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James Gillray

Checklist Part 1

Mr. James Gillray
Charles Turner (1774-1857), after James Gillray
Color mezzotint, 1819

James Gillray, shown here in a mezzotint after his only known formal self-portrait (a miniature on ivory, in the National Portrait Gallery, London), was born into a Moravian household in the village of Chelsea in 1756. His formal education appears to have been limited to a few years at a Moravian school, but his erudition and lively intellect suggest that he was well-read. He was apprenticed to Harry Ashby, an engraver of banknotes, certificates, and maps, from whom he must have learned the basics of printmaking (until he and his fellow apprentices ran away to join a band of strolling players). In 1778 he enrolled in the newly established Royal Academy, where he studied engraving, perfected his draftsmanship, and refined his mastery of the human figure.

His first satires, dating from the late 1770s, show the influence of John Hamilton Mortimer, but it was James Sayers’s portrait caricatures that inspired Gillray to find his unique voice, and encouraged him to develop his brilliant and often corrosive repertoire of immediately recognizable characters. Events surrounding the French Revolution, the British war with Republican France, fear of unrest at home, antipathy for the Whig party, and the rise of Napoleon gave Gillray’s work a special edge and focus. His reactions to these events and protagonists more or less followed a Tory party line, though his services, like those of other contemporary satirists, were for hire, and his message and point of view could be tailored to reflect that of his employer and of the buying public. He did not live to see Great Britain victorious over France. Incurably insane by the end of 1810, cared for by his loyal publisher, Mrs. Humphrey, Gillray died on June 1, 1815, just seventeen days before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Graphite, n.d.

Gillray’s personality has remained an enigma. Johann Christian Hüttner, correspondent for the contemporary German periodical London und Paris, which championed Gillray as “the foremost living artist in the whole of Europe,” offered conflicting opinions. He initially described Gillray as an “extremely well-informed and widely read man, pleasant in company, with an effervescent wit.” His later character sketch seems closer to the truth: “no one would guess this gaunt, bespectacled figure, this dry man, was a great artist.” Another contemporary observed that he was “a man of slouching gait and careless habits,” and in later life he apparently suffered from arthritis and eye problems. Some said he drank excessively, and he was reported to have been more comfortable frequenting his local tavern than in the society of other artists, though he may have been a friend of fellow caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson.

Gillray lived and worked over the printshop of his publisher Mrs. Humphrey, first on Old Bond, then on New Bond Street, and later on St. James’s Street, placing the artist where his upper-class subjects dwelt and socialized. Gillray must have observed and sketched his aristocratic and political prey on the street, and was recorded as doing the same in the House of Commons. A later biographer wrote that Gillray was “all over the place, following the troubled elite like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.”

The Nancy Packet
Published by Robert Wilkinson: 1784
Engraving, etching, and stipple

For two and a half years, from 1783 until mid-1786, Gillray left satire behind to establish himself as a “serious” reproductive printmaker. Surely enticed by the hefty fees earned by the likes of William Woollett and Robert Strange for their engravings after the paintings of leading academicians, Gillray copied a number of works by the painter James Northcote, as well as engraved his own designs, including The Nancy Packet. He mastered all the tricks of the engraving trade, but he failed to win a single major commission, and ultimately returned to perfect his talents as a caricaturist. Perhaps Gillray was too closely associated with the excesses and exaggerations of caricature to be allowed entry into the world of the “serious” engraver. As Richard Godfrey observed of the melodramatic Nancy Packet, “high farce is only a whisper away.”

Portrait painter
No. 7 Little Newport Street
Leicester Fields

This business card suggests that Gillray hoped to establish himself, not only as a reproductive engraver, but also as a portrait painter. An illustrator wrote later in the nineteenth century that Gillray had “made some progress as a miniature painter,” as his self-portrait (see the mezzotint after that portrait, #1) could testify. The Library’s oil sketches on paper (see #70, 72, 73 in the exhibition case along the opposite wall) also demonstrate his skills as a painter.

