This painting is Hogarth's comment on his second visit to France in the summer of 1748, when he was arrested as a spy while sketching the arms of England on the old city gate at Calais. The contemporary diarist George Vertue records in August 1748 that Hogarth and Francis Hayman were 'attempting to draw some Views of Fortifications &c. were surprized & clapt into the Bastile. from whence they were soon glad to return to England' ('Vertue Note Books III', Walpole Society, vol.22, Oxford 1934, p.142). Hogarth took his revenge with this painting.
The title was taken from a popular tune of the day, which extolled roast beef as the symbol of Britain's wealth and power. Numerous xenophobic references indicate Hogarth's low opinion of the French. The huge side of British beef at the exact centre of the picture, destined for the English inn at Calais, is neatly balanced by the scrawny French soldier at the other side of the drawbridge. A fat friar, the only well-nourished Frenchman in the picture, covetously pokes the beef. In the right foreground, a starving Jacobite sits with his pathetic meal of an onion and a piece of bread, his overturned cup beside him. The Jacobites, the Scotsmen who fled to France after the unsuccessful Scottish rebellion of 1745, are further symbolised by the black crow which perches atop the stone cross above the drawbridge. In the tableau framed by the gate, a white dove hangs on an inn sign above the cross – a satirisation of the Catholic Church. The fish-wives in the left foreground ridicule a skate whose unpleasantly human features resemble their own. To the left of the gate, framed by vegetables, sits Hogarth himself. As he sketches the drawbridge, the arresting officer's hand clasps his shoulder.
Further reading: Elizabeth Einberg, 'Hogarth the Painter', exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.48–49, reproduced in colour Terry Riggs March 1998