The following essay was written for Professor Béatrice Laurent’s seminar, 'Myths and Icons,' English MIA2Y24, Université Bordeaux-Montaigne, 2018
Britannia, as the embodiment of Great Britain, appeared well before the nineteenth-century’s Victorian Era. She was used by the Roman Empire in order to stand for the defeated British Isles. Very often Britannia was represented on coins, which was a political tool, for coins were used throughout the Empire. More than that, one has to bear in mind that Britannia was not simply the personification of the British Isles as a mere woman, for the sake of allegory, but was depicted as a goddess. Thus, when the Romans conquered part of the British Isles, their victory took a particular, strong signification in so far as they had defeated a goddess. As Roy Matthews, a professor of history at Michigan State University, argues, "Ruling classes initially looked to the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece or Rome to evoke prestige and power, and to suggest moral values" (p.799).
Not surprisingly, Britannia as a symbol of submission seemed to have disappeared with the decline of the Roman Empire. This decline of Roman imperial power obviously allowed the symbol’s revival as a symbol of national pride and power. By the seventeenth century, Britannia was used in England to celebrate English monarchy and power, as the monarch, it was thought, embodied the state.
During the nineteenth century, Britannia appeared on coins, paintings, statues, monuments and on many different printed works. Those were very often commissioned works approved by official agencies. As she became a national icon, Britannia became under the control of the government or other judicial authorities in order to protect and assure her immediate recognition. Representations of Britannia had to have stable and settled meanings.
When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, Britannia became conflated with her, as she was sometimes depicted with Queen Victoria’s features. Both were symbols of power and national pride. Britannia was then "rooted in the rise of nationalism as people's sense of national identity emerged" (Matthews, p.819) Therefore, "she played a role in the transitional stages leading to nationalism and the transformation of a state into a nation-state and a nation-state into an Empire" (Matthews, p.819). Eventually, as Matthews argues, "Britannia represented no longer the English nation-state but the British national character" (p.814).
Throughout the Victorian Era, then, Britannia was an unchanging figure but she had many faces.
Britannia in paintings
Of many paintings which represent Britannia as a national and imperial figure, two seem particularly important because of their ideological dimensions
Retribution. Edward Armitage. Oil on canvas. 1858. Courtesy Leeds Art Gallery. Click on image to enlarge it.
Retribution by Edward Armitage provides an interesting example. The work depicts the massacre of soldiers in Cawnpore, an important British garrison town at that time where about 900 British men and women lived during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. After the rebellion, the British reacted violently against the Indian mutineers. Voices in the United Kingdom raised against the British violence of the British retributions, but public opinion supported "the righteous revenge" (Banerjee).
The setting is like a battlefield. The characters on the ground, a British woman and her child, are casualties. They wear white clothes, the colour of innocence. There is no blood on the baby. In the painting, revenge is conveyed by Britannia who is about to kill the Bengal Tiger, the symbol of the horrible Sepoys. Britannia symbolises motherland and mother caring. She is a loving figure but, here, she is furious because she has been hurt. They killed her children, and the British pride has been challenged. She also echoes Athena's goddess role of the country assuming civic responsibilities and national duties. She wears a crown of laurels symbol of victory.
The painting was meant to advance the British Empire and to legitimise British violence in Cawnpore. In the British colonies, Britannia emphasized the British imperial supremacy, and the paintings includes no Indians because the British didn't want to be victimised. In this painting they are not the enemies of the Indians, but they are the enemies of barbarism, the opposite of civilisation. Barbarism is uncivilized ignorance that leads to cruelty whereas civilisation is about progress, evolution, and change, which was what the British wanted to bring in India.
Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea. William Dyce. 1846. Osborne House. Click on image to enlarge it.
Source: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/wwfeatures/wm/live/1600_900/images/live/p0/2t/kt/p02tkt4t.jpg" Second, by William Dyce is also worth mentioning. It is a fresco commissioned by Prince Albert for Osborne House in 1846. Willam Dyce painted it in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
In this painting, Neptune is passing his crown, transferred by Mercury, to Britannia who holds a "silver trident in her right hand" (Hoakley). Britannia is with a lion and other figures. The man wearing a beard represents industry while trade is represented by the man holding the golden stick and navigation is embodied by the woman behind them.
Britannia is allegorically a dynamic object indicating the geographical reality of the country by showing the rocky coast and the stormy sea (Scott). The chariot is drawn on the sea by seahorses. Here, the chariot is driven by Neptune but in other paintings Britannia drives the chariot. She has replaced the God because she has become a divinity herself. In this painting, the representation of Britannia is a tribute to Queen Victoria. She has Victoria's face and she denotes the power over the seas of the world owned by Britannia or/and the Queen. In the 1840's, the British connected their monarch with Imperial Britain's triumphs around the world (Matthews, p.819).
The Representations of Britannia in Other Art Forms — Caricatures
Left: His Last Decoration. “The Order of the Sack”. Middle left: Who’s to Pay?. Middle right: A Dangerous Crossing Right: The Russian Pig. A Study at the International Cattle Show. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Victorian caricatures made great use of Britannia. Each of the four cartoons above from Punch’s rival, Fun, use Britannia’s Roman helmet to identify her as the symbol of the United Kingdom, but Britannia’s relation to power varies widely from cartoon to cartoon. In the first cartoon on the left, in which Britannia dismisses Disraeli as Prime Minister, “giving him the sack,” she is the center of power. But in Who’s to Pay? she's a person haggling with a figure representing British India over who will pay for the Afghanistan War supposedly in the defense of the South Asian colony. In A Dangerous Crossing, she's a timid woman worried about Disraeli’s policies, while in The Russian Pig. A Study at the International Cattle Show, she's Disraeli’s companion who turns away in disgust at Russia.
