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Union Jack depicted in cartoons, United Kingdom

Last modified: 2016-06-13 by rob raeside
Keywords: union jack | cartoon |
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[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 20 May 2013

See also:


Cartoons by James Gillray

Many cartoons by James Gillray (1756 or 1757 - 1815) show an unusual depiction of Union Jack, with red cross over blue saltire on white field. A good example is the cartoon titled "The reception of the diplomatique and his suite, at the Court of Pekin" [1, 2], published in 1792 and ridiculing an unsuccessful British diplomatic mission to China earlier same year. The same flag also appears in the cartoons "Posting to the election, - a scene on the road to Brentford, Novr 1806" [3], published by the end of the year mentioned in the title, and "British tars, towing the Danish fleet into harbour" [4], published in 1807 after the Second Battle of Copenhagen and depicting conflicting public opinions on the event.

The reason for the use of this design is not quite clear; perhaps Gillray worried that he might have been prosecuted for the flag desecration if he had depicted the correct design, for the depicted persons who were offended by his cartoons, would have probably gladly used such an accusation against him. However, the same design appears in a number of patriotic cartoons as well, like the "Buonapartè, 48 hours after landing!" of 1803 [5] and "John Bull offering little Boney fair play" of same year [6], where the use of correct design would be far less desecrating, if any,  especially when it is known that the correct flag design was used in at least one such cartoon, namely the "French invasion - or - Buonaparte landing in Great Britain", also of 1803 [7].

Square versions of the described flag, with additional charges like the royal crown or inscriptions, appear as the military colors in the scenes depicted in cartoons "The salute" of 1797 [8] and "Westminster conscripts under the training act" of 1806 [9].

The same design appears as the charges on Britannia's shield, like "The genius of France triumphant, - or - Britannia petitioning for peace" of 1795 [10], "The nursery, with Britannia reposing in peace" of 1802 [11], "Britannia between death and the doctor's" of 1804 [12], and a number of others [13].

Sources:
[1] Cartoon "The reception of the diplomatique and his suite, at the Court of Pekin", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw61584/The-reception-of-the-diplomatique-and-his-suite-at-the-Court-of-Pekin?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=13&rNo=263
[2] Cartoon "The reception of the diplomatique and his suite, at the Court of Pekin", at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Reception.JPG
[3] Cartoon "Posting to the election, - a scene on the road to Brentford, Novr 1806", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw63580/Posting-to-the-election---a-scene-on-the-road-to-Brentford-Novr-1806?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=38&rNo=770
[4] Cartoon "British tars, towing the Danish fleet into harbour", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62985/British-tars-towing-the-Danish-fleet-into-harbour?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=39&rNo=786
[5] Cartoon "Buonapartè, 48 hours after landing!", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62685/Napoleon-Bonaparte-Buonapart-48-hours-after-landing?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=34&rNo=685
[6] Cartoon "John Bull offering little Boney fair play", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62687/Napoleon-Bonaparte-John-Bull-offering-little-Boney-fair-play?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=34&rNo=687
[7] Cartoon "French invasion - or - Buonaparte landing in Great Britain", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw63553/Napoleon-Bonaparte-French-invasion---or---Buonaparte-landing-in-Great-Britain?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=34&rNo=695
[8] Cartoon "The salute", National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62166/Thomas-Davies-The-salute?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=22&rNo=450
[9] Cartoon "Westminster conscripts under the training act", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62742/Westminster-conscripts-under-the-training-act?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=37&rNo=756
[10] Cartoon "The genius of France triumphant, - or - Britannia petitioning for peace", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw61895/The-genius-of-France-triumphant---or---Britannia-petitioning-for-peace?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=16&rNo=336
[11] Cartoon "The nursery, with Britannia reposing in peace", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62658/The-nursery-with-Britannia-reposing-in-peace?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=32&rNo=659
[12] Cartoon "Britannia between death and the doctor's", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62698/Britannia-between-death-and-the-doctors?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=35&rNo=703
[13] List of James Gillray's cartoons in the collection of National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person.php?LinkID=mp01777&role=art
Tomislav Todorovic, 20 May 2013

The misplaced blue in the Union Jack is probably a colouring error. In black and white, the depiction of the pre-1801 Union Jack is reasonably accurate. I am not sure of the process but colour was added later, and different prints of the same cartoon can be found in which the colouring is different.
See the pairs of prints at http://tinyurl.com/qgn5o5t
David Prothero, 21 May 2013

I have seen myself several examples of different colouring of the same cartoon while preparing my contribution. Still the flag colouring, regardless of the person responsible, seems to be consistent enough to be contributed about - and certainly was repeated too many times to be just an accidental error.
Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

A swallow-tailed flag, with the previously described pattern at the hoist and plain red fly, is shown in the cartoon titled "Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis" or "Britannia between Scylla & Charybdis. or - The Vessel of the Constitution steered clear of the Rock of Democracy, and the Whirlpool of Arbitrary-Power", which was published in 1793 [14, 15]. The flag is flown from the boat named "The Constitution", which carries William Pitt the Younger, the then Prime Minister, and Britannia (note the pattern on the shield), sailing between Scylla, represented with the Phrygian cap on a pole atop the rock (symbolizing ideas of the French Revolution) and Charybdis, whose huge mouth, shaped like an inverted crown, is swallowing water and producing a whirlpool (symbolizing the absolute monarchy) [16].

