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Monday, October 10, 2011

Social and Political Satire Two Hundred Years Ago...

James Gillray by Charles Turner, 1819.
Image courtesy of the NY Public Library.

Caricaturists are all the rage today, especially with the political situations occurring worldwide.  But one of the best ever lived in what has been called the "golden age" of English caricature (circa late 1700s to early 1800s).  James Gillray was an equal-opportunity caricaturist, and no one was safe from his often outrageous caricatures, which were works of art.  This "no one is safe" approach also accounts for the long success of South Park.

L'Assemblée Nationale, 1804, is considered one of best caricatures ever done
because of its remarkable likenesses.  It depicts a reception given by Charles
James Fox for the Prince of Wales; all the participants were anti-government.
The Prince of Wales paid big bucks to suppress it and have the plate destroyed.

In the late 1700s London booksellers and print shops displayed prints in their storefront windows.  People would crowd the sidewalks, especially people who couldn't afford to buy, and look at the prints.  At this time the term "caricature" came to be used for any print that was humorous or satirical.  Soon these prints became so popular that shops catering solely to caricatures were established. Collectors, mostly upper class, collected them by the hundreds, and often had them bound.  Caricaturists became celebrities, known internationally.

May 29, 1787, shows the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and King George
(dressed as a woman) scarfing gold coins from a bowl.  They (except the
Prince of Wales) have full bags hanging around their necks like goitres,
and the door of the treasury behind them is open.

Gillray began as an engraver's apprentice at an early age.  Bored, he joined a band of strolling players, along with some of his fellow apprentices.  When that didn't pan out, he began selling his work again in London.  He was a student at the Royal Academy in 1778, and supported himself on the side by engraving.  At this time caricaturists were considered to be a "disreputable" profession, and were on the bottom of the hierarchy among printmakers, despite their work being avidly sought by the upper class (being "disreputable" may have added to their marketability.)

The Plumb-pudding in danger, February 26, 1805, shows William Pitt and
Napoleon carving a plum pudding which is also the world.

He wanted to be a portrait painter, but got few commissions, so he went back to engraving for local print shops.  He sold his work mainly through William Humphrey, but later began working for Humphrey's younger sister, Hannah. Gillray helped her become London's leading print seller, living with her in a room above her shop.  Rumors of their relationship ran rampant, but there are no facts concerning their relationship, although she was a stabilizing force in his life and physically cared for him until he died.

Very Slippy Weather, February 10, 1808, shows a scene outside
Miss Humphrey's print shop with a crowd looking at the prints.

His prints were made by four men who manned two flat-bed presses, then they were hand-colored by a crew of women.  Miss (often called "Mrs.") Humphrey sold them in her shop and also was the wholesale distributor to other dealers.

Two-Penny Whist, January 11, 1796, the second woman (with glasses) is
Hannah Humphrey, the other woman is her shop assistant.  Image courtesy NYPL.

He was a liberal initially, but then his work started showing support for the Tories. When asked why he drew things that were adverse to the Whigs, he stated that the Whigs were poor and did not buy his prints, hence demonstrating that like most satirists, his skills were for hire.  Therefore he cannot be seen as a political adherent to either side, since his work covered the entire political scene.  It was a good time to be a caricaturist, as party warfare, like today's, was quite bitter and active.  Gillray's biting humor and sharp sense of the ridiculous paired with his skills made him highly sought after and admired.

A Connoisseur Examining a Cooper, 1792, is one of Gillray's most
famous satires.  King George III (the figure depicted) once said that
he didn't understand Gillray's caricatures.  Gillray shows him using
a candle, evidence of his miserly habits, to look at a small picture
of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, evidence of his pretension
of knowing art, and reflecting republicanism in Britain.  Image
courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Along with skewering the political figures such as King George III, the Prince of Wales, and Napoleon Bonaparte, he turned his deft mind and skills to social issues as well, which are just as amusing.

The Gout, published May 14, 1799.

Gillray's eyesight failed in 1806, and spectacles did not help.  He became depressed and turned to drink. In 1811, he tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the attic window of Miss Humphrey's shop.  He suffered from insanity, but was looked after by Miss Humphrey until his death in 1815.

The Cow-Pock, 1802, Edward Jenner administers cowpox vaccine to frightened
young women at St. Pancras Hospital.  There was much controversy over the
smallpox vaccine, inspiring this satire.  Cows are emerging from the bodies of
the innoculees.

The "golden age" of the English engraver has provided us with information about the historical events of the day, fashions, and what people thought and felt.  These documents are still highly collectable.  Initially they were priced for and collected by wealthy patrons.  One of the most remarkable collections of Gillray's work was amassed by Samuel J. Tilden, lawyer, New York governor, and candidate for president of the United States.  Today, the Tilden Trust is one of the cornerstones of the New York Public Library.

A Meeting of Embrellas, 1782, a social comment on the fact
that a man carrying an umbrella was seen as effeminate.

Gillray was brilliant and a skilled draftsman and printmaker.  His familiarity with current events, issues, scandals, and trends blended well with his knowledge of history, literature, and art history, allowing him to create sharp satires that were spot on.  He is considered one of the most influential political caricaturists, and the great French caricaturist, André Gill (born Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guînes), chose his pseudonym to honor Gillray.  How many of today's caricaturists will be valued and collected two hundred years in the future?

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. I have a wonderful illustrated book covering the history of French caricature up to the Sixties-- nice to know one of the greats based his pseudonym to honor Gillray.

    I adore Hogarth and his connection to the development of comic strips (Perhaps a future blog or a link to a blog already written?).

  2. Thanks for the comment, Michelle!

    Haven't done a post on Hogarth...yet! I, myself, love André Gill.