The old story famously goes that to curb vainglory as their victory parades marched onward, conquering Roman generals stationed a slave behind them to murmur “Memento mori”—remember you are mortal. Going the Romans one better, King George III and his great prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, looked to the caricaturist James Gillray, whose dazzling prints never let them forget that they were not merely mortal but human, all too human.

Even these grandees sensed that the artist who saw through them was an “inimitable genius,” as his first publisher marveled. They certainly took a keen interest in his work. The King and his children were faithful Gillray collectors, and the Whig leader Charles James Fox would invite visitors to leaf through the album of Gillrays in his anteroom. The Tory foreign secretary George Canning beseeched a mutual friend to prod the artist to include him in a cartoon. “Have you heard from Mr. Gillray lately?” he importuned. “And do you know how soon . . . I am likely to come out?” Admiral Nelson, after the Battle of the Nile, asked to be sent all the latest caricatures of himself. As one contemporary remarked, “The notice of a caricaturist is a proof of eminence; his severities a tax on distinction.”

As one contemporary remarked, “The notice of a caricaturist is a proof of eminence; his severities a tax on distinction.”

The gaunt, bespectacled figure who was arguably the greatest political cartoonist of all time is the subject of a sumptuous new coffee-table book, James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, by the historian and curator Tim Clayton.1 Produced by Yale’s Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art to its usual exacting standards, the volume is distinguished for its lavish illustrations, most reproduced from the matchless collection of the late print dealer Andrew Edmunds. Many have marginal notes in Gillray’s own hand, identifying the various characters depicted and thus enhancing their historical value.

Born in a Chelsea cottage in 1756, Gillray was raised in the Moravian Brotherhood and educated in one of that sect’s rigorous schools, kindling in him (I can’t help thinking) that spirit of dissent and liberty that Edmund Burke saw within all Protestantism. Trained as an engraver, he published his first caricatures at twenty-one, before enrolling in the Royal Academy school the following year. He tried his hand at the fine-art engravings then in vogue, but when the French Revolutionary Wars shut down the rich Continental market, he turned almost exclusively to caricature. He attached himself both professionally and personally to the publisher and printseller Hannah Humphrey, moving into her flat above her West End shop around 1790 and reportedly deciding, as the pair walked to church intending to be married, that “we live very comfortably together, and we had better let well alone.” Thus Hannah remained, in Canning’s word, Gillray’s “concubine.” When he became mentally unstable around 1811, she tenderly cared for him, and he left everything to her, his “dearest friend,” at his death at fifty-eight in 1815.

Taciturn and touchy with outsiders, Gillray was with trusted friends “pleasant in company, with an effervescent wit,” recalled one, and he was “an extremely well-informed and widely read man,” as is apparent not only from the exact knowledge of political affairs on view in his caricatures but also in their constant quotation from Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and the Bible, as well as the poetry and pamphlets of his own era. Luckily for him, it was a cultivated era, with a big literate audience able to catch his references.

Worse, beyond natural gluttony, sloth, and lust, all have the ignoble civilized vices, with greed, vanity, and a will to power leading the cart.

It’s hard not to think of the novels of Charles Dickens, also dubbed The Inimitable, when viewing Gillray’s caricatures, not only because some of Hablot Browne’s and John Leech’s illustrations for Dickens’s books contain figures straight out of Gillray, but also because the novels similarly seem to burst out of their frames with energetic, superabundant life. Dickens’s all-observant eye, like Gillray’s, notices every individualizing detail and picks some to exaggerate for comic or expressive or interpretive effect. Gillray, though, has a demystifying, democratizing aim that Dickens doesn’t often share. He seeks to deflate the great and famous, to show that under the finery is not only a man or woman like the rest of us, but a ridiculously fat or skinny or squat or tall one with gross features and the usual appetites and the usual organs and orifices that perform the usual functions. Worse, beyond natural gluttony, sloth, and lust, all have the ignoble civilized vices, with greed, vanity, and a will to power leading the cart.

James Gillray, Taking physick:—or—the news of shooting the King of Sweden!, published April 11, 1792, Hand-colored etching, National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Since no mystique outshines the supposed divinity that does hedge a king, Gillray’s first irresistible target was the royal family. In Taking Physick (1792), an aghast Prime Minister Pitt rushes before the throne—in this case, a two-holer privy on which the bare-bottomed King George sits beside Queen Charlotte—to announce the horrifying news of the King of Sweden’s assassination. “Another Monarch done over!” he cries, as the royals lose control of their bowels, the King—his nightcap bears the royal motto challenging anyone who thinks ill of him to be ashamed—grasping his ample belly in pain, while the Queen’s toes curl in horror and the carved lion on the royal arms above the throne grimaces and ejects pellets from beneath his tail. Putting a more positive spin on this scatological motif, The French Invasion; or John Bull, bombarding the Bum-Boats (1793) shows how the map of England resembles a squatting King George, still in his nightcap, exploding a fleet of warships from his rectum in Portsmouth against the French navy.