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

A similar flag appears in the cartoon "Middlesex-election. 1804" (year of publishing as in the title) [17]. In this satiric depiction of a contemporary election campaign, a flag appears which resembles the previously described one, but the tails seem to be shorter here, leaving much of the red field undivided. The other flag to be noted is the one charged with the scene of Britannia being whipped (note the shield again).

Both of the above flags resemble the Red Ensign somewhat, but even more, the "Flag of the English People" from the 16-18th flag charts which suggests that such flags might have really existed and served as the model for Gillray's flag drawings.

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

Another similar flag is shown in top central part of the cartoon "Camera-obscura", published in 1788 [18]. Here, both the flag and the tails are much less oblong and the hoist field is approximately square. However, this flag is much less visible than the one shown in the top left corner, which is clearly based on the Red Ensign, only with swallow-tailed fly and the canton patterned as above.

Whatever were the reasons for use of such flags, they must have been absent from the motives for the creation of cartoon named "Light expelling darkness, - evaporation of Stygian exhalations, - or - the sun of the Constitution, rising superior to the clouds of opposition" [capitalizations are mine], published in 1795 [19], where a flying female figure carries the pre-1801 Red Ensign, correctly depicted, in the right hand and scales in the left hand. This character, which might be the personification of Justice, seems to guide the chariot of Sun, drawn by a lion and a unicorn and decorated with a line drawing of the royal arms beneath the sun disc. Although the explanation of this cartoon is not given, as well as for all the others from the same source, the charioteer's face resembles that of William Pitt the Younger from "Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis" [15, 16], so it is probably him, for he was the Prime Minister at both cartoons' publishing times. Even the idea behind both cartoons might have been the same, which is suggested by the words *COMMONS - KING - LORDS* inscribed within the sun disc, which is indeed a brief definition of the then constitutional system in Great Britain. These words, together with Classicist composition of the picture, also suggest that Gillray intended to compare the contemporary British government with that of the Roman Republic, which was described by Polybius in his Histories as a combination of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.

Sources [continued from above]:
[14] Cartoon "Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw61615/Britannia-between-Scylla-and-Charybdis-Charles-James-Fox-Joseph-Priestley-Richard-Brinsley-Sheridan-William-Pitt?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=14&rNo=284
[15] Cartoon "Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis", reproduction at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GillrayBritannia.jpg
[16] Cartoon "Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis", explanation at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Between_Scylla_and_Charybdis#Cultural_and_popular_references
[17] Cartoon "Middlesex-election. 1804", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw63575/Middlesex-election-1804?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=35&rNo=717
[18] Cartoon "Camera-obscura", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw61343/Camera-obscura?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=7&rNo=146
[19] Cartoon "Light expelling darkness, - evaporation of Stygian exhalations, - or - the sun of the Constitution, rising superior to the clouds of opposition", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw63485/Light-expelling-darkness---evaporation-of-stygian-exhalations---or---the-sun-of-the-constitution-rising-superior-to-the-clouds-of-pposition?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=18&rNo=372
Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

The section contains a paragraph about the use of the pre-1801 Red Ensign in one of Gillray's cartoons. At the time of making the said contribution (2013-05-21) the source for the said cartoon (listed under number [19]) did not list the sitters' names. In the meantime, the source for cartoon named "Light expelling darkness, - evaporation of Stygian exhalations, - or - the sun of the Constitution, rising superior to the clouds of opposition" [19] was expanded to display the sitters' names, and one of them is indeed William Pitt the Younger, the then Prime minister, so he is obviously the man depicted as the Sun's charioteer - the logical position for him, given the composition of the picture and the idea behind it.
Tomislav Todorovic, 9 May 2015

It shall be noted that a real-life flag charged with the red cross over blue saltire on white field was used by two shipping companies - first by G.D. Tyser & Co. (1860-1914) and then by its successor, originally named Commonwealth & Dominion Line (1914-1937) and later renamed Port Line Ltd. (1937-1978)

 As can be seen, the flag was introduced less than 50 years after Gillray's death, so it might have been inspired by his works and created by an admirer of his, although such a design might have also been independently derived from the Union Jack. Which of these was the case, is still to be discovered, but even if it was the latter, still it would make an interesting case of the same design being independently introduced twice.
Tomislav Todorovic, 15 May 2015

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

A flag derived from the usual Gillray pattern by adding a repeated pattern in the canton, is shown in the cartoon "A block for the wigs - or, the new state whirligig", published in 1783 [20]. The flag is flying from the top of a pillar in center of a carousel on which sit several ministers of the then government [21]. Another copy of this cartoon exists, with a different coloring of the same flag, looking much less consistent (greater and lesser patterns colored differently) [22].

