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Charles James Fox and the Bonnet-Rouge

Detail of bonnet-rouge from Design for Naval Pillar

Detail of bonnet-rouge from Design for Naval Pillar by James Gillray

Charles James Fox and the Bonnet-Rouge

A section of Gillray's that has not been previously explored is the insertion of the central “Liberté” inscribed bonnet-rouge beneath the capital of the pillar. Worn by lower class radical partisans, the bonnet-rouge became a notorious symbol of the French Revolution. However, Gillray casts the red cap into a British context by depicting it atop the head of the British Whig politician Charles James Fox (1749-1806). In at least twenty prints, beginning seven years prior to Design for Naval Pillar’s publication, Gillray portrayed Fox as either wearing or in association with the bonnet-rouge. 

Welcoming the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Fox quickly became one of the most detested politicians of the 1790s. Although accorded a seat in Parliament by his father in 1768, Fox almost immediately found himself at odds with King George III. His open opposition to many of the King’s bills resulted in his forced removal from the government in 1774. Fox subsequently emerged as a Rockingham Whig and acquired his longstanding belief that the King was the only direct threat to the constitution [1].

Over the span of his life, Fox traveled multiple times to France—a “great hobby” that became a family tradition—and developed a pronounced appreciation for all things French [2]. During these trips Fox formed close relationships with the French liberal aristocrats who acted as his interpreters and who later played integral roles in the first years of the French Revolution [3]. Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), Louis Philippe II Duc d’Orléans (1747-1793) and Prince Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838) became Fox’s closest confidants and considered themselves ‘French Whigs' [4]. When followers of Fox inundated France at the start of the Revolution in 1789, Lafayette, Orléans and Talleyrand chaperoned the group, trying to persuade Fox to join [5].

From these interactions, it is apparent that Fox held intimate knowledge about France. On numerous occasions he acted as an intermediary for France and his own country: Frenchmen consulted him on constitution making and Englishmen, likewise, on the state of France. Influenced by such close interactions, Fox largely supported the French Revolution and the end of the absolutist order—interpreting it as a late Continental imitation of Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 [6]. From these associations, the majority of Britain considered Fox a French sympathizer, placing the worries of the enemy over the military efforts of his own country [7]. 

Initially sympathetic to the Revolution, Gillray’s opinions changed once battles grew bloodier and the French became more of a threat to Britain. After the execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793 and subsequent declaration of war by France on England on February 1, Gillray’s depictions of the French were transformed from worthy opponents into demons of violence and depravity [8]. As evident in his print A Paris Beau Gillray regarded the French Revolutionary soldiers as manic and barbaric individuals. In repeatedly depicting Fox wearing the bonnet-rouge, Gillray ultimately likened his behaviors to that of the Paris Beau. As the war raged on, Gillray’s renderings of Fox intensified, eventually equating him to the devil, as apparent in The Tree of Liberty-with, the Devil tempting John Bull

Taking into consideration the pairing of the hat with the disembodied green-pants figure, another visual commonality of Gillray’s previous work becomes apparent. Closer inspection reveals a spear between the individual’s legs, in the moment before a brutal probe. This imagery links to the 1797 print The tree of liberty must be planted immediately! where the decapitated head of Fox balances on the tip of a similar spear, his eyes masked by the bonnet-rouge. The compilation of hat, figure and spear in Design for Naval Pillar may therefore be a less grotesque reference to the earlier print, with Fox’s head being replaced by the lower half on an ambiguous wounded figure. 

Artists Appropriating Gillray's Motif

Gillray was not the only printmaker associating Fox with the radical politics of France, wearing the bonnet-rouge. Artists Isaac Cruickshank (1756-1811), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and J Cooke appropriated Gillray’s motif in their own work. Cruikshank even mimicked specific scenes of Gillray’s that dealt with the ‘French Fox.’ With such artists actively publishing caricatures paring Fox with the French red hat, it is arguable that viewers of Gillray’s Design for Naval Pillar would have immediately connected Fox to the bonnet-rouge beneath the capital, as will be discussed later in "Hannah Humprey and the Distribution of Prints."


[1] D.T. Johnson, “Charles James Fox: From Government to Opposition, 1771-1774,” The English Historical Review 89, no. 353 (1974): 750, accessed February 27, 2015, (Link to PDF) and H. Butterfield, “Charles James Fox and the Whig Opposition in 1792,” Cambridge Historical Journal 9, no. 3 (1949), accessed February 27, 2015, (Link to PDF) The Rockingham Whigs were a group first led by Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who strongly opposed King George III’s influence on Parliament and aimed to prevent a reassertion of royal power. 

[2] Charles James Fox to his brother Henry Edward Fox, 31 October, 1831, The Earl of Ilchester, Chronicles of Holland House 1820-1900 (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company Inc.: 1938), 146.

[3] L.G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1992), 109. 

[4] On one of his visits to France Fox called Lafayette, Orléans and Talleyrand ‘French Whigs.’

[5] Mitchell, 109-110. 

[6] The Glorious Revolution, of 1688 was the overthrow of England’s King James II by a union of English Parliamentarians with the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange-Nassau. 

[7] Mitchell, 110.

[8] Richard Godfrey, James Gillray: The Art of the Caricature (London: Tate Publishing, 2001, 18.

Charles James Fox and the Bonnet-Rouge