Sure, this is adolescent humor, but—honi soit!—a twelve-year-old boy, especially one who sees that the emperor has no clothes, lives on in every adult male heart. Moreover, the details in these cartoons are so inventive, with every toe, lip, and wall decoration expressing something funny, that it takes an awfully dyspeptic soul not to laugh.

Even the King’s taste for Handel’s music doesn’t escape whipping.

Monstrous Craws takes aim at royal cupidity, depicting the King, Queen, and Prince of Wales with huge goiters like big money bags under their jaws, like three similarly afflicted people displayed in London in 1787. The royal trio, whose heavy debts and expenses taxpayers had just been forced to fund, spoon gold coins with both hands from a bowl labeled “John Bull’s Blood” into their mouths, greedily stuffing their capacious craws. Even the King’s taste for Handel’s music doesn’t escape whipping. In Ancient Music, he listens rapturously to an orchestra of braying jackasses, bellowing bulls, bare-bottomed children bawling while being flogged, cats screeching while hoisted up by their tails, dogs chasing a terrified cur with a pot tied to its tail, and a grave musician awaiting his cue to pull a piglet’s tail, while Pitt stands behind the throne, shaking a child’s rattle and grinding a noisemaker. Of the bawdy royal prints, the best is Fashionable Contrasts (1792), commemorating the marriage of the Duke of York to a Prussian princess, whose little feet in dainty shoes caused fashion commentators to ooh and aah. The chatter stopped when Gillray’s print, subtitled “The Duchess’s little Shoe yeilding [sic] to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot,” depicted a huge pair of shod male feet between delicate female ones in pretty embroidered slippers, leaving no doubt as to what the rest of the two bodies were doing, beyond the frame.

James Gillray, Fashionable Contrasts:—or—the Duchess’s little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot, published January 24, 1792, hand-colored etching, The British Museum, London. 

The image of Pitt the Younger that has come down through history is Gillray’s depiction of him, his face an equilateral triangle, with his sharp, wine-reddened nose the apex, between his receding chin and swept-back hair, his eyes always wide with surprise. Curiously, a publisher suppressed the one serious portrait Gillray engraved of the prime minister, dismissing it as a poor likeness when apparently it was an unflatteringly accurate depiction, with all the unillusioned realism with which Gillray couldn’t help seeing the world. Early on, the caricaturist showed Pitt—the son of England’s first great prime minister, Lord Chatham—as the King’s toady, a subservient clerk sweeping in tax money from an overburdened citizenry to fatten an already corpulent monarchy. But with the coming of the French Revolution, Gillray’s view of the world and its leaders began to change.

England’s defeat in its expensive and unpopular war against American independence had cost the King the affection of many of his subjects, particularly those, like Gillray and his fellow Whigs, whose politics most prized the liberty of the free-born Englishman. In a very early cartoon of 1779, The Liberty of the Subject, Gillray acidly shows a bullying press gang forcibly drafting a scrawny tailor off the streets into the navy, as his wife and neighbors unsuccessfully struggle to keep him at home. This is English liberty, Gillray sarcastically asks—kidnapping citizens and making them suppress by force of arms the independence of other Englishmen across the ocean? The government’s affront to liberty is also the subject of the magnificent March to the Bank of 1787, which depicts the guards who patrolled London in the wake of the violent anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 knocking down citizens in their path and marching roughshod over them, with a goose-stepping, sword-waving popinjay at their head, oozing contempt from his fingers to his toes. For the early Gillray, tyranny was always close at hand.

Unsurprisingly, the French Revolution, in its initial, constitutional-monarchy phase, struck him as an advance in human freedom. But doubt soon crept in. One of his most famous prints, Smelling out a Rat,—or The Atheistical Revolutionist disturbed in his Midnight Calculations, dramatizes the 1790 debate between the pro- and anti-revolutionary sides with unforgettable energy. In one corner, the dissenting minister Dr. Richard Price, who had preached a widely reprinted sermon in support of the revolution, jumps up from his desk in shock as the giant face of Edmund Burke, all rapier-sharp elongated nose and staring spectacles, bursts out of a cloud of mystification, brandishing a crown and crucifix, each radiating a luminous force field, and vibrates in proboscitory accusation over Price’s shoulder. Gillray takes no sides here between the furtive-looking Price, who trembles like a guilty thing surprised, and the inquisitory Burke, whose great Reflections on the Revolution in France answered Price’s sermon and prophetically argued that the revolutionaries had jettisoned the true sources of French liberty in casting off the historical loyalties to throne and altar, the habits of the heart on which French civilization rests and out of which any real liberalization has to grow if it is not to devolve into tyranny. The abstract rights of man that Price championed, Burke wrote, do not command sufficient emotional power to sustain a civilization.

