Society and Royalty

James Gillray Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast 1787

James Gillray
Monstrous Craws, at a New Coalition Feast 1787

The British Museum

Despite his interest in the political conflicts of the day, Gillray remained as fascinated by the human folly of Bond Street and Windsor as by events at Westminster. The area of central London in which he worked - first in Bond Street, and then St James’s - was ideal both to observe the idiocies of the rich, and to meet them as customers eager to buy printed images of their own folly. Gillray’s targets range from lecherous men to amateur actors and musicians, and include the passion for art collecting as well as sex and gambling; all are exposed with great wit and graphic invention but also unrelenting cruelty.

Gillray’s caricatures of the hapless George III and his family are some of his most famous prints. The royal household was legendary for its austerity and dullness, and their eldest son, the Prince of Wales, could not escape quickly enough. The King was continually tormented by his son’s dissolute life, by his drinking, indiscreet love affairs and reckless overspending. Their mutual animosity was exacerbated by political differences: the King favoured the Tories, whilst the Prince was the companion of Charles James Fox and his Whig allies.

Given the viciousness of some of Gillray’s attacks on the royal family, it might be expected that they would have recoiled from, or even tried to suppress his work. Instead, the King sent impressions of Gillray’s prints to the University of Guttingen in Hanover, founded by his grandfather, whilst the Prince of Wales was one of Gillray’s major clients. The great bulk of the royal collection of caricatures was dispersed in the early twentieth century, and sold to the Library of Congress, whose loans to this exhibition include many prints formerly owned by the Prince.