A reader named Antoinette Tomsett contacted me a few weeks ago to share some interesting thoughts on what may have inspired James Gillray’s iconic caricature The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State Epicures taking un Petit Souper.
The print was published by Hannah Humphrey on 26th February 1805. It’s considered to be a satire on Napoleon’s attempts to engage Britain in peace negotiations immediately prior to the formation of the Third Coalition of European powers against France. On 2nd January 1805, with an army of 200,000 men camped at Boulogne preparing for an invasion of the British Isles, the Emperor wrote to King George III in an effort to secure a peace based on the notion of both powers dividing the world into separate spheres of influence :
SIR AND BROTHER,— Called to the throne of France by Providence, and by the suffrages of the senate, the people and the army, my first sentiment is a wish for peace… I conjure your Majesty not to deny yourself the happiness of giving peace to the world… what end can be assigned to a war which all my efforts will not be able to terminate! Your Majesty has gained more within ten years, both in territory and riches, than the whole extent of Europe… what can it hope from war?— To form a coalition with some powers of the Continent?… To take from France her colonies?—The colonies are to France only a secondary object; and does not your Majesty already possess more than you know how to preserve?… The world is sufficiently large for our two nations to live in it, and reason is sufficiently powerful to discover means of reconciling every thing, when the wish for reconciliation exists on both sides.
The British government dismissed the offer out of hand but the words: “The world is sufficiently large for our two nations to live in it…” may have had some resonance for Gillray and other political observers when news of it was finally made public via The Times newspaper on 15th February 1805.
The phrase may have popped back into Gillray’s mind a week later when he heard – or at least read about – a speech delivered by William Windham in the House of Commons on 21st February 1805. Windham was attacking the government on its war record, particularly its policy of raising a force of 500,000 volunteers to defend Britain from the threat of French invasion while the regular army was deployed overseas. Militiamen, no matter how enthusiastic or well turned-out, were no match for trained regulars, he thundered:
It was impossible to make an army out of a painted army, or what merely looked like an army… You might as well suppose, that flour and eggs and butter and plums, would make a plum-pudding, as that men alone would make an army.
Perhaps Gillray combined Napoleon’s image of Britain and France sharing the world between them with Windham’s colourful plum pudding metaphor and… Voilà! It’s certainly an interesting theory and one to which I would like to add a slightly irreverent footnote of my own:
The Plumb-pudding in danger… can also be read as a satire on imperialism and the inexhaustible appetite of France and Britain for land, riches and power. Gillray may have taken his inspiration from newspaper accounts of high diplomacy and parliamentary speech-making, but equally he may also have drawn it from less august sources. In the final week of January 1805, several London newspapers carried the following story:
A journeyman carpenter working at the military depot near Horsham, lately offered to pay a housekeeper that that place, the sum of fourteen shillings, on condition of being supplied, by the said housekeeper, with as much plum-pudding as he… could eat in the space of seven successive day; the terms having been agreed to, the man was daily served with a sufficient quantum of this favourite old English food, and managed in the course of the week, to devour forty-six pounds, averdupouis! The same carpenter, it seems is willing to undertake to eat a cubic foot of similar solid pudding in a fortnight, and what is more extraordinary than all, will engage for a wager of five guineas, to let pass seven other successive days, without eating the least particle of any food whatever. (London Courier and Evening Gazette, 23rd January 1805, p. 4.)
So it’s perfectly possible that Gillray was inspired by a much more literal tale of plum pudding being placed in danger of veracious consumption! Now there’s a thought!