How did caricaturist James Gillray satirically take down the Prince Regent?
Alice Loxton explores the details of one of James Gillray’s most famous works, A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion, and what it reveals about the future King George IV
The art of satirists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank gives us an unfiltered look at the preposterous highs and grisly lows of Georgian society. Here, Alice Loxton explains the hidden meaning within one her favourites, a sketch of the future George IV.
One of my favourite satirical sketches from the Georgian era is James Gillray’s A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion, and that is a depiction of the young George IV.
It's a pair of prints – one of which, the other one, shows his father, George III – while this one shows George IV. The centre of the print is this enormous sphere, this bulbous form, and that is the prince's tummy itself.
There's this overflowing chamber pot, really suggesting that he's this horrible kind of unclean character; lazy, gluttonous, that sort of thing
It's got this massive round tummy right in the middle, and the prince is kind of reclining in this chair. He's picking at his teeth with a fork because he's just finished this enormous meal.
You can see on the table there’s bones strewed out; it looks like he's actually just bitten into a great hunk of meat. There are empty glasses. There are bottles rolling around the floor.
James Gillray’s voluptuary of horrors
And then there's all these clues. This is the great thing about Gillray, you can play this game where you can tick off what clues you can find. In the bottom corner, we've got this pile of little books and this shows the horse racing and the racing tips, and that's a real hint to his terrible gambling habit.
Behind him, there's this overflowing chamber pot, really suggesting that he's this horrible kind of unclean character; lazy, gluttonous, that sort of thing.
If you look at all the details, is really a detailed portrait of George IV and all of his follies and foibles
Then there are all his bills unpaid and debts unpaid, so lots of basically receipts that haven't been paid or invoices that haven’t been paid. And then there are all these medical potions, which, you know, the doctor trying to deal with all of his various illnesses because of his indulgences.
There's also this Prince of Wales coat of arms, but Gillray very carefully here has replaced what would be the coat of arms with the thing that this prince holds most dear, which is a knife and fork.
A portrait of George IV
In the window in the background there is this kind of building works, where you can see these classical columns, and this is him building Carlton House.
Carlton House was an incredibly wasteful project. You think about the way that people criticise the government today: “You waste all this money on this building” or whatever. What George IV did really put that to shame because he spent years building this extravagant palace in the centre of London with all these different rooms and at vast expense with public money. And then when he became king, he just knocked it down.
This whole image, if you look at all the details, is really a detailed portrait of George IV and all of his follies and foibles. Gillray just captured it wonderfully.
Alice Loxton is the author of Uproar: Satire, Scandal and Printmakers in Georgian London. She was speaking with Ellie Cawthorne on the HistoryExtra podcast, discussing the printmakers who mocked Georgian society with their satirical sketches. Hear more from this conversation in the full audio episode.
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