Gillray, James (DNB00)
|←Gillow, Thomas||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 21
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GILLRAY, JAMES (1757–1815), caricaturist, was born in 1757. His father, who is said to have been a Lanark man with the same christian name, had served as a trooper under the Duke of Cumberland in Flanders, and fought at Fontenoy. About 1746, having lost an arm, he became an out-pensioner of Chelsea Hospital, and afterwards filled for forty years the post of sexton to the Moravian burying-ground at Chelsea, where he was himself interred in 1799. His son James is the only one of his descendants of whom any record has been preserved. Nothing is known of his early training beyond the fact that at a fitting age he was (like Hogarth) apprenticed to a letter-engraver. Whether this was because he had shown a talent for drawing is not stated, but he seems to have begun to design during his apprenticeship. Becoming tired of a monotonous employment, he ran away and joined a troop of strollers. Quitting these again, after a brief experience, to enter himself as a student of the Royal Academy, he began speedily to acquire that grasp and knowledge of figure drawing which is one of his characteristics. Concurrently with his labours at the Academy, he is thought to have studied engraving with W. W. Ryland [q. v.], whose dot-manner he practised, and with Bartolozzi. He must have begun in good time to exercise his satiric talent, for an early etching which is ascribed to him, a caricature of Lord North, with an owl on his head, entitled ‘A Committee of Grievances and Apprehensions,’ is dated 12 June 1769, or when he was a boy of twelve. Other anonymous efforts succeeded, for some of which he is believed to have used the initials of Pitt's caricaturist, James Sayer, but he was first revealed in his own name by a design called ‘Paddy on Horseback’ (the horse being a bull), which bears date 4 March 1779. After 1780 his works, which had hitherto been chiefly devoted to social subjects, became almost exclusively political, and his long career as a political caricaturist may be said to have begun in 1782 with the series of designs in which he signalised the popular victory of Rodney over De Grasse off Guadeloupe.
From this time until 1811, when he engraved his last plate, he continued to pour out the characteristic pictorial satires which for nearly thirty years delighted Londoners, and induced an astonished German visitor to declare that England was ‘altogeder von libel.’ The royal family, the court, the nobility, the ministry, ‘all sorts and conditions of men,’ were freely ridiculed by this daring censor, who, after publishing with Holland of Oxford Street, Fores of Piccadilly, and others, finally took up his residence with, and practically confined his efforts to, the establishment of Miss (by courtesy Mrs.) H. Humphrey, which, originally located in the Strand, passed afterwards to New Bond Street, then to Old Bond Street, and ultimately to No. 29 St. James's Street. Here, while the artist was working above in his eager, feverish way, often wounding his fingers by the ‘burr’ thrown up in the rapid progress of his needle over the copper, his brightly coloured works were dispensed in the shop beneath by Miss Humphrey or her giggling assistant, Betty Marshall. One of his prints, ‘Very Slippy-Weather’ (10 Feb. 1808), represents the famous old shop, with its accustomed crowd outside (a crowd often so great that the passer-by had to quit the footway in order to get by), and decorated by many well-known designs. Another, ‘Twopenny Whist’ (11 Jan. 1796), shows Miss Humphrey herself in a white satin trimmed cap, Mortimer the picture dealer, a German friend, Schotter, and the radiant Betty, who is exhibiting the trump card. Mortimer, who was Miss Humphrey's neighbour in St. James's Street, also appears in ‘Connoisseurs examining a collection of George Morlands’ (16 Nov. 1807). Gillray continued to be an inmate of Miss Humphrey's house until he died. She made a handsome income by his labours, and in return supplied her retiring and somewhat morose lodger with every requirement. His health at length yielded to growing habits of intemperance, fostered, it is only charitable to suppose, by the constant strain upon his inventive powers, and about the end of 1811 he sank into comparative imbecility, passing a great part of the latter years of his life confined in an upper chamber of Miss Humphrey's house. Once, as witnessed by Stanley the picture-dealer, and the artist, Kenny Meadows, he was with difficulty restrained from throwing himself out of window. His last appearance, unclad, unshorn, and haggard, was in the shop which his creations had made so popular. He had escaped for a moment from the vigilance of his guardians, but was speedily reconducted to his room, and on the same day, 1 June 1815, he died, aged 58 years. He was buried near the rectory house in the churchyard of St. James's, Piccadilly, where there is a flat stone to his memory.