Gillray’s wish to elevate himself above the ranks of caricaturist was understandable. The fees demanded by the reproductive engraver were considerably higher than those earned for satires, and there was also the issue of status and respectability. Engravers were not allowed full membership in the Royal Academy, but even within the ranks of printmakers there was a hierarchy. Reproductive engravers were at the top of the pecking order, followed by those who engraved mezzotints after portraits, with caricaturists on the bottom rung. While the upper classes avidly collected caricatures, the literature of the day frowned upon the genre. Even as late as the 1830s, a writer on Gillray posited: “Who can desire to learn the secrets of so disreputable a profession?” When Gillray died he was not honored with an obituary, and only a single sentence in the Gentleman’s Magazine noted his passing.

James Gillray and George Cruikshank (1792–1878)
A Cure for Drowsiness – or – A Pinch of Cephalic
Published by George Humphrey: January 25, 1822
Etching, hand-colored

By the end of 1810, Gillray was incapacitated by mental illness. On one of those rare occasions when he could receive visitors, his publisher and landlady, Mrs. Humphrey, introduced the youthful caricaturist George Cruikshank to the ailing artist, who said, “You are not Cruikshank, but Addison; my name is not Gillray but Rubens.” Gillray’s associating himself with Rubens, whether it was a delusion or a metaphor, was appropriate. As Richard Godfrey observed, Gillray was a “disciple of Rubens and his Baroque excess”; the rollicking, energized rhythms of his draftsmanship made him a true successor to the Flemish master.

Cruikshank paid homage to his mentor when he etched Gillray’s satire for Mrs. Humphrey’s nephew, George, who took over the shop after her death in 1818. Instead of the anonymous bust that appears in the background of Gillray’s preparatory drawing for the print (in the Library’s collection), Cruikshank substituted a portrait of Gillray.

Published by Hannah Humphrey: January 11, 1796
Etching and aquatint with engraving, hand-colored

The card players include (wearing glasses) Hannah Humphrey, Gillray’s publisher and landlady, and her shop assistant, Betty; the two men have been identified as a German named Tholdal, who may have been a friend of Gillray’s, and, on the right, a picture dealer and restorer named Mortimer, who also appears in Connoisseurs Examining a Collection of George Morland’s (#131, in the South Hall).

While he initially worked for a variety of publishers, beginning in the autumn of 1791 Gillray made his prints almost exclusively for Hannah Humphrey, the younger sister of his first publisher, who, though unmarried, preferred to be called “Mrs.” By early 1793 he had moved into rooms over her shop on Old Bond Street, and moved again when the shop relocated to New Bond Street the following year. In 1797 he settled in and lived until the end of his life at 27 St. James’s Street, the shop’s final, very fashionable address, just 200 yards from St. James’s Palace. Although in Victorian times some writers alleged a liaison between artist and publisher, the nature of their relationship is unclear. Mrs. Humphrey appears, however, to have been a stabilizing force in Gillray’s life, and she cared for him during his last years, when he descended into insanity.

Published by Hannah Humphrey: February 10, 1808
Etching with engraving, hand-colored

The “exhibitions” in the window of Mrs. Humphrey’s shop on St. James’s Street, where Gillray lived and worked from April 1797 until his death in 1815, were very popular. A contemporary German periodical, London und Paris, which reproduced copies of many of Gillray’s caricatures, noted that his prints were “very well received by the public…. Mrs Humphrey has now moved to St James’s Street, which leads directly to the Palace and which is frequented by courtiers, aristocrats, guards, spies and informers at all times of day. You will always see dozens of people standing outside the shops which sell these caricatures.” Another tourist observed, “The enthusiasm is indescribable when the next drawing appears … it is a veritable madness. You have to make your way in through the crowd with your fists….”