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

A flag derived from the one described above and modeled like the "Flag of English People" from the 16-18th flag charts, appears in the cartoon "A French hail storm, - or - Neptune losing sight of the Brest fleet", published in 1793 [23]. The cartoon depicts Admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe (1726-1799), in Neptune's chariot - large shell, drawn by two dolphins - with the trident as the flagstaff from which the described flag is flying.

Sources [continued from above]:
[20] Cartoon "A block for the wigs - or, the new state whirligig", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw61152/A-block-for-the-wigs---or-the-new-state-hirligig?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=4&rNo=81
[21] Cartoon "A block for the wigs - or, the new state whirligig", at Wikipedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_block_for_the_wigs_-_or,_the_new_state_whirligig_by_James_Gillray.jpg/a>
[22] Cartoon "A block for the wigs - or, the new state whirligig", alternate coloring, at Wikipedia:
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A-Block-for-the-Wigs-illray.jpeg
[23] Cartoon "A French hail storm, - or - Neptune losing sight of the Brest fleet", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw61618/Richard-Howe-1st-Earl-Howe-A-French-hail-storm---or---Neptune-losing-sight-of-the-Brest-fleet?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=14&rNo=287
Tomislav Todorovic, 22 May 2013

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 23 May 2013

Flags with the usual Gillray pattern, but with red and blue reversed, appear in the cartoon "The high-flying-candidate, (i.e. little Paul-goose,) mounting from a blanket", published in 1806 [24]. They have various ratios, from 1:1 to 3:5, some of them have fringes along the edge, and all of them bear with inscriptions which are not easy to read, except names of two sitters, (Alexander) Hood and (Richard Brinsley) Sheridan. Considering that all the identified sitters were contemporary politicians, the scene is clearly another Gillray's mocking with the then British political life. One of the flags seems to be white, with the described pattern in canton and no visible inscriptions, but is mostly hidden behind other flags, so it will be left without a detailed description or an image here. These flags' pattern was more likely an error than those from the other cartoons; it is unclear whether the error was intentional, but seems to have been less likely so than in case of other patterns, especially because it seems not to have been repeated elsewhere.

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

The flag which resembles the pre-1801 Union Jack the most, but with a voided saltire, appears in the cartoon "Delicious dreams! - Castles in the air! - Glorious prospects!", published in 1808 [25]. The flag is flown from the chariot in top part of the drawing, where a dream of the characters from the bottom part is shown.

The same flag appears in the cartoon titled "The death of Admiral Lord Nelson - in the moment of victory!", published in 1805 [26]. The scene both glorifies Nelson's victory - note the inscription Immortality on the arch made of clouds and winged figure blowing a trumpet - and expresses nationwide mourning after his death, the latter being represented by grieving Britannia, her shield patterned exactly like the flag, above dying Nelson. The flag is also charged with inscription VICTORY, which is the name of Nelson's ship (note the holes on the flag as the result of the fighting), but is also related to the whole event. The other flag shown is a war trophy: French flag, depicted as a horizontal tricolor (typical for Gillray [13]), with incompletely visible inscription VIVE L'EMPEREUR.

Beside the flags in these two cartoons, one satiric and the other quite the opposite, this pattern also appears on Britannia's shield in cartoon "St George and the dragon", published in 1805 [27], a scene in which King George III on horse saves Britannia from a monster with the head of Napoleon. The same shield appears as the shield of Zeus/Jupiter in the cartoon "Destruction of the French collossus", published in 1798 [28], where this god's lightnings destroy the French Republic, depicted as a monstrous variation of the Colossus of Rhodes. (Beside the shield, held by one of god's hands, only his other arm, which holds the lightnings, is visible.)

[James Gillray cartoon] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 21 May 2013

A flag modeled both after the above one and the "Flag of English People" appears in the cartoon "Scene le vrog house", published in 1782 [29], which is a rather indecent scene involving several British and French characters and, along with the said flag flying, a French flag, white with fleurs-de-lys, laying humiliated on the ground.

