May 22, 2004


Self-Portrait by James Gillray, in miniature, ca 1795.James Gillray (1756-1815) was one of the first professional caricaturists, an artist whose command of satire and master-draughtsmanship helped found the tradition of the political cartoon. Gillray learned his trade as an engraver’s apprentice, and later as a student of engraving at the Royal Academy, then under the presidency of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Incidentally, Gillray’s attendance at the academy overlapped with that of William Blake. Gillray began selling his first caricatures while still a student: ‘At first the most noteworthy were concerned with the brothel and the privy, but politics gradually began to intrude.’ To begin with, it seems that Gillray considered his caricatures to be an interim money-earner, while he pursued more serious artistic goals. During the 1780s, he worked for a number of publishers, and accepted commissions from all-comers, attacking Whigs and Tories alike with equal venom.

'Cincinnatus in Retirement', coloured print by James Gillray, 1782.


'Wife & no wife - or - A trip to the Continent', coloured print by James Gillray, 1786.

After a series of disappointing encounters with the artistic establishment, Gillray eventually came to realise that caricature was his vocation, and this shows in a more meticulous quality seen in work from the early 1790s onward, and in the fact that he began to sign his more important plates Js. Gy. This change coincided with the beginning of Gillray’s exclusive affiliation with the publisher and print-shop proprietess Hannah Humphrey, ‘a maiden lady who preferred to be known as Mrs. Humphrey, she was some years older than the caricaturist, although her debut as a professional print-seller coincides with their [first] association [in 1779].’

'A Sale of English Beauties in the East-Indies', coloured print by James Gillray, 1786.


'Ancient Music', coloured print by James Gillray, 1787.

A large proportion of Gillray’s satires in the early 1790s were directed at the Royal Family. Even though some of these were of an unprecedented savagery, and on occasion caused genuine offence, they were more or less tolerated (and sometimes even admired) at court. A contemporary account notes that George III collected caricatures which were about himself, and viewed them with patient good-will, but that the Prince of Wales (later George IV) was less tolerant. Even so, an account was maintained on the Prince’s behalf at Mrs. Humphrey’s shop from 1803 onward.

'The Morning after Marriage - or - A scene on the Continent', coloured print by James Gillray, 1788.


'Fashionable Contrasts; - or - The Duchess's little Shoe yeliding to the Magnitude of the Duke's Foot', coloured print by James Gillray, 1792.

The intemperate Prince is portrayed in three of the present images. The second and fifth of the prints shown here deal with his clandestine (and invalid) marriage to his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert, a widow, and a Roman Catholic, in 1785. The latter print consciously echoes Hogarth’s famous Marriage à la Mode. The seventh print (below) is a needle-sharp satire on the Prince’s dissolute lifestyle which bears the marvellous title A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion. We see the King lampooned in the fourth and eighth prints, for his devotion to the music of Händel, and for his supposed parsimoniousness, respectively. The sixth print (above) targets Frederick, the Duke of York, who was married in 1791 to Frederica, eldest daughter to the King of Prussia. The sycophantic press had apparently been effusive on the subject of the none-too-attractive Duchess’s tiny feet and exquisite shoes…

'A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion',  print by James Gillray, 1792.


'Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal', print by James Gillray, 1792.

Concerning the two prints above with non-Royal subjects, the first has statesman and man of letters Edmund Burke as its subject, and the third derides the supposedly lax and immoral behaviour of the British in India. All of the present images were scanned from the catalogue of a 2001 Tate exhibition of Gillray’s work: James Gillray: The Art of Caricature, while Draper Hill’s 1965 biography Mr. Gillray, the Caricaturist was my source for most of the foregoing quotations. Click on the images to see them enlarged. To be continued…

Posted by misteraitch at May 22, 2004 08:36 PM | TrackBack

My parents owned a book of caricatures by Hogarth, Gillray & Rowlandson & they haunted my childhood. Something of the decadence depicted so scathingly by Gillray got through to me even then.

Posted by: Dick Jones on May 23, 2004 11:43 PM

My husband, a retired art teacher, has always liked Gillray's work and we have had a picture of the 'feet' framed for years hanging over our desk in the front room. Thank you for being alert to his talent and the site was sent to us by our son.

Posted by: Pat and Jack on August 16, 2004 09:21 PM
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