Among the prints on view in the second row of windows (on exhibition in the South Hall) are Tiddy-Doll (#100), The King of Brobdingnag, and Gulliver (#90), and – a Kick at the Broad-Bottoms! (#116). Inside the shop, but visible through the window, two customers inspect an impression of End of the Irish Farce of Catholic-Emancipation (#102). Just barely discernible in the third row center (but reversed) is Two-Penny Whist (#6), with its portrait of Mrs. Humphrey. According to Draper Hill, the interior of the shop included two mahogany counters, with prints stacked in various pigeon-holes, and several showcases. The flat-bed printing presses may have been housed in the basement, and there was undoubtedly a work area for the colorists, women who skillfully followed the artist’s hand-colored models. Gillray’s living quarters and studio were said to be in the attic.

While many of Gillray’s prints evolved from his own designs, still others were based on the suggestions of amateurs (prints commissioned after others’ designs were an important source of income for Gillray). This print was one of a series of seven on the weather initiated by Gillray’s friend, the Reverend John Sneyd. Sneyd often provided ideas and sketches for the artist’s elaboration, and was, as well, an intermediary between Gillray and George Canning from the time Canning entered Parliament, in service to the Tory cause. Gillray distinguishes his role by inscribing “etch’d by Js. Gillray,” rather than crediting himself as “inventor.”


Gillray’s earliest satires are primarily etched, sometimes enriched with areas of aquatint, though he increasingly worked up his compositions with accents of engraving to add a final “finish” to the prints. By the late 1780s and into the 1790s, utilizing the tools of the “serious” engraver (particularly Bartolozzi, with whom he studied at the Academy), Gillray folded stipple and the dotted patterns of roulette into the printmaking mix. He could practice various styles at any one time, depending on the subject. He drew The Republican-Attack (#44) with a loose, sketchy line to suggest the quick, off-the-cuff rendering of a “news flash,” while A Connoisseur Examining a Cooper (#28) is delicately finished with roulette, the better to parody a formal royal portrait.

Draper Hill theorizes that Gillray’s prints customarily were pulled by a team of at least four men, manning two flat-bed presses, housed probably in the basement of Mrs. Humphrey’s shop. He believes that a few hundred impressions were printed initially, but since the copper plates were hammered to increase their surface toughness, the plates would have yielded fine impressions for years. The hand-coloring was added by a team of women, who skillfully worked from a model colored by the artist. Mrs. Humphrey sold these prints in her shop, and also distributed them wholesale to other dealers.

The Injured COUNT.. S –
Published by C. Morgan: ca. 1786
Soft ground etching, hand-colored

A consummately skilled printmaker, Gillray here experimented with the possibilities of soft ground etching. He pressed fabric into a receptive soft ground, which coated the etching plate. When the fabric was removed, it pulled away the soft ground in a weave pattern, exposing the copper plate for etching (another example of this use of soft ground is in Exhibition of a Democratic-Transparency, #63). Although the French artist Charles Daubigny in the nineteenth century and Käthe Kollwitz in the early twentieth century similarly used fabric to create a background texture, it was not until the 1940s that Stanley William Hayter and the circle of artists who congregated at his Atelier 17 made comparable experiments with soft ground.

This print tells a strange and unsavory story. Gillray apparently had been hired to discredit the Countess Strathmore by her fortune-hunting, abusive, and philandering second husband, who contested her divorce proceedings. Here the artist encourages the rumor that the Countess was fonder of her cats than of her son.

Published by Hannah Humphrey: February 10, 1795
Etching with aquatint, with additional scoring of the plate, hand-colored

In another technical experiment, Gillray here scored the already etched and aquatinted copper plate with an abrasive tool, perhaps a grooved instrument called a threading tool, to create a surface of parallel lines (he also used this device in Patriotic Regeneration [#41]). Gillray selectively applied this striated texture to his rather affectionate “portrait” of George III as “Farmer George.” The King, who had the unsettling habit of dropping in unannounced at villages near his farms in Windsor, here buttonholes a terrified local, while the Queen looks on. This print reflects changing attitudes toward the King, who, as his role in affairs of state somewhat diminished, was portrayed more as an ordinary citizen, fond of gardening and farming.

