Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Political Dreamings! Perspective Horrors!

Gillray’s prints combined high art—grand action scenes, literary symbolism, elaborate allegory and complex detail—with obscenity, outrageous insults, bizarre distortions of the human body, and dream imagery hauled up from the depths of the unconscious.

The Plumb-Pudding In Danger;-Or-State Epicures Taking Un Petit Souper

James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, by Timothy Clayton, Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, 408 pages.

Why, in the decades between 1776 and 1848 when half the world was shaken by mass uprisings, was there no British Revolution? Obviously this is not an easy question to settle, but one enjoyable fringe theory takes us to St James’s Street in London, sometime around the turn of the 19th century.


As you stroll downhill from Piccadilly towards Pall Mall, you notice, outside Hannah Humphrey’s print shop, a frantic commotion of shoving and jostling. “The enthusiasm is indescribable,” a German visitor recorded. “It is a veritable madness. You have to make your way through the crowd with your fists.” A new work by James Gillray has just appeared in the shop window.

On joining the throng, you overhear the chatter about Gillray’s latest drawing. Perhaps he is laughing at the recent fashions in dress, or caricaturing some aristocratic scandal. Perhaps his subject is political: a portrait of the prime minister as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, or a representation of a massacre in Paris. Or perhaps he is showing the royals, the Queen as a half-naked old crone, or a gigantic King George III wearing a dunce’s cap and issuing a stream of excrement from his nether regions towards the French fleet.  

Praising art for “irreverence” is now a cliché, but Gillray was the real thing, hence, so the theory goes, his political significance. While other countries deposed their monarchs and overthrew their ruling classes, Britain’s premier comic artist just made them comical and repulsive. While elsewhere blood flowed in the streets, Gillray entertained the public with images of atrocities and war crimes. Art was the perfect safety-valve.  

As I say, it’s a fringe theory, and a dubious one at that. Gillray’s principal audience was not the butchers and shopkeepers who might have taken to the barricades but clued-up members of the elite who could get all the in-jokes. Nevertheless, it captures the first and most obvious point about Gillray: that he was, for good and ill, a revolutionary.

There had been visual satirists before, notably the great William Hogarth; but Hogarth drew realistic figures and tended to make an identifiable moral point. Gillray overthrew these conventions. His prints combined high art—grand action scenes, literary symbolism, elaborate allegory and complex detail—with obscenity, outrageous insults, bizarre distortions of the human body, and dream imagery hauled up from the depths of the unconscious. He influenced both Goya and Blake.


Gillray also invented the modern political cartoon. If you turn to the opinion section of a British newspaper and look at the illustration filling the top half of the page, it is in effect a Gillray pastiche—politicians turned into grotesques in a mock-heroic scene depicting the issues of the day—only less inventive than Gillray, less visually appealing, and less rude.  

The extent of his influence is unknowable, since the images he created have passed untraceably into the collective mind. Every Englishman knows as a matter of fact that Napoleon was strikingly and somewhat comically short. Scholars tell us that he was, in fact, around average height. What happened was this: Gillray discovered it was funny to draw Napoleon as a bad-tempered, melodramatic diva. “Buonaparte, hearing of Nelson’s victory, swears by his sword, to extirpate the English from the earth” was the title of one 1798 print. He then realized the joke was twice as funny if Bonaparte was also the smallest man in the room. Gillray’s imagination simply overpowered the truth.

Or perhaps one should say that his imagination reached to another level of truth: that Napoleon, however much he seemed to have mastered the course of events, would in the end be swept away by them. Gillray had an instinct for spotting weakness. Edmund Burke, in the classic portraits by his friend Joshua Reynolds, looks as you imagine when you read Burke’s finest prose, a sensitive, melancholy philosopher-politician who carries himself with a quiet dignity. Gillray, detecting a strain of priggishness, gave him pursed lips, comic yellow spectacles and an elongated nose for poking into other people’s business. It was unfair, but it wasn’t completely false.

