The French Revolution and the French Wars

This room shows Gillray’s response to one of the most traumatic periods in Britain’s history. The political and social lives of people in Britain were deeply affected by shock-waves from the French Revolution in 1789, and the long and exhausting wars with France which followed. At the outbreak of the Revolution Gillray seems, like many people in Britain, to have been sympathetic to the ideals of liberty and equality which it seemed to encompass, and he marked its first anniversary by engraving a print celebrating the taking of the Bastille. However, as news of the Terror crossed the Channel, and events grew ever more bloody and threatening, culminating in the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793, public opinion began to turn. Gillray represented the French King as a martyr, and turned his Frenchmen into sans-culottes: skinny, hairy, hyperactive men and women who had become bestial in their violence and depravity.

From the outbreak of war with France in the same year, fear abounded that the French would invade England or Ireland. Gillray produced prints in which he imagined the horrors of a successful French invasion, with the streets of London literally running with blood, and the destruction of such symbolic landmarks as the Bank of England. Supporters of parliamentary reform and Republican sympathisers in Britain, such as Charles James Fox and his Whig supporters, are demonised in these prints, which show them rejoicing in the effects of the Revolution, and encouraging the French to cross the Channel to destroy the British way of life.