A new way to pay the NATIONAL-DEBT. Dedicated to Monsr. Necker
Design’d by Helagabalis [sic]. Executed by Sejanus

Published by William Holland: April 21, 1786
Etching with engraving, hand-colored

This was the first of Gillray’s many references to the supposed miserliness and avarice of King George III and Queen Charlotte, and the profligacy of the Prince of Wales. While Gillray’s ambitions to become a “serious” artist were never realized, his parodies of the language of “fine art” and the dramatic formulae of history painters, as in this “mock-heroic” print, gave his satire bite. In a setting that evokes Renaissance grandeur (with quotes from Raphael), Gillray’s King and Queen pocket, with nary a glance, sacks of money proffered by the Prime Minister, William Pitt (who keeps some coins for himself). The Prince (in the right background), his clothes in tatters (the King declined to pay his son’s debts), reluctantly accepts a note for £200,000 from the Duc d’Orléans. In the foreground, a destitute, crippled sailor begs in vain for succor. By dedicating this print to Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s finance minister, Gillray contrasted France’s fiscal policies with those of England, which was faced with increasing national debt.

Gillray scholar Draper Hill explains the references hidden in Gillray’s pseudonyms: Heliogabalus was the adopted name of a profligate Roman emperor, while Sejanus was Emperor Tiberius’s despotic minister.

MONSTROUS CRAWS, at a New Coalition Feast.
Published by S. W. Fores: May 29, 1787
Etching and aquatint with engraving, hand-colored

Gillray comments on a temporary “truce” in the ongoing conflict between the King and Queen, and the Prince of Wales, over the Prince’s debts. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, brought about this brief reconciliation when he recommended that Parliament use public funds to settle the Prince’s debts and increase his annual income. The King, Queen, and Prince (in the center) gorge on moneys extracted from Britain’s citizens (“John Bull’s Blood”), though the Queen, one of Gillray’s favorite targets, seems the most avaricious. Their “craws” allude to an exhibition in London in 1787 of “three Wild-born human beings [probably suffering from goiter]; each with a Monstrous Craw … under their throats….”

FRYING SPRATS, Vide. Royal Supper.
TOASTING MUFFINS, Vide. Royal Breakfast.

Published by Hannah Humphrey: November 28, 1791
Etching and aquatint, hand-colored

This is one of Gillray’s many prints alluding to the miserliness of the royal couple. Here, in one of his kinder portrayals of Queen Charlotte, she is shown frying fish, her pocket bulging with coins. Gillray considers this subject, as well as the Prince of Wales’s prodigality, on a grander scale in Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal and A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion, on view in the current exhibition in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room (Room 316, on this floor). As Ronald Paulson has pointed out, Gillray often exhibited a certain ambivalence or ambiguity toward the subjects of his satire. Gillray was frequently a harsh critic of the liberal Whig party, yet he didn’t hesitate to skewer those in power, especially the royal family and Prime Minister William Pitt, except when Gillray was on the Tory ministry payroll.

The MORNING after MARRIAGE – or – A scene on the Continent.
Published by William Holland: April 5, 1788
Etching and roulette, hand-colored

The Prince of Wales’s romantic entanglement with a twice-widowed, Roman Catholic commoner, Mrs. Maria Anne Smythe Fitzherbert, was the talk of the town and a print shop obsession in 1786. In December 1785, the Prince apparently wed Mrs. Fitzherbert in a secret marriage, portrayed fancifully by Gillray in a 1786 print, which was reissued in 1788, followed a week later by this satire. Borrowing the pose of the bored wife from Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode, with all its implied associations, Gillray shows the Prince as exhausted from his marital exertions (witness the spent candle and spilt wine), while Mrs. Fitzherbert, in the pose of a prostitute in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, looks invitingly at the unmade bed. The union was, in fact, invalid since the Prince needed and had not obtained the King’s consent, while marriage to a Catholic would have blocked his succession to the throne.

