British Caricaturists and James Gillray

CULTURE | July 11, 2019

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15: A portrait of late 18th century caricaturist James Gillray is seen in a book of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum on December 15, 2009 in England. Source: (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

A previously undiscovered album of suppressed cartoons from the early 19th century by James Gillray is set to go on display at the V&A. The 40 cartoons, which were seized by police as 'pornographic material' a century ago, were recently discovered in the Ministry of Justice and have been transferred to the print collection of the V&A.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, there were over 9,000 cartoon prints called caricatures. Most of these were done by James Gillray and George Cruikshank. They thrived on the events of that time period. Topics like fashion, the theater, and society were hot topics but politics was and still is probably the hottest topic of all.

James Gillray was born in 1756 in Chelsea. His father was a strict Protestant that believed in shielding children away from worldly corruption, so he sent both James and his older brother to a boarding school in Bedford at an early age. James was there from the age of five to the age of eight and a half. Unfortunately, his older brother died there at only eight years old, but, according to the staff, he was happy to join his Savior.

From Gillray’s religious background, many of his caricatures indicate a spiritual aspect or innuendo of some sort.

UNSPECIFIED-CIRCA 1754: The Hand-Writing upon the Wall, James Gillray, 1803. Napoleon and Josephine, guarded by French soldiers, enjoy a feast of English riches. Source: (Gettyimages.com)

A common phrase that people often say is “read the handwriting on the wall.” One of Gillray’s caricatures is taken from the event in the Bible where that saying originated from.

King Belshazzar (king of Babylon) puts on a great feast. He inadvertently sends for the gold and silver vessels that his father, King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem some years before. These vessels were considered holy vessels which were not to be touched. Belshazzar used them for drinking wine with his wives and concubines while worshipping his “gods.” In the midst of his feasting, words began to be written on the wall with the fingers of a man’s hand. Fear came upon him because the words were unknown to him or anyone there. He first called for all of his astrologers and soothsayers, but they could not tell him what the words meant. Then Daniel the prophet was sent for who also prophesied to his father before him when he was needed. He was able to tell him what the words meant, which, was basically, that he was going to not only lose his kingdom but also his life that very night for defiling the vessels of God.  

Napoleon’s Decisive Moment by James Gillray - 1799. Source: (Photo from Library of Congress)

This caricature by Gillray depicts Napoleon as calmly preparing to take over as leader of France while all those around him are in chaos. Gillray created quite a few in regards to Napoleon, the French government, other governments, and many elites of that day. Some of those he wrote about were Lady Sarah Archer, Napoleon Bonaparte, Sir Frances Burdett, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, Queen Charlotte, King George III and IV, Duke and Duchess of York, and many many more.

A new way to pay the national-debt. Source: (Photo from Library of Congress)

While the rich elites, along with King George III and Queen Charlotte, are collecting money to pay the national debt, a man who is destitute and has no limbs (arms or legs) sits on the ground with his hat waiting for someone to give him a little money. Apparently, nothing has changed much since the 1700-1800s.  

Consequences of a Successful French Invasion - 1798. Source: (Photo from Library of Congress)

This illustration done by Gillray is showing the French soldiers totally demolishing the House of Lords from the tapestries of the British Armada victory to the throne in the shape of a guillotine.

James Gillray brought humor to a lot of people through his creations. Sadly, he died at the age of 58 years old. His works had begun to decrease gradually as he was losing the ability to concentrate but still managed to get out his “Old Q” in 1811 in honor of the Duke of Queensberry. In his last days, he was mentally unstable as he tried to kill himself three times with the last time throwing himself out of a window in May of 1815. He died a few days later. 

Tags: British Caricaturists | James Gillray

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