James Gillray, The Zenith of French Glory;—The Pinnacle of Liberty, published February 1793, Hand-colored etching, The British Museum, London.

So it proved, starting with the massacres of early September 1792, when the Paris mob slaughtered some sixteen hundred “counterrevolutionaries,” tearing out the still-beating heart of the beautiful Princesse de Lamballe, rumor had it, and eating it. On September 20, Gillray made his commentary in Un Petit Souper a la Parisienne, at once witty and horrifying. A family of sans-culottes—Gillray translates the expression with purposely obtuse literalness, depicting the savage figures naked from the waist down—devours the corpses of the slain and mutilated victims, with one fat harridan sinking her teeth into a big pink Valentine heart, while an old crone bastes a dead baby roasting before the fire. Savage without the humor is The Zenith of French Glory, published three weeks after the January 1793 beheading of Louis XVI. Diminutive in the distance, the trussed monarch awaits the fall of the guillotine, while dominating the foreground is a half-naked, wild-faced sans-culotte sitting on a lamppost, from which are suspended the bodies of three hanged priests. From a further lamppost hangs a judge, along with the scales and sword of Justice. The sans-culotte plays a fiddle, while angry smoke and flames belch from the dome of a once-grand church. The lamp bowl on which his bare bottom sits looks like it will become a chamber pot rather than a source of enlightenment in the godless and lawless new republic.

After revolutionary France declared war on Britain early in 1793, Gillray’s presentation of Pitt and the King turned positive. Clayton ascribes the shift in large measure to official bribery, and certainly Gillray began receiving a government pension in 1796. But I think the author puts too much stock in an 1824 reviewer’s pronouncement that Gillray “was known to be a democrat in his heart, though he was obliged to earn his pension by employing his pencil against his conscience”—an inner conflict, it is suggested, that helped drive him mad. On the contrary, though the artist remained a lover of liberty and never lost his critical skepticism of the government, he didn’t find it hard to choose between murderous revolutionary fanaticism and John Bull patriotism.

Gillray imagines the carnage these English supporters of the French Revolution would wreak if they pushed out Pitt and gained power.

After all, Gillray’s depiction of Pitt began to shift well before the pension. In The Hopes of the Party, prior to July 14th, Gillray satirizes the prime minister’s opponents, the radical Whigs. He imagines the carnage these English supporters of the French Revolution would wreak if they pushed out Pitt and gained power. In the print, Pitt and the Queen hang from lampposts, as the radical leader Charles James Fox—fat, slovenly, and with perpetual five-o’clock shadow—lifts an axe to behead a befuddled, plump-bottomed George III, assisted by his radical cronies Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the dramatist-politician, and Dr. Joseph Priestley, the pamphleteer, scientist, and preacher. This premonitory print came out in July 1791, just after the French revolutionaries thwarted the French king and queen’s attempt to escape France, but well before their execution the following year.

After the Whig Party split in July 1794, with the moderates joining Pitt in support of war with France, Gillray’s rejection of the radicals and his defense of Pitt became more explicit, sometimes full-throated. In Patriotic Regeneration of 1795, he shows the radicals, with Fox presiding, arraigning a vulnerable-looking, apprehensive Pitt “for opposing the Right of Subjects to dethrone their King” and “the Right of Sans-Culottes to equalize Property,” while onlookers warm themselves at a stove in which Magna Carta and the Bible go up in flames. A month later, Light expelling Darkness showed Pitt as a bare-chested Apollo, masterfully driving the chariot of the sun, pulled by a fierce British lion and an exquisite Hanoverian horse, and riding down Fox, Sheridan, and their furtive, cowering radical supporters, under their banner of “peace, peace, on any Terms. . . . Unconditional Submission, No Law, No King, No God.” Guiding Pitt’s chariot, by contrast, is a figure of Justice beneath a banner proclaiming “honorable peace, or everlasting war.” The print’s superb artistry and careful finish, with engraving added to Gillray’s usual etching, confutes Clayton’s judgment that Gillray meant it to appear “more than faintly ludicrous.”

