British Caricaturists and James Gillray

By | July 3, 2019

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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.

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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: (

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.