James Gillray: puncturing the pompous with caricature

Caricature is fairly common today (even amateurs like me try their hand at it), but in the late 18th century, it was a newly developing form of art, as well as social and political communication. And no one was better at it — a set a higher standard for others of his and those who came after him — than James Gillray.

Gillray was born in 1756 and between 1775 and 1810 he produced an estimated 1,000 prints that were brimming with political and social satire, puncturing the pompous and leveling the haughty. He was highly popular with the general public and fiercely despised and feared in many political quarters.

No escaped Gillray’s devastating pen, even King George III. Especially, King George III (picture).

Gillray took aim early and often at the King and those around him. He would attend Parliament sessions, become enraged, appalled, or simply amused at what he saw and heard, and then retire to his studio to produce a print on a “breaking news” basis. Because his prints were often posted on the walls outside the shop where they were printed, crowds would gather to view his latest work.

His works were not only good take-downs and highly evolved satires, but they were good art. They were colorful and detailed, and by themselves they give us a window on what 18th century England looked like.

If you want to know more about Gillray and his work, there is no better place to start that Jim Sherry‘s excellent website: www.james-gillray.org. You’ll find a lot of his prints there as well as much biographical information and an explanation of his methods.

Another excellent website is Matthew Crowther‘s The Printshop Window – Caricature & Graphic Satire in the Long Eighteenth-Century.

Gillray showed us how to do it 200 years ago, and we have been trying to be as good as he was ever since.

And my attempt to try to be as good — with Gillray himself.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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