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James Gillray | Lambiek Comiclopedia

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James Gillray

(13 August 1757 - 1 June 1815, UK)  


Charles James Fox in revolutionary dress flogs William Pitt as the streets run with blood and figures (Canning and Jenkinson) hang from the street lamps. (Published 20th October 1796)

James Gillray was born in Chelsea, London. While studying at the Royal Academy he began publishing caricatures and political cartoons. He ridiculed many aspects of late 18th century and early 19th century society, both politics and economy, as well as science, sports and fashions. Gillray's caricatures are often grotesque and crass, but drawn with the finest eye for detail. He often included speech balloons to add extra verbal comedy. Together with William Hogarth and George Cruikshank, Gillray is regarded as one of the "Big Three" of 18th century political cartooning. His influence on newspaper and magazine cartoonists can still be felt centuries later. Among the artists that were influenced by Gillray are George Cruikshank, Francisco de Goya, Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell and Adrian Teal.


Cartoon by Gillray about the taxman, featuring speech balloons (published 28 May 1806)

During his lifetime Gillray was notorious both in England and abroad. People flocked by to look at his work being exposed in the windows of Hannah Humphrey's print shop in London. His cartoons circulated all over Europe. It is estimated that he drew over 1,000 cartoons. While many enjoyed his work he got in trouble an equal amount of times. The drawing 'The Presentation - or - the Wise Men's Offering' (1796) caused the artist to be charged with blasphemy for having the Whig opposition kissing the bare behind of the then newly born Princess Charlotte. English king George III wasn't amused by his depiction as a greedy obese slob and his successor George IV tried to have the cartoon 'L'Assemblée Nationale' (1804) suppressed for ridiculing him and fellow aristocrats.

One of Gillray's most daring but subtle cartoons is 'Fashionable Contrasts' (1792), which shows a close-up of two masculine legs in buckled shoes, lying on top of female legs in jewelled slippers. Without even depicting their faces or any nudity, every viewer at the time immediately understood that the drawing depicted Prince Frederick, Duke of York, making out with Frederica Charlotte of Prussia.


Pitt and Napoleon dividing up the world (1805)

While Gillray didn't shy away from mocking his fellow countrymen he was merciless tackling Napoleon Bonaparte and the French army. His 1805 cartoon 'The Plumb-pudding in danger', depicting English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and the Corsican emperor cutting the world into pieces, has become iconic. It also led to the popular misconception that Napoleon was a small man in real life. While in exile on the Isle of Elba the deposed dictator himself claimed that Gillray's depictions of him "did more damage than a dozen generals." Gillray's pudding cartoon has become such an icon in political cartooning, that is has been copied and modernized by cartoonists until the present day, including by Leslie Gilbert Illingworth (1967), Edward McLachlan (1983), Draper Hill and Steve Bell (2005).

Other famous political cartoons are the 'Anti-Saccharites' (1792), the 'Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders' (1793) and 'The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver' (1803). Gillray's non-political cartoons include 'Cookney Sportsman' (1800), 'The Pic Nic Orchestra' (1802), 'The Cow Pock' (1802),  'Elements of Skating' (1805) and 'The Rake's Progress at the University' (1806), among others.


The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver
Incorporated in this print dated June 26, 1803, are the figures of King George III of England and the French dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. The King, dressed in military uniform, inspects a miniature version of Napoleon, also in military uniform. He peers through a looking glass, a common satirical tool to show the inferiority of the person being observed. The king quotes Jonathan Swifts's novel, Gulliver's Travels (Voyage to Brobdingnag), to the figure of Napoleon who, like Gulliver in the story, appears in small scale. This simple scene depicts the condescending and superior view that the British held of themselves in relation to the French, especially Napoleon.

Many of Gillray's cartoons can be considered as prototypical comics in their use of speech balloons and droll antics. Inspired by William Hogarth, he also made some cartoons that feature sequential narratives. 'French Liberty, British Slavery' (1792) shows two sequences to provide a contrast between a Frenchman and an Englishman. The lean and ragged Frenchman is shown enjoying his newly found freedom after the events of the French Revolution, but otherwise lives as a poor man. The obese Englishman enjoys a luxurious life, yet still complains about having to pay his taxes.  'John Bull's Progress' (1793) features the British national representation John Bull going to war, only to have a "glorious return" by returning on crutches with both an eye and a leg missing. The entire situation is told in four panels, with a descriptive text written underneath the images, making it an early example of a text comic.


Sequential cartoon from 1793 by James Gillray depicting John Bull (the United Kingdom)

'The Tables Turn'd' (1797) depicts British Prime Minister William Pitt The Younger being grabbed by the devil in the left panel, who mocks him with the news that the French have landed in Wales. In the right panel it's Pitt who has the last laugh by informing the devil that his country has beaten the Spanish Fleet. The most ambitious text comic by Gillray is 'Democracy, or – a Sketch of the Life of Buonaparte' (1800) , which satirizes Napoleon’s achievements in eight narrative panels. The first seven critically depict many significant events in his life. The final panel shows him asleep, tormented by the ghosts of all the victims his regime caused and those who plan to overthrow him.

As his eyesight began to falter Gillray became unable to properly see what he was drawing. Unhappy with this condition he succombed to alcoholism. In 1809 he published his final drawing. Later in life he sank into early senility and died in 1815.

In 1984, as an ultimate tribute to his legacy and influence on British political cartoons, Gillray was made into a puppet on the satirical TV show 'Spitting Image' by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, who made puppet caricatures of famous celebrities. The puppet was only used as an extra during scenes set in Buckingham Palace, where he could be seen as one of the Queen's servants.


James Gillray's portrait and his Spitting Image puppet

Reworked entry provided by Kjell Knudde

Artwork © 2016 James Gillray

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Last updated: 2016-11-20

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