This is one of the most famous 19th-century caricature maps. It was the inspiration for, and progenitor of, many later ‘serio-comic’ war maps of Europe. The map was previously attributed solely to its publishers, the partnership of Rock Brothers & Payne, but a recently discovered early printing of the map clearly shows the initials of the actual artist responsible – ‘Done by T. O.’ – on the southern coast of Asiatic Turkey, which is partially concealed in this example. This attribution allows us to elevate the illustrator Thomas Onwhyn (1813–1886), son of Joseph Onwhyn to a position alongside Fred W. Rose and other famous artists in this field, and accord him the honour of being the originator of this genre.

The immediate stimulus for the map was the commencement of the Crimean War (1853–1856), in which Britain, France and their allies waged war against Russia. The four principal protagonists are depicted as animals: the British lion, who appears to be on sentry duty; the French imperial eagle, denoting Napoleon III’s Second Empire; Turkey in Europe (inevitably) as a turkey; and Russia as a rather harmless-looking bear, albeit wielding a flail of many strands, with the knots in each shown as skulls. The bear’s body is labelled ‘despotism’, ‘bigotry’, ‘cruelty’, ‘slavery’, ‘ignorance’, ‘oppression’ and other unflattering terms. Russia’s neighbour, Poland, is shown as enslaved, with even her name spelled out in bones.

In the Baltic, the allied fleet has penned the Russian fleet in its harbour. The Anglo-French fleet is being blown eastwards by the Danish bellows towards Cronstadt, with the Swedish exhortation ‘Go it Charley’, and the diminutive figure of Admiral Charles Napier crying, ‘I’ll give him a flea in his ear’.

The main theatre of war was the Crimea; the allied fleet is shown encircling the peninsula, optimistically trimming the toenails of the Russian bear. Below the map title, the ‘Balance of Power’ is shown shifting decisively in favour of the allies, represented by a French cockerel, two turkeys (Asiatic Turkey and European Turkey), and the British lion. In fact, the Crimean War turned out to be a brutal affair, perhaps the first modern war, with neither side an outright winner, even if the allies achieved their original objective of capturing the Russian naval base at Sebastopol.

Despite the wartime setting of the map, many of the national representations are altogether more peaceful. Tunis is depicted as a dancing lioness, in harem trousers and curly-toed slippers, playing the banjo; Italy is a startled dog, with Sicily as a battered kettle – presumably alluding to the volcanic Mount Etna – tied to its tail. The island of Elba, where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled, is denoted by his bicorn hat.

Throughout the map are numerous references to alcohol, coupled with some truly terrible puns: the Caucasus mountains are depicted as a series of foaming bottles, labelled ‘Cork as us Mountains & bottle him’; the bottle clutched by Turkey is labelled ‘The sublime Port[e]’; Malta is a tankard of malt beer; Munich is a stein; and western Germany a champagne flute.

Onwhyn’s map is crowded with all manner of other symbolism relating to the casus belli, the struggle between the competing Russian and Turkish spheres of influence in southern Europe. Some of the references are obvious but some are now unclear; this is one of the most detailed of all ‘serio-comic’ maps of the type, and a rewarding subject for future study.