James Gillray Presages of the Millennium

James Gillray
Presages of the Millennium 4 June 1795
Coloured etching, engraving and aquatint, 325 x 375 mm
© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

Gillray regularly attended debates in the House of Commons, making sketches on little cards which he used as the basis of his caricatures. For the most important politicians he established a prototype set of characteristics which could be used again and again, allowing instant recognition. Despite the violence of Gillray’s images, most politicians knew that if they failed to appear in, or disappeared from, his satires, their careers were either insignificant or approaching eclipse.

Gillray’s relationship with the political world shifted throughout his career. The modern party system was only just beginning to emerge during his lifetime, and political allegiances were always unstable. Up until the mid-1790s, like most contemporary satirists, Gillray exposed hypocrisy and corruption in politicians of all parties, without expressing allegiance to any party in particular. However, for a short period, Gillray aligned himself with the governing Tory party, led by William Pitt, receiving a secret annual ‘pension’ of £200, in exchange for the production of images taunting the Whig Opposition. Gillray’s dedication of his art to the purposes of propaganda has often been seen as a regrettable phase of his career, in spite of the fact that it generated some of his most brilliantly inventive images, but his brief alignment with pro-government forces ended with the fall of Pitt’s government in 1801. He then resumed the satirist’s traditional practice of ridiculing both Government and Opposition, especially after the deaths of Pitt and Fox in 1806, a time of self-serving compromise and unlikely alliances within government, in which the rush for office seemed to outweigh all consideration of principle.