James Gillray 1757-1815

Artist biography

English draughtsman and engraver. During his career he engraved over 1,500 prints and invented, almost single-handed, the genre of British political caricature. In his lifetime he was feared and admired; his reputation waned in the strait-laced moral climate that succeeded the Regency.

Gillray's first attributable political satire, Grace before Meat (see Hill, 1965, pl. 27), appeared in November 1778. During the next six years he developed his characteristic style and in the process transformed the nature of British caricature. Gillray, following James Sayers, was among the first satirists to exaggerate the subjects' facial features, while retaining a recognisable likeness. By 1784 he was widely acknowledged as the leading caricaturist in Britain.Many of his best plates satirised the royal family.

After a period of initial optimism following the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, English public opinion turned against the French. Gillray's sympathies were firmly behind the British Government.

Probably disillusioned with domestic politics, Gillray concentrated from 1801 to 1805 on social satire with the important exception of his anti-Napoleonic cartoons. Gillray's dependence on political patronage compromised his attacks on the royal family. The Prince was not above suppressing an edition: he bought up completely Tug of War (c. 1802). After 1806, the year in which Gillray first exhibited signs of a nervous illness, no further royal subjects appeared, possibly as the result of a bribe. By 1810 he was insane and remained so until his death.

T. M'Lean: Illustrative Description of the Genuine Works of Mr James Gillray (London, 1830)
T. Wright, ed.: The Works of James Gillray, the Caricaturist (London, n.d., c. 1873)
M. D. George: English Political Caricature: A Study of Opinion and Propaganda, 2 vols (Oxford, 1959)
D. Hill: Mr Gillray the Caricaturist (London, 1965) [h 1965]
——: Fashionable Contrasts: Caricatures by James Gillray (London, 1966) [h 1966]
M. D. George: Hogarth to Cruikshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire (London, 1967)
James Gillray (1756–1815): Drawings and Caricatures (exh. cat., intro. by D. Hill, ACGB, 1967)
English Caricature, 1620 to the Present (exh. cat., ed. R. Godfrey; London, V&A, 1984)

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