6 May 2021
Emmanuel’s rare copy of the Caricatures of James Gillray (1756-1815) – published in monthly parts c.1800-1806 – is a kind of selected highlights from the work of the forerunner and originator of the political cartoon, even if Gillray’s political and social satires are often different in form and effect from the cartoons in today’s newspapers.
Many of Gillray’s caricatures – crammed with visual detail, and often with speech bubbles crowded with wordy text – can take a reader some time to digest. But not always. His depiction of Napoleon Bonaparte and the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, carving up the globe between them like some steaming plum-pudding [Plate 1] conveys its meaning almost at a glance, and is said to be one of the most imitated and influential cartoons of all time.
Although something of a free spirit, who in youth had spent time drifting with a company of strolling players, Gillray had also had a rigorous training at an early age as a letter-engraver and studied at the Royal Academy. His caricatures are hence not only conceptually daring but always highly technically accomplished. Around a thousand have been attributed to him, although he may have produced almost as many again. Gillray’s career as a caricaturist (between 1792 and 1810) happened to coincide with the tumultuous aftermath of the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars – and the ferment of British political life during that period. Gillray could work in a society where – at least compared with most of Europe – there was freedom of speech and expression, and where public figures could be lampooned with unbridled ferocity and venom. Gillray’s deadly cartoons of the Prince of Wales as a profligate and debauched voluptuary have lastingly shaped perceptions of the man who became successively Prince Regent and George IV. Somewhat inconsistently Gillray also satirized George III’s homely frugality and dull domesticity, but perhaps any eccentricity is grist to the cartoonist. Once Gillray began to pursue his relentless mockery of Napoleon’s megalomaniac pretensions, his view of George III softened. Gillray always depicts Bonaparte as a very small man in a very big hat. A famous caricature [Plate 2] shows George III addressing a tiny Napoleon with the same retort as the King of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels, after Gulliver has vainly attempted to draw a favourable picture of his own society for the gigantic King: ‘I cannot but consider you to be one of the most pernicious little odious reptiles that nature ever suffer’d to crawl upon the surface of the Earth …’ George III was reported to be much pleased with this cartoon.
Gillray’s other caricatures of Bonaparte ridicule the absurdities of his overweening ambitions. The Emperor’s taste for inventing new satellite regimes, and new puppets to reign over them, is the subject of a cartoon depicting him as a baker of ginger-bread figures, drawing yet another batch of ginger-bread kings out of his French oven [Plate 3]. Another caricature entitled ‘Pacific Overtures’ [Plate 4] – cast as a kind of theatrical performance – shows Bonaparte presenting a long list of absurdly unacceptable peace terms to George III (‘Dismantle your fleet … Reduce your army … Abandon Malta and Gibraltar … Pay £1M a year for seven years …’). ‘Very amusing terms indeed!’ retorts the bluff King, who continues that only ginger-bread kings could accept them. Gillray demands a lot of reading and noticing by an audience for this kind of cartoon, as also with his ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ [Plate 5], where old ‘Boney’ at the centre of the composition is beleaguered on all sides by the European powers represented as animals – the British lion, Russian bear, German eagle, Portuguese wolf, Death on a Spanish steed – while the Roman Catholic Church and ‘British Influence’ both radiate down from above.
Meanwhile domestic politicians are excoriated in cartoons like Gillray’s ‘The Pigs Possessed’ [Plate 6] in which an entire Cabinet is shown in the form of Gaderene swine – with human faces recognizable to contemporaries – being driven over a cliff into the sea. Some caricatures are aimed even more personally. ‘Dido in Despair’ [Plate 7] is a very unflattering satire on Nelson’s mistress Lady Hamilton, represented as Dido despairing at the departure of Aeneas (the British fleet is visible through her window). This latterday Dido is no longer young and is exceedingly stout, with enormously plump and puffy arms and legs. A book entitled Studies of Academic Attitudes Taken from the Life lies open at a spreadeagled naked woman, while Antiquities of Herculaneum lies open at naked cavortings. There seem to be figurines of Priapus on the floor; they are discreetly turned away from the viewer but one is helpfully labelled ‘Pri …’
Less remembered now are Gillray’s many satires on fads and fashions, although many achieve an eternal verity. His caricature on the ‘Advantages of Wearing Muslin Dresses’ [Plate 8] ironically highlights the dangers to women of wearing such a flammable material as muslin anywhere near an open fire. Here the old soldier in his epaulettes can do nothing more heroic than spill his tea-cup, the other lady has hysterics and upends the tea-table. The uncouth-looking servant serves no useful purpose. Again, the unlucky victim has a weight problem.
Whatever would Gillray have made of a Britain that today is reportedly the most obese nation in Europe? In a sense he was there already, in his wickedly observant eye for the comedy of fatness. He takes a line from Hamlet – ‘O! That this too too solid flesh would melt …!’ – as the theme of his cruelly funny cartoon of a quite exceptionally rotund and fleshy courting couple, who are clearly not in the first flush of youth [Plate 9]. The grotesquely plump arms and absence of hands … bodies bulging beneath clothes … a snapshot of overweight wooing frozen in time – it is a memorable vision of human absurdity.
Gillray’s eyesight failed from 1806 and, depressed that he could no longer work to his own exacting standards, he drank heavily and became mentally unstable. Throughout his career Gillray lived with his publisher, Miss Hannah Humphrey. It was in the windows of her printseller’s shops (at various times in the Strand, Bond Street and St James’s Street) that Gillray’s latest prints would be displayed for would-be purchasers. Periodically there was talk of marriage, and once they were even on their way to church to get married, when Gillray suddenly said: ‘This is a foolish affair, methinks, Miss Humphrey. We live very comfortably together. We had better let well alone.’ And so they turned round, and went home again.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)
Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)Back to All Blog Posts