May 27, 2004

Gillray, Continued

In his biography of Gillray, Draper Hill writes ‘According to the natural order of things, a satiric temperament seems to impel its possessor to the left, towards a philosophy of social justice - in Gillray’s case, this development was partially blocked by the Reign of Terror [in post-revolutionary France], which stifled any visible Republican leanings and obliged him to join in a defence of the status quo’. The situation in France had not preoccupied Gillray until the Revolution entered its radical phase in the autumn of 1792: the Jacobin regime and its successors aroused a deeply-felt antipathy in the caricaturist, one that provoked some of his bluntest and harshest satires. The growing hostility between Britain and France, and the attendant ‘threat to national security’ meanwhile awakened Gillray’s latent sense of patriotism. These factors partly explain a shift in the tenor of Gillray’s output toward the political right in the mid-1790s.

'French Liberty, British Slavery', coloured print by James Gillray, 1792.


'Two-Penny Whist', coloured print by James Gillray, 1796.

A good many of the designs in Gillray’s prints were executed after requests and suggestions from amateur satirists, gentlemen who would pay to see their wit given the Gillray treatment. One such, who became friendly with Gillray, was the Rev. John Sneyd, M.A., Rector of Elford (near Lichfield). Sneyd was also a close friend of George Canning, an ambitious young Tory politician. Canning shared Sneyd’s taste for caricature, and his talent for satire. He was also keenly aware of the value of publicity, and tried to use his indirect connexion with Gillray to get himself featured in one of the caricaturist’s prints: which by that time was a sure sign of having ‘arrived’ politically. Gillray was reluctant to do this at first, perhaps sensing little satiric capital in the political newcomer, but, some months after Canning had gained office as an undersecretary in the Foreign Office (early in 1796), his face began to show up in a few of Gillray’s prints.

'The Fashionable Mamma, - or - The Convenience of Modern Dress', coloured print by James Gillray, 1796.


'All Bond Street Trembled as he Strode', coloured print by James Gillray, 1802.

In the course of their overtures to Gillray in 1795 and ’96, Sneyd and Canning had gradually succeeded in gaining both Gillray’s attention, and his respect. Canning, and those in his circle, came to exert a distinct influence on the content of Gillray’s satires. In 1797, Canning secretly helped set up a stridently reactionary weekly journal entitled The Anti-Jacobin. One of the Anti-Jacobin’s chief contributors was an old schoolmate of Canning’s called John Hookham Frere. Frere roped in Sneyd to ask Gillray to put out prints that would complement the screeds in the journal. Gillray obliged, although there were occasions when the unrestrained malice of his unsubtle contributions backfired on the Anti-Jacobin’s backers. By the end of ‘97, Canning’s influence over Gillray had solidified into financial form, in the shape of a regular pension… ‘From this time forward, Gillray shows a considerable gain in political awareness, particularly as regards foreign affairs. Attacks on royalty, which had been declining in number and vehemence, were now discontinued.’

'Britannia Between Death and the Doctor's', coloured print by James Gillray, 1804.


'The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver', coloured print by James Gillray, 1804.

By the end of the 1790s, Gillray had long since ceased to view his work with cynical or mercenary ambivalence. Instead, he had come to look upon his political satires as a kind of public service, and justified them as a patriot’s duty. When, in 1800, his integrity was called into question during a protracted financial and legal dispute over an abortive commission to supply a portfolio of prints to accompany a planned follow-up to the Anti-Jacobin, Gillray seems to have been genuinely distraught that an opportunity ‘to serve a Cause which I thought myself honor’d in suffering every disadvantage for’ had come to nothing. He complained that to have had his motives impugned in the matter ‘hurt me beyond anything I have met with, during a Life made up of hardships & disappintments.’

'The Plumb-Pudding in Danger; - or - State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper', coloured print by James Gillray, 1805.

Four of the present images deal directly or indirectly with ‘The French Question’. The first contrasts a starving but contented French peasant with a well-fed but grumbling English yokel. The fifth image portrays an ailing Britannia incompetently attended by her politicians while still menaced by the spectre of Napoleon. Of all Gillray’s caricatures, he is perhaps best-remembered for those featuring Napoleon, oftenest personified as ‘Little Boney’. In the sixth image we see a Gulliver-sized Boney in his boat being blown toward a Brobdingnagian King George. The seventh image, above, is one of Gillray’s most famous, depicting Pitt and Napoleon carving off portions of the globe.

'Maecenas, in Pursuit of the Fine Arts - Scene, Pall Mall; a Frosty Morning.', coloured print by James Gillray, 1808.

A substantial proportion of Gillray’s caricatures were not political at all, but instead poked fun at the vagaries of fashion, and at the social mores and the principal personalities of his day. Gillray had a keen sense of what made people laugh, ‘despite the fact that his humour is not particularly remarkable for its warmth, or charity.’ A rare exception is the second image above, which portrays a convivial game of whist at Mrs Humphreys’: Mrs H. is the lady in the bonnet behind the table. The third image is a caustic, but beautifully-executed portrayal of a lady of fashion, who, evidently following the letter rather than the spirit of the then-modish doctrines of Rousseau, sees it as the ‘natural’ thing to breastfeed her own child. The fourth and eighth images are unkind character-studies of two men-about-town: James Duff, the Earl of Fife, and the Marquis of Stafford (a noted patron of the Arts), respectively.

'Pray Pity the Sorrows of a Poor, Blind Man', drawing in pen and wash by James Gillray, after 1811(?).

There are few accounts of Gillray’s personality, and those few often contradict each other, but, there is good evidence to suggest that he suffered from bouts of depression, and maudlin hypochondria. In his book, Draper Hill plausibly suggests that Gillray had a deep-seated and morbid fear of losing his sight, and that, when his sight indeed began to fail, after 1806, that this paved the way for the breakdown that followed in 1809. Gillray lived on for another six years, more or less insane, in the care of Mrs Humphrey. He died, possibly from suicide (there are contradictory accounts of his death), in 1815. One of his last known drawings is shown above, its title: Pray Pity the Sorrows of a Poor, Blind Man.

My sources for the quotations and images above are the same as in the previous entry: see below. Click on the images to see them enlarged.

Posted by misteraitch at May 27, 2004 02:02 PM | TrackBack

This is fascinating and beautifully done. Thanks for putting in the effort.

Posted by: the tongue on May 28, 2004 11:13 AM
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