Along with this cruel perceptiveness, Gillray had an unsurpassed gift for bringing incongruous images into a dynamic unity that can almost be called beautiful. In Political-Dreamings! Visions of Peace! Perspective Horrors! (1801), the viewer is presented with the sleeping figure of William Windham, a prominent critic of the peace treaty Britain had just signed with France. Around Windham’s bed are assembled a ludicrous cast of characters from his nightmare: Lady Justice, forehead sunk against her hand as she slumps on a chamberpot; eighteen recently decapitated Frenchmen, and a separate group of a dozen Englishmen, also headless; a pack of rats—all with identifiable faces, even at this tiny scale—delving into a red box marked “TREASURY,” plus a separate group of humanized rats swarming around a bowl of cheese; a towering red skeleton placing his crutches on a pile of paraphernalia including a bishop’s mitre and a tankard engraved “J. Bull’s Old Stout”; a couple of demons playing musical instruments; two ministers signing a peace treaty; Napoleon leading a weeping Britannia to the guillotine; a vulture tearing a rabbit from an olive tree; and in the distant background, a castle, a mighty fleet in an ocean, and a cathedral on fire.

I do not have space to go into the scraps of text and speech-bubbles, or the insignia, costume, and props with which Gillray has decorated the scene. The extraordinary thing is that, instead of coming across as an insane jumble, everything in the picture looks like it belongs.   

Gillray himself is an enigma. Born in 1756, he was brought up in a Moravian community that emphasized that death was a happy release from a sinful world. It’s possible that this vanity-of-vanities philosophy informed Gillray’s satire; otherwise, given the blasphemies he indulged in—some casual, some appalling—Christianity seems to have been at best a background influence. After failing to make it as a “serious” engraver, he became a full-time political and social satirist until his eyesight went in 1809. He died six years later after a long period of severe mental illness. There is little evidence of Gillray’s having close friends, or any romantic interest. Contemporary testimony suggests a taciturn, manic-depressive character with a fragile ego and an alcohol problem.

That is the standard portrait, but Tim Clayton thinks it is, well, a caricature. Gillray was, he suggests in this biographical study, “a celebrity among celebrities,” well-connected and moving easily in the beau monde. Elsewhere, too, Clayton defends his subject. Conventional wisdom has it that Gillray’s early work, before he devoted himself to satire, was second-rate. Clayton believes it showed great promise.

Above all, he proposes that Gillray was a man of principle. The best single introduction to Gillray that I know of, Vic Gatrell’s chapter on him in City of Laughter, characterizes him as an all-purpose hater with few real beliefs. Gillray was much constrained in what he could say: on the one hand, by money—he depended on commissions from partisan patrons, and for a few years secretly accepted a government subsidy—and on the other by the law. In the anxious years after the French Revolution, sedition could get you jailed. As Gatrell points out, there were genuine radicals around in those days, and Gillray scorned them. His job was not to undermine the Establishment, but to make it giggle. Yet Clayton argues for a moral center to Gillray’s work: He “consistently identifies with the common man.”

Here one has to leave the experts to argue over it. And it would take a brave man to debate with Clayton: This book is a monument of scholarship, indispensable for any academic working in the field. He can tell you everything about the workings of the book market and the different methods of engraving and exactly which titled cad was using Gillray to destroy the reputation of his estranged wife. The mass of information here is, along with the 200 reproductions of Gillray’s work, the good, the very good, and the horrendous—the book’s major strength.

Its major weakness is that Clayton, having extracted such a wealth of detail from the bibliographical mines, struggles to manage it. A historian writing with a general audience in mind should be like a tour guide who, while drawing our attention to the important facts, also knows when to leave out the minor ones, when to arrest our attention with an anecdote, when to clarify the picture with a generalization. Otherwise the reader starts to lose the thread. It is worth knowing, when discussing Gillray’s Miltonic allusions, that Milton’s popularity at the time was second only to Shakespeare; but we don’t necessarily need to be informed that “102 editions of Paradise Lost were published between 1740 and 1820,” and we definitely couldn’t care less about a particular poetry anthology that included Milton, never mind who published it and in what year.

Clayton does get to the essence of Gillray’s comedy: its ironic doubleness. That nightmare of William Windham’s about the peace treaty, for instance. Does Gillray sympathize with it, or is he deliberately exaggerating it to show its absurdity? A lot of political comedy, the smug left-wing kind and the indignant right-wing kind, fails because it has no interest in its subject. Gillray, even at his most outrageous, often leaves you in doubt over how much he admires and how much he detests his targets. “Each man,” Wilde wrote, “kills the thing he loves.” That probably isn’t accurate as a general statement. But it ought to be true for satirists.


Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here