James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire by Tim Clayton

Farting, defecating and fornicating are synonymous with James Gillray’s prints and in Tim Clayton’s book there’s plenty of it on show, eye-poppingly so on occasion. But as James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire shows, it is also true that Gillray’s prints were beautifully rendered and colored as well as being politically acute and often viciously funny.

Two prints may help to explain Gillray’s enduring appeal for today’s political cartoonists. Fashionable Contrasts; or The Duchess’s Little Shoe Yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot is his contemptuous reaction to a sycophantic press fatuously drooling over Frederica, the eldest daughter of the King of Prussia, who had married George III’s second son, the Duke of York, in 1791. She was plain and tiny, but had in particular a celebrated “smallness of foot”. The rutting duke’s much larger feet prise her bejeweled shoes apart in an image of surprising elegance given the vigorous activity involved. Powerful, but simple.

Gillray’s 1793 print The French Invasion; or John Bull, Bombarding the Bum-Boats has the figure of George III drawn as a county map of England and Wales, crapping explosively and heroically on an invasion fleet setting off from France. Pure scatological Gillray, but funny with it.

Gillray was born in 1756 in Chelsea, the son of a war invalid. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed for seven years to a writing engraver, learning a skill useful to him later as an etcher of satirical prints. He then enrolled at the newly founded Royal Academy where he showed promise as a designer and engraver of paintings, only to abandon this and turn to satires as a career. He was the first serious artist to become a caricaturist. The great Hogarth before him was more of a social satirist than a political one, and hated the whole idea of caricature.

Gillray attacked Whigs and Tories at will, as well as royalty, the Church, the French Revolution and Boney. They were all necessary and deserving targets for his venom, but he was also pragmatic in his attacks. An astute businessman, he was alive to the necessity of adapting to survive, particularly in the uncertain period after the French Revolution. As Clayton puts it, “Gillray’s principal concern … was to amuse the public and make a living from his prints.”

James Gillray attacked Whigs and Tories at will, as well as royalty, the Church, the French Revolution and Boney.

He was also hardnosed enough in his dealings to accept government money. From 1797 to 1801 he took a secret annual pension of $240 from Pitt the Younger’s Tory government. This clandestine stipend was engineered by George Canning, a young ally of Pitt who was also desperate to be caricatured by Gillray (plus ça change). In reality it was a bribe, as the engraver John Landseer explained in 1831: “He was a reluctant ally of the Tory faction, and his heart was always on the side of whiggism and liberty. He did not ‘desert to the tories’, but was pressed into their service by an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances.”

The unfortunate concurrence of circumstances was that Gillray had produced a print, The Presentation-or-The Wise Men’s Offering for which he was arrested, charged with blasphemy and bailed. His recruitment by Pitt got him off the hook of prosecution, and for a while in 1796 he laid off the king and was less hostile to Pitt. But I don’t believe the episode compromised him since he was incapable of sucking up. Flattery wasn’t in his DNA.

But what of Gillray the man? There are few contemporary accounts. The German journalist Johann Hüttner describes this “gaunt, bespectacled figure” as “an extremely well-informed and widely read man, pleasant in company with an effervescent wit”. However, a later source notes his “slouching gait and careless habits who with all his capacity for creation and power of execution … appeared scarcely to think at all”. He enjoyed his pipe and a drink at the pub with his friend and fellow caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, although not to excess until later in life. He sounds more mild than bitter, but the work is anything but.

Gillray never married, but lodged with his publisher, the print seller Hannah Humphrey, at her premises in Old Bond Street. We are not aware if they cohabited. We do know that their relationship was close and that they nearly married, Gillray pulling out at the last minute outside St James’s Church. In 1807 he made a will leaving everything to “my dearest friend”. How he died, in 1815, is a matter for conjecture, like so much of his personal life. Failing eyesight led to depression, a cessation of working and eventual madness; it was rumored that in the throes of delirium he threw himself from his attic window, but this was never corroborated.

Flattery wasn’t in Gillray’s DNA.

A welcome feature of this book is its exploration of Gillray’s literary side. He used writing on his prints much more than his confreres, in crowded speech bubbles and captions beneath, above and often within the image. He would seek out the perfect analogy in literature to match the political moment, Shakespeare was a favorite source. He knew that his well-heeled audience would lap up his multiple allusions. The corpulent Whig politician Charles James Fox made a fine Falstaff.

The two great rivals Fox and Pitt were mainstays of Gillray’s career as a caricaturist. Pitt, the white-headed, pointy-nosed beanpole contrasted sharply with the swarthy, rotund and beetle-browed Fox. As different, say, as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, and obviously as much of a gift to draw.

This is a fascinating, well-rounded life of Gillray despite the lack of surviving detail. Clayton has done an impressive, thorough job examining the artist’s working methods and relationships, and provides a fine commentary on the prints. Gillray did little other than work, so there is plenty for Clayton to go on. From 1775 to 1811 he produced nearly a thousand prints. Some of them were rapidly etched responses to the politics of the day (similar in concept to today’s newspaper cartoons), while others were so highly worked and intricate that they take your breath away.

One such is Presages of the Millennium. Gillray parodies the words of Revelation 6:8, having a skeletal Pitt as Death on the pale horse, trampling the opposition, “those who were destroy’d for maintaining the word of Truth”. It is a terrifyingly violent image, although not without an anguished humor, and for me is the embodiment of Gillray’s genius. It’s what makes him the lodestar for political cartoonists, top banana, the gaffer, and makes me proud to follow the same profession.

A Revolution in Satire is a beautifully designed book, in large format, big enough for the details of each print to be seen clearly. Never were farting, defecating or fornicating more sumptuously displayed.

Peter Brookes has been the political cartoonist for The Times of London since 1992