James Gillray

British caricaturist and printmaker (1756-1815)

James Gillray (13 August 1756 – June 1815) was a British caricaturist and printmaker famous for his etched political and social satires, mainly published between 1792 and 1810. Many of his works are held at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Gillray has been called "the father of the political cartoon", with his works satirizing George III, Napoleon, prime ministers and generals. Regarded as being one of the two most influential cartoonists, the other being William Hogarth, Gillray's wit and humour, knowledge of life, fertility of resource, keen sense of the ludicrous, and beauty of execution, at once gave him the first place among caricaturists.

Quotes about James Gillray edit

  • If men be fighting over there [across the channel] for their possessions and their bodies against the Corsican robber [Napoleon], they are fighting here to be first in Ackermann's shop and see Gillray's latest caricatures. The enthusiasm is indescribable when the next drawing appears; it is a veritable madness. You have to make your way in through the crowd with your fists.
    • A French émigré in London (1802), quoted in C. R. Ashbee, Caricature (1928), p. 47
  • To the task of political caricature, Gillray brought excellent working qualities. He had a plain straight-forward practical understanding, which never rose above the comprehension of the crowd—he never desired to veil his satire in subtleties, nor hide it in thoughts far-fetched and profound. The venom of his shafts was visible—nor did he seek to conceal his poisonous draughts in a gilded cup. All was plain and clear—and all was bitter and biting. The measures of the tories, and the plans of the whigs, were to him a daily source of subsistence and satire. He lived like a caterpillar on the green-leaf of reputation; and loved to crawl over those whom Fame had marked out as her own. He never desisted from either shame or remorse—public distress was his gain—private misery brought him bread, and out of the bickerings of men for place and power he had his per-centage. Our ridiculous expeditions, our modes of raising money, our fears, our courage, our love of liberty, and our hatred of France, were to him so many sources of emolument. He lifted a tax off all public—and even made Napoleon contribute.
  • The golden age of English caricature, from 1780 to 1830, was dominated by an artist of genius, James Gillray, who lifted the art of political caricature to a higher plain.
    • Kenneth Baker, 'The Big Draw: Young Cartoonist Competition', The Times Magazine (23 September 1995), p. 3
  • There's something special about Gillray. I feel an affinity with him, because he was the first to have an obsession with politics and to do characters as intense as Fox and Pitt. My favourite Gillray is The Apotheosis of Hoche, a mock-elegy for a French revolutionary general. We don't remember now who Hoche was, but the print is so strong that it leaps out at you, including millions of decapitated heads singing the general's praises.
    • Steve Bell, quoted in The Times Magazine (2 June 2001), p. 24
  • Gillray was ballsier than Hogarth. He was so successful that he affected the Government's standing and kept the Jacobins at bay. Nobody could do that now. The nearest we get to it is Spitting Image or Rory Bremner. But it's essential to keep on trying, and in Gillray the savagery of the attack is what counts. I love his obsession with vulgar bodily functions. Everyone thought he was strange – he never justified himself. I find that interesting. My choice is the Toadstall upon a Dung-hill, where Pitt grows out of royalty. It's a good double swipe, at a politician and a monarch.
  • Gillray too frequently lent his powerful talents to attack private character in a manner not justifiable.
    • Robert William Buss, English Graphic Satire and its Relation to Different Styles of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving: A Contribution to the History of the English School of Art (1874), p. 122
  • A powerful draughtsman, a master of the art of engraving, and possessing a vigorous imagination, he had but little to fear from Sayer. He was really an excellent engraver in line, dot, and aquatint, but these talents are all merged in his fame as a caricaturist, in which walk of art he still remains unrivalled.
    • Robert William Buss, English Graphic Satire and its Relation to Different Styles of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving: A Contribution to the History of the English School of Art (1874), p. 127