DIDO FORSAKEN. Sic transit gloria Reginae.
Published by S. W. Fores: May 21, 1787
Etching, hand-colored

Charles James Fox, eloquent parliamentarian and influential Whig, assured the House of Commons on April 30, 1787, that he knew on “immediate authority” that the Prince of Wales’s marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert “not only never could have happened legally but never did happen in any way whatsoever.” In a parody of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s epic painting The Death of Dido, Gillray portrays the Roman Catholic Mrs. Fitzherbert as Dido, the Carthaginian queen abandoned by Aeneas, seated on a funeral pyre, surrounded by emblems of “popery” (an examination of the “log” pyre also reveals phallic references). The Prince sails off into the distance, while Mrs. Fitzherbert’s royal regalia are blown away by William Pitt, First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister, and Henry Dundas, a member of Parliament and ally of Pitt’s. The Prince states, “I never saw her in my life, Never,” while his shipmate Fox repeats, “No never in all his life.” The Prince’s reward for this memory lapse was reconciliation with the King and payment of his debts.

The PRESENTATION – or – The Wise Men’s Offering.
Published by Hannah Humphrey: January 9, 1796
Etching, hand-colored

The Prince of Wales’s affairs and his extravagances were fodder for both the newspapers and prints. In return for the settling of his debts, the Prince had agreed to marry Caroline of Brunswick in 1795 (the Prince’s contemplation of this union is lampooned in A Lover’s Dream, on view in the current Salomon Room [316] exhibition). Although Caroline produced an heir, Princess Charlotte, in January 1796, the marriage was a disaster, and the Prince’s romantic liaisons and extravagant habits continued as before. Here, the drunken Prince extends his hand to baby Charlotte, held by Mother Windsor, a well-known procuress, while the leaders of the Whig Opposition, Charles James Fox and politician and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, kiss the baby’s bottom. This print led to charges of blasphemy against Gillray. Although he was not ultimately prosecuted, the threat reflected efforts by the Proclamation Society, high-ranking clergy, and members of Parliament to suppress “licentious publications,” as well as to increase loyalist censorship (usually brought against publishers, rather than printmakers). Gillray’s patron, George Canning, who had just been appointed Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, may have been instrumental in stifling the suit, though most likely it died of its own accord.

Published by Hannah Humphrey: May 7, 1799
Etching and soft ground etching, hand-colored

In this parody of Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, Gillray imagines that the ghostly apparition of the Prince’s great-uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, has appeared before the Prince of Wales in a drunken slumber to warn the Prince against debauchery. Beginning in 1797, satirical depictions of the Prince, as well as other members of the royal family, virtually vanished from Gillray’s repertoire, most likely in exchange for the pension he received from November 1797 to early 1801 from Pitt’s Tory administration. Gillray’s supporter, George Canning, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, may have allowed this attack in retaliation for the Prince’s treatment of Princess Caroline, his estranged wife.

July 19, 1788
Etching and aquatint, hand-colored

This print was one of seven apparently commissioned by a Pitt lieutenant on behalf of the Tory candidate, Admiral Hood, during a special Westminster election (1788). Gillray shows the leader of the Whig Opposition, Charles James Fox, blowing bubbles. The bubbles contain the portraits of other influential Whigs, among them, statesman Edmund Burke, wearing glasses; facing Burke is politician and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, shown here for the first time with his face blotched from drink. The Prince of Wales looks out at the viewer. Fox uses “Devonshire sope” to make the bubbles, alluding to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s support of the Whig party. In Gillray’s satire, the bubble bearing the portrait of the Whig candidate for Parliament, Lord John Townshend, bursts, although, in fact, he ultimately won the election.

