James Gillray (1756-1815) remains a slightly mysterious figure compared to most of the people he caricatured. In his day, he was the most famous and fearsome satirical artist in Britain.
Gillray's father was a former soldier, disabled in the War of the Austrian Succession. Both his parents were London members of the Moravian Brethren, a strict, widely persecuted, and somewhat grim Protestant sect. From them he probably inherited his lifelong anti-Catholic and anti-French sentiments, as well as a sense of the importance of the relative religious tolerance and freedom available to Dissenters in Britain. The only child of his parents to survive past the age of ten, Gillray was educated at a Moravian school and then served an apprenticeship with a commercial engraver, producing advertising, tickets, and stationery.
The next definite step in his career came in 1778, when he enrolled as a student of engraving at the Royal Academy. At this London school he is likely to have encountered William Blake, his fellow-student, and the Academy president Sir Joshua Reynolds. He then made some attempts to set himself up as a serious illustrator and portraitist, but naturally gravitated towards the funny and the grotesque – even when he intended otherwise. He won economic success and fame (though not much contemporary status as an artist) with his engraved caricatures on politics, current events, scandal, and celebrities. These were not published in newspapers or magazines as similar pictures are today, but usually sold individually or in sets, to be collected in portfolios or displayed on the walls of homes, clubs and public houses. They were expensive objects, beautifully made and printed in fairly small numbers. However, they could often be seen by ordinary and even poor Londoners, displayed in the windows of print shops.
Over the course of his career, Gillray's caricatures became increasingly elaborate and ambitious. They feature erudite references to everything from Shakespeare plays to Reynolds's art to advertising, but also disturbing cruelty as well as dangerously libellous or obscene images. It was especially risky when they attacked the royal family and Gillray was arrested in 1796 for a caricature of the Prince of Wales and his daughter Princess Charlotte. Oddly enough, though, many of his victims, including King George III, collected his prints, and for politicians it was considered a badge of importance to have been targeted. He was regarded as so dangerous and so influential that in 1797 the Prime Minister, William Pitt, thought it necessary to pay him off to support the government. Gillray has often been criticised for accepting this bribe, and others, and for producing the desired pro-state propaganda, though these kind of payments were common at the time. It has never been clear how much he allowed money or fear of prosecution to affect his controversial work.
Beginning as a freelance cartoonist, in 1791 Gillray joined forces with the printseller Hannah Humphrey to publish and sell his satires. They were very close, and he eventually moved as a lodger into the house above her caricature shop on St James's Street in London. They considered marriage, but he backed out at the last moment. It is possible that he suffered from mental health problems for most of his life, and by his mid-fifties he was insane. Gillray died in 1815, leaving everything he owned to Mrs Humphrey.
Find out more:
Mark Hallett, James Gillray: The Art of Caricature (London: Tate, 2001). Catalogue of a 2001 exhibition at Tate Britain.
BBC radio programme, Great Lives, with the modern political cartoonist Steve Bell talking about Gillray.
A digitised collection of rare Gillray prints owned by Princeton University.
Ruth Scobie (University of Oxford)
Images © British Museum