  • James Gillray was a patriotic Englishman and a commercial artist. Which took precedence hardly matters, for once the Terror began in France, and English life, liberty and property were threatened, his patriotic feelings and commercial instincts went hand-in-hand. The educated and monied customers of Mrs Humphrey's shop could be sure that their political views and prejudices would be reflected and reinforced. The excesses of the revolution were pilloried mercilessly, as were those Englishmen rash enough to express sympathetic views. The advent of Napoleon Bonaparte raised the stakes, heightened the danger. The true sensitivity of Gillray as an artist is seen in his response to Bonaparte, without in the least reducing his impact as a satirist.
    • John Cooper, 'James Gillray and the French Revolution', RSA Journal, Vol. 137, No. 5398 (September 1989), p. 651
  • James Gillray...stands without dispute at the head of the English caricature tradition, and his boldly drawn prints are not merely masterpieces of caricature but also highly original examples of the etcher's art.
    • Richard Godfrey, 'Four Wood Engravings by James Gillray', Print Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 1984), p. 51
  • You appear not to know that he was a reluctant ally of the tory faction, and that his heart was always on the side of whiggism and liberty. He did not "desert to the tories," but was pressed into their service, by an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances. He had unluckily got himself into the Ecclesiastical Court for producing a politico-scriptural caricature, which he had entitled "The Wise Men's Offspring:" and while threatened on the one hand with pains and penalties, he was bribed by the Pitt party on the other with the offer of a pension, to be accompanied by absolution and remission of sins both political and religious, and by the cessation of the pending prosecution. Thus situated, he found, or fancied himself obliged to capitulate.
    • John Landseer, letter to The Athenæum, No. 207 (15 October 1831), p. 667
  • He never appeared to me to be that lover of low society and gross mirth which you describe; but silent and reserved he was, till he discovered that his companions upon any given occasion were frank and liberal. His own patriotism and free principles then began to peer forth, and occasionally rose to enthusiastic fervour. I remember being assembled with him and a few other artists, most of whom are since dead, at the Prince of Wales coffee-house (then newly opened): the purpose of the meeting was to form a fund and institute a Society for the relief of decayed artists, &c., where Gillray discovered no deficiency either of good sense, benevolent feeling, or gentlemanly propriety of conduct; yet there was an eccentricity about him, which being no unusual concomitant of genius, was felt to be agreeable. After business and supper were concluded, we drank toasts; and when it came to his turn to name a public character, the Juvenal of caricature surprised those who knew him but superficially, by proposing that we should drink David! (the French painter). He was by this time a little elated, having become pleased with his associates, and having drowned his reserve in the flow of soul, and, kneeling reverentially upon his chair as he pronounced the name of the (supposed) first painter and patriot in Europe, he expressed a wish that the rest of the company would do the same. This was after our artist had transferred his nominal allegiance to the Pitt party;—before David had been guilty of the worst of those revolutionary atrocities which stain his character, and while his artistical reputation in this country stood much higher than since we have had ocular opportunity of appreciation his professional merit.
    • John Landseer, letter to The Athenæum, No. 207 (15 October 1831), p. 667
  • There have been artists before you who dabbled in caricature. There have also been caricaturists who dabbled in art. But you, sir, are the first considerable artist who made caricature his full-time occupation... You were 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.
    • David Low, 'As One Caricaturist to Another', The Listener, Volume 30 (1943), p. 635
  • I cannot think of anyone with whom I should have had more rows—crusted old reactionary that he was... Gillray was a supreme caricaturist of personalities, with a clear sense of the cartoonist's function, which was, of course, to disturb complacency.
    • David Low, speech at the unveiling of Gillray's restored gravestone in the churchyard of St James's, Piccadilly (16 November 1961), quoted in 'Piccadilly Tribute to Caricaturist', The Times (17 November 1961), p. 17