The following week, however, the artist’s usual irony returned in another image of Pitt riding down his radical opponents. Published on the April day on which a lunatic preacher had predicted that an earthquake would destroy London, the mock-heroic Presages of the Millenium [sic] shows Pitt as Death on a wildly galloping pale horse, brandishing a flaming sword and trampling an aghast Fox and his cohorts. Gone is the heroic physique; this naked, spindle-shanked Pitt, with manic eyes and flaming hair, is even lanker and scrawnier than in real life. Mounted behind him, an imp wearing the Prince of Wales’s plumed coronet bites his bottom, while other demons, including one with the head of Burke, fly behind, also urging him to speed onward. This energy-charged endorsement of the ministry’s war policy over the radicals’ pacifism is all the more persuasive for its stiff dose of urbane irony.

When Napoleon Bonaparte made himself ruler of France in November 1799, overthrowing the Directory and seizing power as first consul, he became a delicious new recruit to Gillray’s dramatis personae. The giant hat dwarfing his diminutive stature offered an obvious target from the get-go. Soon too the vainglory showed itself, temptingly. Englishmen gasped at the effrontery with which the French upstart wrote to George III on Christmas 1799, proposing, as monarch to monarch, peace talks. Monarch to monarch! Gillray pounced on this presumptuousness in February 1800, in The Apples and the Horse Turds, more adolescent humor, but funny nonetheless. Launched from the odoriferous “Republican Dunghill” of such fecal heaps as Voltaire, Rousseau, Tom Paine, Fox, Price, and Priestley, the “First Horseturd,” in his huge plumed hat, swims out to join the bobbing flotilla of golden apples that bear the crowns of England, Spain, Russia, Prussia, and so on. “How we apples swim,” the First Horseturd exclaims, as if sheer assertion could make him so. How the caricaturist loved to puncture pretense!

James Gillray, The Hand-Writing upon the Wall, published August 24, 1803, Hand-colored etching, The British Museum, London.

Assassination plots and rumors soon threatened the first consul, and they sparked Gillray’s 1803 The Hand-Writing upon the Wall. The dramatic print depicts Napoleon as Belshazzar, enthroned at the banquet table among his carousing courtiers, feasting from vessels looted from the First Temple, here rendered as the prizes the French hope to ravish from Britain, including the Bank of England and the Tower of London. As a grossly fat, oblivious Josephine swills down cherry liqueur, while the three graces smirk behind her back, a terror-stuck Napoleon drops his goblet at the sudden appearance of a Michelangelesque divine hand reaching out of a cloud to inscribe Mene mene tekel upharsin. The words, as Daniel interpreted them in the Biblical tale, mean, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Sure enough, the other divine hand holds a scale, on which a crown so outweighs a cap of liberty as to send it hurtling down toward the bloody tip of a highly apprehensive guardsman’s sword. Napoleon’s startled face and outflung fingers express extreme consternation: after all, the Biblical Belshazzar was dead before dawn. Gillray’s threat is in equal measure humorous, literate, and satisfying.

Napoleon had crowned himself emperor in December 1804, and a few months later, as the Third Coalition’s armies gathered to intensify the war against France, Gillray produced perhaps the most memorable and oft-imitated political cartoon ever, The Plumb-pudding in danger. Pitt in a red military uniform and Napoleon in a blue one, each wearing a huge hat, sit opposite each other at a dinner table, a giant plum pudding in the shape of a world globe steaming on a platter between them. Perched on the edge of a chair too big for him, Napoleon frantically carves off most of Europe with his sword, while chicken-legged Pitt, a look of worry as well as the usual surprise on his face, wields his carving knife to help himself to the Atlantic Ocean. The exactly composed interplay of parallel blades at right angles to the precisely opposed carving forks opens a deep space behind the picture plane and conveys the tension of intense competition. A quotation from Shakespeare’s Tempest below the print’s title raises the stakes: “ ‘the great globe itself, and all which it inherit,’ is too small to satisfy such insatiable appetites.”

But when Pitt, the prodigy who became prime minister at age twenty-four, died at the start of 1806, unmarried and only forty-six, the chief star went out of Gillray’s firmament. For him, Clayton rightly says, it was “the end of an era.” And though the artist went on to create several memorable works in the four or so years before illness brought his career to an end, his caricature chronicle of Pitt’s ministry and its struggle against revolutionary and then Napoleonic France is his greatest accomplishment. With that drama ended, it seems fitting to bring down the curtain.

  1.   James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, by Timothy Clayton; Yale University Press, 408 pages, $65.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 9, on page 25
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