British cartoonist James Gillray

James Gillray, The Plumb-pudding in danger

From British daily The Morning Star:

Master of political wit

(Tuesday 22 January 2008)

Gillray’s Legacy
The Political Cartoon Gallery, London WC1

SAVAGE WIT: The “father of the British political cartoon” mocks the rich and famous.

NEIL MUNDY celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of James Gillray, the “father of the British political cartoon.”

James Gillray was born on August 13 1756 and not in 1757, as commonly held until relatively recently, in Chelsea, then a small village outside London, where his father served as sexton to the small fiercely evangelical Protestant sect, the Moravian Brotherhood.

This is substantiated by the original register of baptisms and marriages, still preserved and to be seen in the archive of the Moravians in Muswell Hill, north London.

It is now more than ever appropriate to celebrate Gillray’s genius, as he is increasingly recognised as a great artist, one of our greatest draughtsmen and printmakers and the founding father of the modern political cartoon.

His influence on other artists and cartoonists has been enormous. The great 20th century cartoonist Sir David Low hailed Gillray as “the beginner of a new era in political caricature… the first considerable artist who made caricature his full-time occupation.”

According to Low, Gillray was “the first to realise that the principles of art, selection and emphasis could be adjusted to a new balance in a new type of draughtsmanship, neither the representation of reality nor mere grotesque invention, but the discriminating exaggeration of what is true… If Hogarth was the grandfather of the modern cartoon, you were its father.”

Producing well over 1,000 graphic satires in the form of sophisticated copperplate prints, often at the rate of one or two a week, Gillray dominated the golden age of British caricature for 30 years with his savage wit and extravagant inventiveness, often bordering on surreal, comic obscenity and implacable mockery of the foibles of the rich and famous.

He established London as the birthplace of political and social caricature as a popular art form, creating some of the greatest images of the late 18th and early 19th century – Pitt and Napoleon carving up the world between them in The Plumb-Pudding in Danger, Queen Charlotte as a droopy-breasted hag in Sin, Death and the Devil, possibly the most daring satire ever published, a Blair-like William Pitt galloping hell-bent over the advocates of peace in Presages of the Millenium – images teeming with comic invention.

Gillray defined key ideas about our national character and sense of humour, creating comic stock-figures which have lasted to this day – Little Boney, John Bull, The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.

Although he worked in the age of George III, the Prince Regent and future George IV, of Pitt, Fox and Sheridan, of the loss of the American colonies, the French revolution and Napoleon, his themes of sexual scandals, corruption, excess, intrigue, tyranny and human folly are universal and still the driving force of satire today.

His ideas have continued to inspire and to be reworked by contemporary cartoonists from Illingworth and Vicky to Steve Bell and Andrzej Krauze.

Gillray’s contemporary, Charles Fox: here. And here.

British cartoonist Tony Hall dies: here.

8 thoughts on “British cartoonist James Gillray

  1. Stash of obscene etchings discovered inside UK Ministry of Justice

    Source: The Economist (12-20-09)

    When the British government decided to split the Home Office into two separate ministries in 2007, various benefits and problems were expected. One consequence that no one foresaw was the discovery of a 200-year-old porn collection. On December 15th a ministerial delegation made its way to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum to hand over a smutty 40-page album turned up during the departmental move last year.

    The etchings are the work of James Gillray, one of Britain’s most famous and ruthless caricaturists, who flourished at the time of the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. His cartoons were so biting that William Pitt the Younger, prime minister of the day, paid him £200 a year (£10,800, or $17,600, nowadays) to keep him onside and George IV bought his copper plates before prints could be circulated among a wider audience.

    His political and social commentary catered to the bawdy tastes of the time. In the album Napoleon, a frequent target for the cartoonist, peeps through a curtain at “the Emprefs Jofephine dancing Naked” and Charles James Fox, a Whig parliamentarian whom Gillray disliked, is portrayed spanking MPs. George IV snuggles up to a Caribbean woman in a hammock, and George III is depicted as a map of Britain, repelling a French naval invasion with a blast from his south-coast fundament.

    Though this was just about tolerable in the relatively free-and-easy 1790s, when the etchings were originally carved, it was too much for the primmer Victorians, says Stephen Calloway, curator of prints at the V&A. The album is thought to have been printed in the 1840s as a secret under-the-counter supplement to accompany a volume of Gillray’s milder work. Police are believed to have seized it soon after its publication and passed it to the Home Office, where it lay forgotten until last year.


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