Sources [continued from above]:
[24] Cartoon "The high-flying-candidate, (i.e. little Paul-goose,) mounting from a blanket", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62755/The-high-flying-candidate-ie-little-Paul-goose-mounting-from-a-blanket?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=38&rNo=766/a>>
[25] Cartoon "Delicious dreams! - Castles in the air! - Glorious prospects!", at National Portrait Gallery:
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62994/Delicious-dreams---Castles-in-the-air---Glorious-prospects?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=40&rNo=800
[26] Cartoon "The death of Admiral Lord Nelson - in the moment of victory!", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62724/The-death-of-Admiral-Lord-Nelson---in-the-moment-of-victory-Horatio-Nelson-Sir-Thomas-Masterman-Hardy-1st-Bt?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=36&rNo=735
[27] Cartoon "St George and the dragon", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw63578/St-George-and-the-dragon-Napoleon-Bonaparte-King-George-III?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=37&rNo=740
[28] Cartoon "Destruction of the French colossus", at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62271/Destruction-of-the-French-collossus?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=24&rNo=496
[29] Cartoon "Scene le vrog house", at National Portrait Gallery (WARNING: an indecent scene, listed only due to the flags depicted): http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw63195/Scene-le-vrog-house?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=3&rNo=67
Tomislav Todorovic, 23 May 2013

[James Gillray cartoon-like flag] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 22 May 2016

Another variant of the flag appears in the cartoon "Improvement in Weights & Measures. - or - Sir John Sinclair discovering ye Ballance of ye British Flag." The sitter is Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, 1st Baronet (1754-1835), British politician and writer on finance and agriculture. He is shown as holding the scales with a Phrygian cap and some vegetables and inscribed scrolls on one side, and the said flag on the other; the whole is an allusion to his career, along with the other details of the picture, like books and scrolls on the table behind Sinclair, or picture and paper sheet on the wall, all bearing the inscriptions which are not completely readable in the source image, but even when they are, their meaning was certainly immediately understood by the contemporaries of Gillray and Sinclair, which is not the case with most of the present observers. The flag itself resembles several other variants by Gillray, but also differs from all of them: red cross and blue saltire, both within a white fimbriation (only around, but not between them), all on blue field, the whole pattern repeated in the canton.

Sources:
[30] Biography of Sir John Sinclair at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_John_Sinclair,_1st_Baronet
[31] Cartoon "Improvement in Weights & Measures. - or - Sir John Sinclair discovering ye Ballance of ye British Flag." at National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw62288/Sir-John-Sinclair-1st-Bt?LinkID=mp01777&role=art&wPage=25&rNo=501
Tomislav Todorovic, 22 May 2016

Conclusion:
The erroneously depicted Union Jack and derived flags appear in too many cartoons by James Gillray to be considered unintentional errors, still the reason for their use remains unclear, for the cartoons include both satiric and patriotic ones, both those in which the sitters are ridiculed and those in which they are glorified. To make the things even more complicated, correctly depicted Union Jack and derived flags also appear sometimes, but very rarely and never in satiric drawings, while some of Gillray's depictions do resemble some real-life flags, as well as some works by other artists.
Tomislav Todorovic, 22 May 2016


Cap Presmant Pendant

[James Gillray cartoon-like flag] image located by David Prothero, 12 February 2009

Gillray's flag depictions with the white field, charged with red cross over blue saltire, and the plain red fly resemble the "Cap Presmant Pendant" from the notebook of William Downman, 1685-6, which was reproduced in "Flags at Sea" by Timothy Wilson, National Maritime Museum, 1986. Their hoist pattern resembles the yet unidentified flag currently listed as UFE 09-7, which is depicted on a painting from 17th or 18th century. All of these sources are unrelated to each other, but since Gillray's cartoons were created some time after the other pictures, it is possible that he drew inspiration from something he did see in real life - if not these very pictures, then something else that may have even not survived until present day. Whether his sources were based on real life themselves, is another matter which may remain unexplained until some new evidence is discovered.
Tomislav Todorovic, 22 May 2016


British flag from the painting "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775"

The British flag from the painting "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775", made in 1786 by John Trumbull, resembles the contemporary Red Ensign, but blue and white had swapped places in the canton.

This flag also resembles several depictions by James Gillray. While its existence could not have been confirmed so far and it is viewed as example of artistic license, one shall bear on mind that Trumbull did reside in London during several longer periods between 1780 and 1795, so it can be rightfully assumed that he must have been familiar with Gillray's works, bearing on mind their impact at the time. Although it is probably impossible to prove, he might have found the inspiration for his flag in some of them - in real life, indeed, even though the same might not be true for his model.
Tomislav Todorovic, 22 May 2016


 
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