  • The main objection [of the Victorians] to Georgian caricaturists was their indulgence in personality: their bitter attacks; scurrility; impugning of individual character; and ruthless exploitation of private vices to damn public figures. James Gillray was the main culprit. Even the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Napoleon did not deserve the derision which Gillray regularly visited upon them. In 1851, the Morning Chronicle carefully distinguished between modern cartoons, which were satires, and Gillray's caricatures, which had been "libels" on the subject; they were unfair, damaging, and destructive.
    • Henry J. Miller, 'John Leech and the Shaping of the Victorian Cartoon: The Context of Respectability', Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Fall 2009), p. 269
  • I first came across Gillray at about the age of eight. My sister brought home an Illustrated History of Britain, and I nicked it. The book was full of images by Gillray and other artists, and it became my primer in cartooning. I love Gillray's 'F*** you' attitude... I love Gillray's hearty contempt, especially when he shows Pitt as Midas shitting money on the Commons. Gillray really goes for it – he's full of scatological exuberance, and here he punches the solar plexus by saying money is shit.
  • He attacked powerful people in a most ferocious way, with brilliant draughtsmanship. Gillray opened the whole thing up. I share his scatological humour and obsession with movements of the body. Gillray also seemed to notice every wrinkle and crease – he's equally good at extremes of girth and thinness. I love Pitt as Death on a Pale Horse in Presages of the Millenium, galloping over the "swinish" advocates of peace with France, because it's so wild. I once drew Mrs Thatcher as the top bitch at Cruft's, with Heath as a tiny turd on the ground beside her.
  • Hogarth's honesty of purpose was as conspicuous in an earlier time, and we fancy that Gillray would have been far more successful and more powerful but for that unhappy bribe, which tuned the whole course of his humour into an unnatural channel.
  • It was, indeed, Gillray who excelled all others, at this period, in the production of this sort of thing. Savage in temperament, and at times extremely coarse, he had extraordinary vigour.
    • 'Sixty Years of Caricature', The Times (13 July 1956), p. 13
  • Gillray was morose and angry, a sort of savagely perverted moralist, to whom mankind was hateful.
    • 'Early Caricature Drawings', The Times (4 August 1956), p. 9
  • Certainly, the private life of James Gillray was disastrous; yet so clear-sighted was he, so ruthless in his regard for truth as he saw it (even in himself), that his drawings have a bitter verity almost unknown elsewhere in British art: a cruel rigour that makes him seem, in spirit, closer to the satirists of the Continent, where his art was, in fact, much admired. However remote the politics of Gillray's day may seem, to look at his caricatures is to be caught up, almost in spit of oneself, in the frenzies of this patriotic radical.
    • 'The English Comic Draughtsmen', The Times (4 December 1956), p. 3
  • Gillray tells us more about the eighteenth century than most written histories.
    • 'Going almost too far', The Times (25 November 1977), p. 26
  • [A]t the outrageous height of his career, he had been rightly regarded as the greatest exponent of lacerating caricature anywhere in Europe. Gillray revolutionised the art of satire, pushing himself to such extremes of savage, unfettered inventiveness that his admirers, and even his enemies, became addicted... [H]e is now increasingly seen as one of the finest British artists of his time. Cartoonists across the world are indebted to his brilliantly visual spleen. They include British practitioners Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Martin Rowson, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman... They recognise that Gillray's work, far from succumbing to the ephemerality of most topical cartoons, contains some of the most enduring and astonishing images from a turbulent period in European history.
    • 'The cartoonists' cartoonist', The Times Magazine (2 June 2001), pp. 20-21
  • It is the intention of this book to offer as complete an insight into the works and times of James Gillray as may be consistent with the limits of one volume...and...not losing sight of the responsibility of rejecting such subjects and matters as, after consideration, seem either too ephemeral and uninteresting to deserve preservation, or too boldly coloured with the coarseness of an age which did not hesitate, in its most polished circles, to treat of subjects that modern refinement has decided to pass over in silence.
    • Thomas Wright, 'Introduction', The Works of James Gillray, The Caricaturist; With the History of His Life and Times (1873), p. 4

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