The miniature of Gillray in the National Portrait Gallery, painted by himself on ivory, represents an elderly man in a blue-grey coat and high collar, with shaven face, dull grey eyes, and grey hair. It has been engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner (19 April 1819) and in stipple by J. Brown. In character he is described as a ‘silent, shy, and inexplicable’ personage, who took his pleasures in his own solitary fashion, a course which, coupled with his vocation as a caricaturist, favoured exaggerated rumours as to his peculiarities. But those who knew him intimately found him no more than reserved and undemonstrative, and never detected in him those evidences of grosser tastes with which he has been charged. His relations with Miss Humphrey were, perhaps inevitably, a fertile subject of scandalous speculation, but in justice to the poor lady, who when his mind gave way treated her demented lodger with the greatest kindness, an emphatic contradiction has been given to report. That, as might perhaps be expected, marriage was more than once mooted is not improbable, and there is a pleasant legend that the pair once actually set out for St. James's Church upon this errand. But the artist turned back before they reached their destination, having decided on the way that things were better as they were, a sentiment in which the lady apparently acquiesced.
Gillray's work extended to some fifteen hundred pieces. Many of his most popular efforts were levelled at ‘Farmer George’ and his wife, whose frugal habits he ridiculed in ‘Frying Sprats’ and ‘Toasting Muffins’ (23 Nov. 1791), and also in ‘Anti-Saccharites’ (27 March 1792), where the royal pair are subjecting the unwilling princesses to a régime of sugarless tea. He contrasts them again in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (28 July 1792) with their luxurious son and heir, who is depicted (2 July) as ‘A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion,’ a design which George Cruikshank afterwards recalled in his famous ‘First Gentleman in Europe’ recovering from a debauch. In ‘Monstrous Craws at a Coalition Feast’ (29 May 1787) and ‘A New Way to Pay the National Debt’ (21 April 1786) he satirised their avarice and the penniless condition of the Prince of Wales, whose marriage in 1788 prompted ‘Wife or no Wife’ (27 March) with its admirable sketch of Lord North as a sleeping coachman, and ‘A Scene on the Continent’ (5 April). ‘Ancient Music’ (10 May 1787) deals with one of the most defined royal tastes by showing their majesties enraptured at a discordant concert of ministers. Another exceedingly caustic design, prompted by some depreciatory utterance of royalty, is ‘A Connoisseur examining a Cooper’ (18 June 1792), in which, by the light of a candle on a save-all, King George blinks at a miniature of his special abhorrence, Oliver Cromwell. In ‘The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver’ (26 June 1803) and the sequel plate, which exhibits a diminutive Napoleon manœuvring a tiny boat in a cistern for the amusement of the royal family, the laugh is more against the terrible Corsican. The circle at the palace, where Gillray's latest efforts were always regularly supplied wet from the press, are said to have been delighted with this production. They were even pleased with ‘Anti-Saccharites,’ which is by no means complimentary to Queen Charlotte, but it is scarcely to be wondered at that they were highly offended by ‘Sin, Death, and the Devil’ (9 June 1792), in which the queen, as a loathsome hag, is shown interposing between Pitt and the black-browed Chancellor Thurlow. It may be doubted whether a more outrageous political attack has ever been made upon royalty. Certainly for daring and power (and it may be added for aptitude of allusion) it would be difficult to match this savage performance.
In several of Gillray's remaining designs the young premier, William Pitt, plays a prominent part. In ‘The Vulture of the Constitution’ (3 Jan. 1789), ‘An Excrescence’ (20 Dec. 1791), ‘God Save the King’ (27 May 1795), ‘Presages of the Millennium’ (4 June 1795), ‘The Death of the Great Wolf,’ a travesty of West (17 Dec. 1795), ‘The Plumb Pudding in Danger’ (26 Feb. 1805), ‘Uncorking Old Sherry’ (10 March 1805), and ‘Disciples Catching the Mantle’ (25 June 1808), he is either the sole or the conspicuous figure. The dusky muzzle of Charles James Fox is nearly as often under Gillray's needle, e.g. in ‘Spouting’ (14 May 1792), ‘The Slough of Despond’ (2 Jan. 1793), ‘Blue and Buff Charity’ (12 June 1793), and ‘The Worn-out Patriot’ (13 Oct. 1800). Sheridan's mottled and once handsome face is also often reproduced, and Burke's (to cite but one example) in the famous ‘Dagger Scene’ (30 Dec. 1792), which includes all the other notabilities above named. ‘A Smoking Club’ (13 Feb. 1793) also contains portraits of Pitt, Fox, and Sheridan. The last two appear again in a remarkable work entitled ‘Doublures of Characters, or Striking Resemblances in Physiognomy,’ executed in November 1798 for the ‘Anti-Jacobin Magazine,’ and comprising portraits of Sir Francis Burdett, Horne Tooke, and the Dukes of Norfolk and Bedford. The exploits of Nelson and Napoleon, the Broad Bottom administration, and the French revolution naturally prompt many plates. But the catalogue of the strictly political caricatures would be endless. The more important are ‘Market Day’ (2 May 1788); ‘Fatigues of the [Duke of York's] Campaign in Flanders’ (20 May 1793); ‘The Loyal Toast,’ i.e. the Duke of Norfolk's ‘Majesty of the People’ (3 Feb. 1798); ‘The Apotheosis of Hoche’ (11 Dec. 1798); ‘The Union Club’ (21 Jan. 1801); ‘Confederated Coalition’ (1 May 1804); ‘L'Assemblée Nationale’ (18 June 1804); ‘More Pigs than Teats’ (5 March 1806); its supplement, ‘The Pigs Possessed’ (18 April 1807); and ‘The Great Balloon’ (8 Aug. 1810), a satire upon the installation of Lord Grenville as lord chancellor of Oxford, which is also the last political engraving bearing the artist's name.
