History of Literature


John Arbuthnot

"History of John Bull"

Caricatures of John Bull


John Bull

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John Bull is a national personification of Great Britain in general and England in particular, especially in political cartoons and similar graphic works. He is usually depicted as a stout, middle-aged man, often wearing a Union Jack waistcoat.


John Bull originated in the creation of Dr. John Arbuthnot in 1712, and was popularised first by British print makers and then overseas by illustrators and writers such as American cartoonist Thomas Nast and Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, author of John Bull's Other Island. He is sometimes used to refer to the whole of the United Kingdom, but has not been accepted in Scotland or Wales because he is viewed there as English rather than British. Britannia, or a lion, is therefore used as an alternative in some editorial cartoons. Although embraced by Unionists, Bull is rejected by Nationalists in Northern Ireland as well.

As a literary figure, John Bull is well-intentioned, frustrated, full of common sense, and entirely of native country stock. Unlike Uncle Sam later, he is not a figure of authority but rather a yeoman who prefers his small beer and domestic peace, possessed of neither patriarchal power nor heroic defiance. Arbuthnot provided him with a sister named Peg (Scotland), and a traditional adversary in Louis Baboon (the House of Bourbon in France). Peg continued in pictorial art beyond the 18th century, but the other figures associated with the original tableau dropped away.


Bull is usually portrayed as a stout, portly man in a tailcoat with light coloured breeches and a top hat which by its shallow crown indicates its middle class identity. During the Georgian period his waistcoat is red and/or his tailcoat is royal blue which, together with his buff or white britches, can thus refer to a greater or lesser extent to the 'blue and buff' scheme used by supporters of Whig politics which is part of what John Arbuthnot wished to deride when he invented the character. By the twentieth century however his waistcoat nearly always depicts a Union Flag, and his coat is generally dark blue (but otherwise still echoing the fashions of the Regency period). He also wears a low topper (sometimes called a John Bull topper) on his head and is often accompanied by a bulldog. John Bull has been used in a variety of different ad campaigns over the years, and is a common sight in British editorial cartoons of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Washington Irving described him in his chapter entitled "John Bull" from The Sketch Book:

"...[A] plain, downright, matter-of-fact fellow, with much less of poetry about him than rich prose. There is little of romance in his nature, but a vast deal of a strong natural feeling. He excels in humour more than in wit; is jolly rather than gay; melancholy rather than morose; can easily be moved to a sudden tear or surprised into a broad laugh; but he loathes sentiment and has no turn for light pleasantry. He is a boon companion, if you allow him to have his humour and to talk about himself; and he will stand by a friend in a quarrel with life and purse, however soundly he may be cudgelled."
The cartoon image of stolid stocky conservative and well-meaning John Bull, dressed like an English country squire, sometimes explicitly contrasted with the conventionalised scrawny, French revolutionary sans-culottes Jacobin, was developed from about 1790 by British satirical artists James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank. (An earlier national personification was Sir Roger de Coverley, from The Spectator (1711).)

In 1966, The Times, criticising the Unionist government of Northern Ireland, famously branded the province "John Bull's Political Slum".

In a suffragette cartoon of 1912, John Bull is portrayed looking out of the window of a house over whose door the sign says "Franchise Villa", while his wife knocks on the door, with the accompanying text: John Bull: "How long are you going on making that noise outside?" Mrs Bull: "Till you let me in, John!"

Increasingly through the early twentieth century, John Bull became seen as not particularly representative of 'the common man', and during the First World War this function was largely taken over by the figure of Tommy Atkins.

John Bull's surname is also reminiscent of the alleged fondness of the English for beef, reflected in the French nickname for English people, les rosbifs (the "Roast Beefs").

A typical John Bull Englishman is referenced in Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 in Chapter 2: "Murray's travels I read, and was charmed by their accuracy and clear broad tone. He is the only Englishman that seems to have traversed these regions, as man, simply, not as John Bull."




By William Charles




John Bull holds the head of Napoleon Bonaparte in an 1803 caricature by James Gillray.





John Bull taking a Luncheon: – or – British Cooks, cramming Old Grumble-Gizzard, with Bonne-Chere, hand-coloured etching
1798  Author James Gillray




James Gillray, "John Bull's Progress"




John Bull and Uncle Sam












John Bull," standing in English channel with arms akimbo, looking at Napoleon, whose head looks over top of fortification on the French coast.




John Bull and the Suspension of Habeas Corpus




John Bull and Lady Liberty




John Bull as a Lion




John Bull and Ladies




World War I recruiting poster




John Bull and the Property Tax




John Bull Temptation




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