James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, by Tim Clayton
The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Yale University Press, 2022
The position of the caricature artist in the English art pantheon is a peculiar one. While the formal attributes of line, colour, texture, and subject matter are shared with other genres, they merge together for a very particular outcome. The intent is to highlight political and/or social mores and allow the spectator to reflect upon them in a way essentially directed by the artist. The caricature can therefore be understood as a kind of visual propaganda, and as such its artistic value may be underestimated. James Gillray, born in 1756 in a Chelsea cottage, is rightly regarded as the first English artist to specialise in caricature, and his story charts the rise and ultimate decline of the art form itself.
In 1778 Gillray was admitted to the Royal Academy school, where he studied engraving. Without getting too technical, metal plate engraving allows multiple copies of a print to be made, but it is very time-consuming as the metal has to scored meticulously with delicate tools. By contrast, the technique involved in etching is much quicker. The copper plate is covered with a thin coat of resin and the ground is then scratched away with a thin point to reveal the metal plate beneath. During the 1780s Gillray produced engravings for several publishers, illustrating editions of Fielding’s Tom Jones and Goldsmith's poem The Deserted Village, but as his career evolved he turned to etching as a means to produce topical prints, which were easier to sell.
More than a thousand prints are attributed to Gillray, but the real figure could be a third higher. With such a huge number of extremely varied works to assess and categorise, it is difficult to make any generalised statements about his work. Clayton's chronological approach is sensible, even if it gives the impression that Gillray's career followed a linear development. In fact, as the many superb illustrations in this book prove, Gillray was driven more by financial expediency than anything else, and while many of his political caricatures might suggest firmly held anti-Establishment opinions, overall his work shows that he would happily attack any figure or opinion to appeal to his buying public.
The most obvious examples are the prints that he produced around the time of the French Revolution. The uproar that this cataclysmic event provoked in England is often underestimated, and Gillray's portrayal of the reaction is an accurate mirror of the general mood. Initially many supported the revolution, believing that it would lead to a constitutional monarchy similar to the British model. Opinion changed only when the violence increased, and it became clear that a republic would be established and the monarchy and its supporters eliminated.
In July 1789 Gilray issued a print with Andrew Edmunds entitled France. Freedom. Britain. Slavery. The French side of the print shows a triumphant Louis in a chair borne aloft by a cheering crowd, as if a free constitutional monarchy were now in place. In contrast, George is depicted with a flag and instruments of torture, a gallows in the background and grovelling, chained subjects in the foreground.
A year later, in July 1790, Gillray engraved for the same seller a painting by James Northcote entitled Le triomph de la Liberte. This captures a similar sentiment of support for the revolution. It depicts the inside of the Bastille as the innocent, weakened prisoners are liberated, their chains struck off in a scene showing the revolution as a peaceful resetting of the social order. (According to Clayton, although it was produced in London the majority of this print's sales were in France, despite the fact that it cost roughly six times the usual price of a caricature.)
Gillray reflected the English response to the Terror in several prints, culminating with Liberty of the Subject (1793). On the 21st of January 1793 Louis XVI was executed, and in February France declared war. Any lingering sympathy for the revolution in England quickly evaporated, and Gilray’s savage denunciation catches the changed mood perfectly. A ragged sans culotte sits on a protruding metal pole upon which three clergymen are hanging. To one side of this figure is a bishop’s mitre with a hat inscribed 'Liberte' on top of it, surely a reference to the famous 1763 Hogarth print of John Wilkes. The burning building in the background may represent the destruction of the state by the revolution. The central figure is gleefully anticipating the execution that is about to take place: the guillotine has been raised, and a crown is etched on its shining blade. Gillray has chosen to imagine the moment when the king loses his life and the monarchy is extinguished, the point of no return.
The other subject that occupied much of Gillray’s time was the antics of the British Royal Family. With an ageing king, seriously unpopular following the loss of the American colonies and apparently hovering on the edge of madness, a gaggle of sons who not only opposed him publicly but were involved in several celebrated scandals, and a queen rumoured to be overly close to a widely disliked Prime Minister, it ensured that Gillray was never short of subject matter.
Clayton explores many of these fascinating prints in some detail. While it might appear that Gilray seriously disliked the Royal Family, much of the humour, especially that aimed at George III, was not unkindly meant. While these prints poked fun at the Establishment's main figures, many of them reinforced the idea that they were also a family like any other, a concept that George himself was keen to promote.
In July 1791 Gillray published Hopes of the Party. In this work he draws together several contemporary themes. The print was issued around the time of the commemorations of Charles I's execution and a meeting of the Friends of Liberty in England, a group supported by Charles Fox, which had marked the second anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. Combining these themes, Gillray depicts George as a kind of human wheelbarrow, with Fox about to decapitate him with an axe. In the background Queen Charlotte and Pitt are suspended from two wall lamps; the suggestion of Pitt's ecstasy in her presence is probably a dig at his rumoured disinterest in women.
In the years that followed, Gillray used the Prince of Wales's secret marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert, and other scandals involving him and his brother, to great advantage. However, one particularly rare print unearthed by Clayton, Fashionable Contrasts (1792), displays a rare subtlety while also being beautifully drawn. The Duke of York had run up huge debts and been forced to marry the King of Prussia's eldest daughter, who was rather small, with famously tiny feet. The print shows the Duke’s large feet in buckled shoes, upside down between the Duchess's miniscule slippers. The bed on which they lie is loosely drawn, but the innuendo is obvious.