Punch, the satirical magazine that ran from 1841 to 2002, also contains many representations of Britannia. Most of the time, as the symbol of Great Britain’s political and imperial presence, she embodied the power of the British nation throughout the world. The figure of Britannia was also able to combine "imperial idealism" (Matthews, p.819) with domesticity. It is rather easy to spot her as she always carries her attributes, either in an obvious or a subtle way. Her image was widely used to illustrate very different purposes. Two representations of Britannia, which is presented in different circumstances, have particular interest.
Two cartoons featuring Britannia by John Leech: Left: No. XVIII. — Britannia has the Industry of all-the-world and his wife, to spend a few months with her From the Punch series, “Memorials of the Great Exhibition. — 1851.” Right: A Plain Question.
Leech’s caricature at left depicts Britannia, the embodiment of strength and power, wearing her Roman helmet as a semi-divine woman and defender of Britain. The caption explains that “Britannia has the Industry of all-the-world and his wife, to spend a few months with her,” for she hosts the Industrial Revolution. This shows a new side of Britannia, a Britannia, evolving with her time. She embraces the industrial era and the Industrial Revolution that it brought about. She seems eager to welcome the industry that provides new strength for Britannia and will enables her to increase her power.
Leech’s second cartoon shows the complexity of Britannia as a symbol of Britain. Domesticity is represented in this second drawing where Britannia is seen inside. She’s sitting down next to John Bull and Benjamin Disraeli. All of her attributes are set aside: the shield is on the mantelpiece; the trident and the helmet are in the corner behind her. This cartoon depicts Britannia as a daughter whose father (John Bull) speaks on her behalf to a suitor. Has she lost her power and become reduced to the status of a Victorian woman? In Victorian times, women’s place was at home since it was synonymous with fertility and happiness in marriage, which were necessary for the well-being and prosperity of the nation and the Empire. In a way, “she personifies the virtues of the middle-class” (Matthews, p.819). The cartoon also emphasizes her female vulnerability, since she is not in control and is sitting demurely while the men talk about her. As we see in the cartoon from Fun above that shows her as a timid woman being led across a street, caricatures portray Britannia as a vulnerable woman in the context of domestic political struggles that potentially place her (and the entire nation) in peril.
Imperial Federation Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886. Water Crane. Courtesy Cornell University Library. Click on image to enlarge it.
The map represents Britannia seating on a globe supported by Atlas and she is gazing down at the peoples of her empire. When one looks closer, one sees that all the characters and animals and flora represent the parts of the world where the British empire is present and exercise some form of power. She clearly embodies power here thanks to her central position and to the fact that all have their eyes on her. Women are looking up to her and men are looking at her as their equal. It was published for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886 and aimed at stating Britannia's position in the world. Statistics of trade exchanges (in the white squares) in the different colonies are apparent and the lines represent the connections between the major ports of call. This lavish map gathers many aspects that convey the idea of power and encompasses an entire range of personifications and symbols.
Lady Wolverton as Britannia. Courtesy of the national Portrait Gallery. Click on image to enlarge it.
This photo taken at the Devonshire House ball in Piccadilly to celebrate Victoria's diamond jubilee on 2 July 1897 (Walton) shows yet another side to the figure of Britannia and its relation to nation and power. The famous photographer James Lafayette photographed the guests at Devonshire House (Meadows). The woman posing as Britannia is Lady Wolverton, the wife of 4th Baron Wolverton. The photo is thus a symbol of several kinds of success. Readers of Punch, Fun, and other magazines with political cartoons would immediately recognize who Lady Wolverton represented in this tableau vivant. Here a relatively new medium, photography, records a somewhat bizarre combination of traditional heraldry and ancient arms and armour. Here, at the end of the Victorian Era, Britannia successfully managed to represent her people — well, at least members of the upper, most powerful classes — who then came to personify her. Her allegorical figure became a genuine human face, but was it one that embodied or appropriated this national symbol?
Sources on this site and related material
- Jacqueline Banerjee, Discussion of Armitage’s Retribution
- India and the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny
- Punch on Politics
- Fun on the Disraeli-Gladstone Rivalry
"The Indian Mutiny, the Siege of Cawnpore" (www.britishempire.co.uk)
Hoakley, David. “The Story in Paintings: William Dyce and the cliffs of time.” The Electric Light Company. Web. 7 April 2016.
Scott, David. La structure sémiotique de l'allégorie : Analyse peircienne d'une icône nationale : Britannia. Protée, 33(1), 39-48. 2005. ERUDIT, id.erudit.org/iderudit/012265ar). Web.
Matthews, Roy. "Britannia and John Bull: From Birth to Maturity," Historian (6.4): 2000.
Meadows, Jane. "Lauder, James Stack [James Lafayette] (1853-1923)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web. 30 May 2013.
Walton, Geri. “Victorian Event of the Season: 1897 Devonshire Costume Ball.” Unique histories from the 18th and 19th centuries. Web.
Last modified 25 October 2018