Election-Troops, bringing in their accounts, to the Pay-Table.
Published by Hannah Humphrey: August 14, 1788
Etching, hand-colored

This postscript to the 1788 Westminster election must have been especially important to Gillray since it is the first political satire he signed with his own name (“invt et fect” or “invented/created and made/engraved,” by Gillray). It also reflects the artist’s ambivalent attitude toward the Whigs and Tories. Before 1791, he worked for a number of different publishers and attacked both parties, accepting fees from both sides. For seven prints supporting Admiral Hood, the Tory candidate in that 1788 election, Gillray was to be recompensed £20. Given the tenor of this print, it is unlikely he was ever paid.

Here he exposes the shenanigans encouraged by his Tory employers: newspaper publisher Edward Topham, owner of the pro-government World, confronts Pitt and wants to be paid for “Puffs & Squibs and for abusing opposition,” a ragged newsboy “For changing Sides,” a cobbler “For Voting 3 times,” and a sailor “For kicking up a Riot.” Pitt directs all claimants to Great George Street under the Rose, alluding to George Rose, Secretary of the Treasury.

Draper Hill has observed that until 1789, Gillray maintained his anonymity; only beginning in 1792 did he consistently sign his prints. Starting in September 1796, he distinguished his own “inventions” (designs) as “inv: et fect.” Prints after the designs and suggestions of others appear as “d: et ft,” “des: et fect,” or simply were left unsigned.

An Excrescence; – a Fungus; – alias – a Toadstool upon a Dung-hill.
Published by Hannah Humphrey: December 20, 1791
Etching with engraving, hand-colored

In this scurrilous and extraordinarily imaginative caricature, Gillray transforms the head of William Pitt into a mushroom, whose saprophytic roots take the shape of the royal crown. Pitt was First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister at the age of 24. In this satire, Gillray suggests that the ambitious young Pitt was dependent upon royal favor, while he increasingly arrogated the King’s power for himself, particularly during the Regency crisis, when George III was first afflicted with mental illness (November 1788–May 1789). Gillray injected another wry note when he equated the source of Pitt’s power, the King, with a dunghill. Pitt’s nose is colored a delicate pink, alluding to his fondness for claret and port.

Published by Hannah Humphrey: January 3, 1789
Etching and aquatint, hand-colored

As in An Excrescence, Gillray appears here to accuse William Pitt, now personified as a vulture, of usurping royal prerogatives. Pitt proposed placing restrictions on the powers of the Prince of Wales at the time when George III had become temporarily insane (possibly from a rare hereditary metabolic disease, porphyria). If the King had been found incapable of ruling, the Prince would have been appointed Regent and would have replaced Pitt and the Tory ministry with a Whig administration, led by Charles James Fox. Instead, according to Gillray, Pitt, nourished by Treasury gold, crushes the crown, scepter, and the Magna Carta, while he tears apart the Prince’s feathered coronet, an insignia of his royal status.

– They should be Women! – and yet their beards forbid us to interpret that they are so.
To H: Fuzelli Esqr this attempt in the Caricatura-Sublime, is respectfully dedicated.

Published by Hannah Humphrey: December 23, 1791
Etching and aquatint, hand-colored

Although this print was issued two years after George III’s first attack of insanity, concerns over the King’s health continued, here expressed in a clever parody of Henry Fuseli’s 1783 painting of Macbeth’s witches, Weird Sisters, well known to contemporaries through John Raphael Smith’s engraving of 1785. Gillray replaces Fuseli’s witches with Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for Home Affairs; William Pitt, First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister; and the Lord Chancellor, Edward Thurlow, who gaze at the smiling profile of Queen Charlotte (as Lady Macbeth?) on the illuminated side of the moon, while the profile of the sleeping King remains in darkness. During the Regency crisis, the Queen protected the King’s interests, often in concert with Pitt (alleged to have a “special relationship” with the Queen), at the expense of the Prince of Wales. Gillray’s dedication to Fuseli reflects his high regard for that artist. Gillray engraved a Fuseli drawing for the 1792 English edition of Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy.


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