James Gillray: the king of Georgian caricature

Two centuries after his death, James Gillray remains the undisputed king of caricature. Richard Gaunt reveals how Gillray turned his prints into potent political weapons...

'The Plum Pudding in Danger by James Gillray

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Grotesque children eat human entrails to illustrate the horrors of the French Revolution; the heir to the throne picks his teeth after a meal, waistcoat buttons popping as his glutton’s stomach expands; while pointy-nosed prime minister William Pitt the Younger and a tiny, wild-eyed Napoleon carve up a plum pudding in the form of the globe. For the vicious satire of the 18th-century engraver James Gillray, no subject was off limits.

Gillray, who died in 1815, was Britain’s first professional political caricaturist. Earlier visual satirists such as William Hogarth (1697–1764) had criticised caricature as a new and inferior species of art. However, Gillray, a skilled engraver well suited to the medium, embraced the central concept – exaggerating physical features for satirical purposes – and fashioned caricature into a powerful weapon of social and political criticism.

Born in August 1756, Gillray was raised as a Moravian. This strict Protestant sect stressed the depravity of mankind and saw death as a release from human failings. Gillray briefly rebelled against his upbringing by joining a band of strolling players. After an apprenticeship with a London writing engraver, Gillray honed his skills in the Royal Academy schools, though he resented the fact that engravers were denied membership of the academy.

Having sought employment in book illustration and engraving trade cards, Gillray moved into caricature full-time in 1786. By 1792, his work was being marketed exclusively by Hannah Humphrey, one of the leading London print sellers, whose shop window displayed the latest caricatures. Twice during the 1790s Humphrey moved her premises closer to the fashionable West End clientele who collected Gillray’s caricatures – and secretly hoped to see themselves featured in them.

Gillray worked in an age of big issues and big personalities – for example, the French Revolution and the parliamentary contest between Whig leader Charles James Fox and Pitt. With an output of 1,500 caricatures between 1786 and 1811, he established himself as “the foremost living artist in his genre”.

Gillray had few material wants, and lived above Hannah Humphrey’s shop, fuelling speculation that they were lovers. He spent his days sketching potential subjects for his caricatures or in his workroom, etching the copper plates from which the prints were produced. He was known as ‘the Shakespeare of the etching needle’, and his work received favourable notices in the German magazine London und Paris.

By 1807, Gillray’s eyesight was failing. Shortly after his last signed print appeared in 1809, he sank into depression and alcoholism. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt in 1811, he was cared for by Hannah Humphrey.

Gillray died on 1 June 1815, having successfully established the legitimacy of caricature as a weapon of political propaganda.

Gobbling up the globe

The print shown above, The Plumb-Pudding in Danger, is among the most iconic of Gillray’s caricatures. It appeared in February 1805, two years into the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France.

The artist’s expertise in personal caricature is shown in his characterisation of the two central protagonists: Britain’s prime minister, William Pitt, and France’s new emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Pitt is dressed as a red-coated British soldier, Napoleon as his blue-coated antagonist. They are seen dissecting a gigantic plumb pudding, depicted as a globe, with Napoleon cutting away a large portion labelled ‘Europe’ while Pitt concentrates on the Atlantic Ocean.

The caricature encapsulates the idea of political chicanery in times of war, suggesting that both powers are more interested in establishing their own spheres of influence than seeking the liberation of peoples. The brilliance of this caricature lies in Gillray’s ability to exaggerate Pitt’s angularity and Napoleon’s diminutive size, while ensuring that both men are instantly recognisable.

Gillray regularly used food and drink as a metaphor for gluttony or meanness. His suggestion that wars are not fought for grand ideals has been much imitated – not least by the modern political cartoonist Steve Bell, who regularly uses Gillray as a source of inspiration.

Beware the Whig serpent of liberty

During Britain’s war with France, the Whigs – who continued to call for political reform at home – were portrayed as traitors undermining the war effort. Gillray represents this view through the well-known story of Adam and Eve in The Tree of Liberty with the Devil Tempting John Bull. The British people are represented by Bull, who embodies stoicism, self-interest and common sense.

Bull is tempted by a serpent-like creature with the recognisable features of Whig leader Charles James Fox. He tempts Bull with the apples of reform, labelled with words such as ‘Revolution’ and ‘Slavery’. Bull refuses him, preferring the fruit from the ‘Justice’ tree, which bears a crown (in the background).

 The print appeared in 1798, when a French invasion of Britain was a real possibility. Around this period Gillray received a secret government pension of £200, awarded in an attempt to prevent him from caricaturing government ministers in a negative fashion. In many prints from this period, Gillray left room for manoeuvre, suggesting some ambivalence about ministerial policy.

In this picture, though, the political message is clear enough: meddling with reform will endanger the advantages that are enjoyed under the existing constitution.

A grotesque revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 was initially greeted with enthusiasm in Britain. But by the time this print, Un Petit Souper a la Parisienne, appeared in 1792, it had sunk into bloodshed and anarchy. The British public received increasingly graphic accounts of murder, violence and tyranny, stoking a sense of crisis and preparing the ground for war between the two countries – which indeed broke out in February 1793.

The print shows a family of revolutionary sans-culottes (‘without breeches’) – one sporting the bonnet rouge, the red cap of liberty – gorging themselves on a cannibal feast. Infants are being basted over the fire, heads are being disgorged and even the children on the floor are busy eating human entrails.

This is a ‘grotesque’ image in the fullest sense of the term. Gillray was a master of the grotesque technique – he fashioned images from a wide range of sources, taking myth, folklore, legend, history and previous artistic masterpieces as his inspirations.

The image of humans disembodying humans played upon stories of atrocities from France where the ritual execution, hanging and decapitation of anti-revolutionaries had begun as early as 1790. Not long after this print appeared, the French king Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, would suffer death by guillotine.

The joke is on Britain’s feckless prince

George, Prince of Wales, heir apparent to King George III, was the playboy prince. Famed for his huge appetites – for wine, women and gambling – he had, by the time of this ‘portrait’ (1792’s A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion), established himself as the most extravagant member of the royal family.

George’s self-indulgent lifestyle is represented by his expanding waistline, his body bursting out of his clothes, and the table laid with fine meat and drink. Behind him, an overflowing chamber pot and a pile of unpaid bills show him living beyond his (considerable) means.

The comic point is reinforced by the alternative crest on the wall – a crossed knife and fork, surmounted by the prince’s feathers and coronet. The portrait above George’s head reinforces the moral point for the more learned viewer – it shows Luigi Cornaro of Padua (1467–1566), who had published a self-help book advising readers to follow a frugal diet in order to enjoy a long life.

Europeans marvelled at the relative freedom with which the British satirised their rulers, especially in an age in which kings could not feel entirely safe upon their thrones. Yet George was himself an avid consumer of caricatures, setting up an account with Hannah Humphrey and amassing an unrivalled collection that was sold to the US Library of Congress in 1920.

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Dr Richard A Gaunt is associate professor of history at the University of Nottingham. His books include Peel in Caricature: The ‘Political Sketches’ of John Doyle (‘HB’) (The Peel Society, 2014)