Subsequent Gillray prints from around that time consistently show the King and Queen as common people engaged in ordinary activities: stoking a fire, toasting muffins, sipping tea without sugar (in support of those who opposed slavery), and even snuffing out candles to save candle wax. (This last infuriated their servants, for whom the candle ends were an important financial perk of their jobs.) Increasingly George was portrayed as a simple-minded man who meant well but did not understand the political world in which he lived, although he also represented a kind of reassuring stability. A famous print from 1793 demonstrates this point perfectly. In October 1793 Marie Antoinette was executed, as the savagery of the Terror intensified. In England fear of invasion was rife, and the country braced itself for war with its revolutionary neighbour. In The French Invasion or John Bull Bombarding the Bum-Boats, Gilray turns George into a map of England, destroying the French fleet with a scatological bombardment from somewhere around Portsmouth. Although he is wearing a dunce's hat, George is here portrayed as the potential saviour of the nation.
For a brief period Gillray attempted to advance his career with more serious subjects, namely portraits of the famous and reflections on morally uplifting themes such as prison reform. While many of these engravings clearly demonstrate his skill, a combination of financial mismanagement and the realisation that his talent was better suited to satirical subjects led him to abandon this course. One of these prints was a portrait of Pitt, a likeness with striking similarities to his portrayal in Gillray's earlier satirical prints. Its failure to sell suggests that the artist had not properly considered the market for such a work. A few months earlier Gillray had depicted Pitt as a vulture ripping the Prince of Wales’s feathers as he grasped the royal crown in his claws. Pitt's supporters would be unlikely to buy a portrait by the same artist who had so ridiculed him, and opponents of the Prime Minister would be equally disinterested, for obvious reasons.
Politically the 1790s were dominated by Pitt, but it is difficult to unravel Gillray’s true opinion of the man. For example, in 1791 he printed An Excrescence; a Fungus; alias a Toad Stool Upon a Dung-Hill, in which Pitt's head is transformed into a mushroom, its roots entwined around the Royal Crown, buried inside a dungheap. However, in 1795 he published Patriotic regeneration, viz. Parliament reform'd, a la Francoise, in which Pitt is depicted as the innocent victim of a mob led, of course, by Fox, as he faces a trial for his life. Just a month later Gillray produced the remarkable Light Expelling Darkness in which Pitt is cast as an heroic figure, driving the national chariot as it scatters all the enemies of the state. A golden sun behind him contains the motif 'Commons, King, Lords,' and the Hebrew word for wisdom. Gillray was open to commissions from both political parties, so that his real allegiances are hard to pinpoint; as a working graphic artist, his main priority was perhaps a steady income.
Gillray continued to produce prints that mocked the Royal Family (especially the Prince of Wales) and most of the leading politicians of the time. An uneasy peace was signed with France in 1801, but just two years later war was again declared, and now Gillray had Napoleon in his sights. The summer of 1803 was dominated by the threat of invasion, and one of Gillray's several topical prints is especially worthy of mention. The Hand-Writing Upon the Wall is a complex design full of intricate detail, likely based on Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, a painting of the Biblical story in which the end of the Babylonian king's reign is foretold in the writing on the wall behind him, which he fails to understand. Like Belshazzar, Napoleon has been weighed in the scales above his head and found wanting: it is implied that he will soon be dethroned, or even killed.
Gillray’s life ended sadly, his eyesight failing and his mental health deteriorating. His last print was published in 1811 and he died in 1815, buried in a simple grave in St James’s churchyard, Piccadilly. After his death he was largely forgotten. As the Victorian age progressed and the political complexities that dominate his finest work became increasingly challenging to easily comprehend, he slowly disappeared from the artistic pantheon. More recently his achievements have been rediscovered, and he is now rightly considered the ‘father’ of the satirical print.
In his concluding observations, Clayton states that Gillray was able to combine subject matter, image design, and language to present with an end product that proclaims eternal truths. He references one of Gillray’s best-known works The Plumb-Pudding in danger, or, State Epicures taking un Petit Souper (1805), in which Pitt and Napoleon are depicted carving up a globe-shaped plum pudding: Napoleon takes Europe, while Pitt concentrates on the Southern hemisphere. This would be striking enough, and makes the political point clearly, but the Shakespeare quotation above the image adds an additional, more serious dimension. Taken from The Tempest, the lines are:
the great globe itself, Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a wrack behind.
The actions of both Pitt and Napoleon are emphatically dismissed as merely temporal, as we are reminded that all human enterprises must eventually end.
This book is truly a celebration of Gillray. Lavishly illustrated, it comprehensively demonstrates just how talented he was and how expertly he handled a difficult technical process, while also leading the way in a relatively novel medium. The satirical print will necessarily always be very much of its own time. Without a working knowledge of the contemporary national and international political scene, and the gossip associated with the ruling class, much of Gillray’s work is almost completely inaccessible. Clayton clearly has a thorough grounding in both, able to disentangle even the most complex images, and thereby help the reader to more fully appreciate the artist's skill. Gillray's might not be the first name that springs to mind when considering English artists of this period, but this book clearly shows that we can be inordinately proud of him, and that he still has much to teach today's graphic artists..--Paul Flux