The golden age of English caricature, extending from the late 1770s to the second decade of the nineteenth century, encompasses the life of its leading exponent, James Gillray (1756–1815), who contributed in no small measure to the brilliance and audacity of the political, personal, and social satires of this period. Gillray subjected all the key political figures of his day, along with the King, Queen, Prince of Wales, and assorted aristocracy, to his witty, telling, and often outrageous exaggerations, elaborations, and confabulations and, in the process, transformed the then new genre of personal caricature into high art. He was a brilliant draftsman and skilled printmaker, whose firm grasp of the essentials of history painting, fashionable portraiture, and contemporary romantic and “gothic” art allowed him to burlesque those traditions, even as allusions to these sources enriched his satires. His images, inventively interwoven with carefully worded titles and texts, reflect his familiarity not only with current events, issues, and scandals, but with ancient history, mythology, and contemporary and classical literature.
At a time when the press and parliamentary reporting encouraged an active awareness of current events and contemporary players, Gillray’s prints commented upon the historical, political, and social events of the day. However, his own politics, passions, and prejudices are often elusive. He seems to have had an underlying distrust of those in power (whether royalty or a reigning prime minister), lampooning what he perceived as corruption, injustice, and abuse of power in public life, and the foibles of society at large. He responded to the excesses of the French Revolution and the ensuing, ongoing war with France by aligning himself more or less with the King and the Tory party against the reformist and republican sympathies of the Whig party, and received a stipend from the Tory government for a time.
Though there was a wide audience for caricature throughout Britain and on the Continent, Gillray’s handsome hand-colored etchings were priced for and primarily collected by an upper-class clientele (including the Prince of Wales). Gossip-hungry Londoners purchased satires or rented albums of caricatures, usually viewing his prints in the privacy of the library, where the exuberant and often outrageous images could be discreetly enjoyed. Samuel J. Tilden (1814–1886), lawyer, New York governor, and unsuccessful (though popularly elected) candidate for the U.S. presidency, acquired and assembled a remarkable collection of Gillray prints and preparatory drawings from several major English collections. These materials – some 831 prints (nearly all of Gillray’s work), along with 156 original drawings and several letters – came to the Print Collection as part of a bequest from the Tilden Trust, one of the cornerstones (along with the Astor and Lenox libraries) of The New York Public Library.
This great Gillray bequest has never before been celebrated in a Library exhibition, although individual prints and drawings have been included in exhibitions, primarily in England, and the collection has been the subject of considerable scholarly study. This exhibition owes a great debt to the research of those and other scholars, among them Draper Hill, M. Dorothy George, David Bindman, Diana Donald, Ronald Paulson, Linda Colley, Katherine Hart, and particularly Richard Godfrey, to whose memory this exhibition is dedicated.
The curator wishes to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of those who helped to make this exhibition possible. Many of the Gillray prints and all of the drawings, including the very rare and highly fragile preparatory sketches on tracing paper, received the conservation treatment necessary for their exhibition and long-term preservation thanks to the generous support of Leonard L. Milberg, a loyal and enlightened benefactor of The New York Public Library.