"O the Roast Beef of Old England," propagandist in tendency, depicts the French as a starved, ragged people oppressed by their religion and exposed to ridicule by their affectation. The engraved title of the plate comes from a nationalistic anti-French song popular during the period. The following narrative of the print's origins provided by John Ireland may in some measure account for Hogarth's attack on the French in this work:
Ignorant of the customs of France, and considering the gate of Calais merely as a piece of ancient architecture, he began to make a sketch. This was soon observed; he was seized as a spy, who intended to draw a plan of the fortfication, and escorted by a file of musqueteers to M. la Commandant. His sketch-book was examined leaf by leaf, and found to contain drawings that had not the most distant relation to tactics. Notwithstanding this favourable circumstance, the governor with great politeness assured him, that had not a treaty between nations been actually signed, he should have been under the disagreeable necessity of hanging him upon the ramparts: as it was, he must be permitted the privilege of providing him a few military attendants, who should do themselves the honour of waiting upon him, while he resided in the dominions of the Grande Monarque. Two centinels were then ordered to escort him to his hotel, from whence they conducted him to the vessel; nor did they quit their prisoner, until he was a league from shore; when, seizing him by the shoulders, and spinning him round upon the deck, they said he was now at liberty to pursue his voyage without further molestation.
[Ireland, Hogarth Illustrated, I:217-218.]
The scene shows Calais through two jaw-like gates. In the foreground three women, each wearing a cross about her neck, gather enthustiastically (one in adoration) around some fish. They smile at the almost human grin on a skate, unaware of its similarity to their own faces. Tow carry burdensome loads of vegetables; the third is a fishwife. The food they carry and admire represents the normal French fare. Above them Hogarth appears in by a sentry box, sketching the scene. A pike hovers over his head and an arresting hand has been laid on his shoulder. A comparison between the engraver's countenance and those of the other personages in the work suggests the caricatured nature of the latter's faces.
In front of him a ragged soldier (his pants are closed with a wooden skewer, his elbow is out and his ruffles, bearing the proprietary tage "Grand Monarch P," are made of paper) stares in amazement at the beef just arrived from England. The soldier appears to be suspended from the drawbridge chain to suggest the mechanical nature of his role—Paulson calls him a puppet. The butcher, a little less ragged than the other people, staggers under the weight of the meat as he carries it "For Madm Grandsire at Calais," who catered to English visitors. The stout, ugly friar, the only well-fed and well-dressed Frenchman in the scene, rests his fat hand on his chest in an anticipatory way and fingers the meat.
Behind the butcher two more soldiers view the beef. A skinny, unkempt Frenchman with a bayonet on his gun spills his thin soup in awe of the sight. A small fellow with a bullet hole in his hat and a sword that trails on the ground stares at the meat. Two ragged cooks carry off a cauldron of soup; one wears a wig while his shirttail sticks out through a hole in his pants. Below them sits a wounded, anguished Scot, in exile for supporting the Stuart cause. He wears a plaid outfit, worn-out shoes and a sporran with a pipe in it. A cake, an onion and an empty liquor measure lie at his side. The small soldier is by tradition thought to be Irish. That he and the Scot bear marks of battle suggests they have been put in the front lines by the French.
Through the threatening teeth-like gate four people can be seen in the deserted town kneeling serviley for a religious procession that passes before a tavern with the ironic sign of a dove representing the Holy Ghost.