomping towards the viewer through the burning ruins like a socialist Godzilla. As it bears down on us it repeatedly blares the refrain “Blasphemy, Ignorance, Folly”, whilst waving a blood-soaked dagger and a large red flag that is emblazed with the snappy manifesto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Atheism, or A Disbelief in God!!!, Seizure of all property and death to all who oppose the Red Republic”. The pole which carries the flag is actually an inverted spear that has been capped with a skull wearing the Phrygian cap of liberty. A scroll has been attached to the cap which reads: “The Blood Red Cap of Liberty. Manufactured in 1789 and made Red with Blood in 1790 – 91 – 92 & 93. Bottles carrying the twin elixirs of violent revolution – brandy and petroleum – hang from the creature’s belt and its head is crowned with a blood-drenched fools cap. The text at the top of the design informs the viewer that this vision is “An Awful Lesson to the World for All Time to Come!”. The caption at the foot of the image reads:
Fifty thousand slaughtered dead bodies of men women & children lying in Paris at the end of May 1871 and part of the city destroyed by fire!!!
The Leader of the Parisian Blood Red Republic, or the Infernal Fiend!
For no deeds more Fiendish were ever perpetrated in the history of man than those committed & caused by the “Red Republicans” in the late revolt. It was these ignorant drunken brutes who in a great measure brought about the war with Germany, which has ended in the dishonor of their country & in tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen being killed or wounded & also the death and infamy of many women & chidren, and by their insane attempt to Paris & rule France, they have further caused the slaughter of thousands of men, women & children, as well as the destruction of their city & many of its treasures and by misleading women & driving them with drink, have caused them to act in such a way that the enraged soldiers in their fury have shot down & slaughtered women of Paris, young & old as if they were wild beasts!!!____ As there is a “Red Republican” party in this country, some national means should be taken to show these mistaken men that such plans if carried out would not only destroy the laws of civilized society but also by subverting the laws of nature and therefore a law should be passed to make it criminal for such insane principles to be advocated.
The real target of Cruikshank’s satire was therefore not the Communards themselves, most of whom were either in jail or quitely decomposing in the grounds of Pere Lachaise Cemetary by the time the artist sat down to engrave this image, but British socialists who sought to bring about similarly radical political, social and economic reforms at home. In April 1871 representatives of Britain’s bourgeois press had watched with disgust as a crowd of several thousand workers paraded through London waving red banners carrying slogans such as “Vive La Commune” and “Long Live the Universal Republic”. The march then converged on Hyde Park where, after listening to speeches and singing several renditions of the Marsailles, the crowd loudly endorsed the reading of a public addresses which hailed the Commune as “a ressurection of the glorious era of the First French Republic”. The Telegraph, ever the tiresomely shrill voice of middle England, thundered that the Communards were little more than “assassins” and “convicts”, while the Daily News confidently asserted that “even the most humane” of its readers “would not be too scrupulous about the repressive measures which might be necessary” to ensure such sentiments were stamped out at home.
Commentators on the political right were just as keen to reach back and appropriate rhetoric and imagery associated with the French Revolution as those on the left. Hostile press articles at the time were littered with references to Robespierre, the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, as conservative news agencies sought to remind misguided members of the working classes of the speed with which the idealism of 1789 had been swept away by atrocity and war. This image was evidently intended to hark back to the era of the French Revolution and remind the contemporary generation of Britons of the dangers which their fathers and grandfathers had fought to destroy. The fact it was produced by Cruikshank, who was by then the only living artist with a direct connection to the caricatures of that period, was no doubt calculated to increase both the satirical impact of the print and to boost its commercial appeal.