Many of Gillray's social, or rather non-political, subjects are still popular. ‘The March to the Bank’ (22 Aug. 1787), ‘The Bengal Levee’ (9 Nov. 1792), ‘Heroes Recruiting at Kelseys,’ the fruiterer in St. James's Street (9 June 1797), the burlesque on inoculation, called ‘The Cow Pock’ (12 June 1802), ‘A Broad Hint of not meaning to Dance,’ and ‘Company shocked at a Lady getting up to Ring the Bell’ (20 Nov. 1804), ‘Harmony before Matrimony’ and ‘Matrimonial Harmonics’ (25 Oct. 1805), are all favourite examples in this kind. Of satires aimed more directly at individuals, may be cited the prints called ‘Sandwich Carrots’ (3 Dec. 1796), with its attractive barrow-woman; ‘Push Pin’ (17 April 1797) as played by ‘Old Q.’ and Miss Vanneck; ‘A Peep at Christie's’ (24 Sept. 1796); ‘The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche’ (3 May 1797), showing the dumpy Lord Derby with his second wife, the tall Miss Farren; and ‘The Bulstrode Siren’ (14 April 1803), Mrs. Billington and the Duke of Portland. To this class of non-political caricature belongs also Gillray's last work, ‘Interior of a Barber's Shop in Assize Time,’ engraved from a design by H. W. Bunbury [q. v.] It is dated 9 Jan. 1811, but during the eclipse of the artist's powers had long been painfully ‘in hand.’ It was published 15 May 1818.
Among Gillray's miscellaneous works is a series of stippled plates in red, entitled ‘Hollandia Regenerata,’ which was published in Holland with Dutch inscriptions, and was intended ‘to ridicule the republican costumes and appointments.’ Occasionally he made excursions into serious art. In June 1784 he designed and engraved two oval subjects from Goldsmith's ‘Deserted Village,’ which in style are said to resemble Stothard. He also executed three or four marine subjects, a likeness of Dr. Arne in profile after Bartolozzi (1782), ‘Colonel Gardiner's last Interview with his Wife and Daughters before the Battle of Preston Pans’ (1786), and two portraits of Pitt. Besides these he is known to have etched several plates bearing fictitious names. In a design called ‘A Domestic Musical Party’ (1804) he essayed lithography, and he cut or drew a few subjects on wood, now so rare that of one of them, ‘A Beggar at a Door,’ only a solitary impression is known to exist. Another was a medallion portrait of Pitt which appears as the title-page vignette in Bohn's collection of Gillray's works.
Gillray's most enduring work, however, was done as a caricaturist, and as a caricaturist pure and simple he holds a foremost place in that division of English graphic art. Much of the intensity, the almost ferocious energy, of his satire is scarcely conceivable in these milder days, but, that admission made, it is impossible not to admire his inexhaustible fertility of fancy, the frequent grandeur of his conception, the reckless audacity of his attack, and his skill in selecting the vulnerable side of his victims. His executive facility was unexampled. Often, equipped only with a few slight outlines of his characters on tiny cards (some of which are still preserved by collectors), he would, without further preliminary study, rapidly cover a copper plate with intricate groups of figures, composed and contrasted with consummate skill. George Cruikshank, who knew him towards the close of his career, describes his enthusiasm over his work as extraordinary and even as painful to witness, since it seemed in its hurrying excitement like a premonition of insanity. There are, indeed, discernible traces of coming trouble in his last works.[Gillray's ‘original coppers’ were purchased at Miss Humphrey's death by H. G. Bohn. A selection of them had been published in 1818, and again with illustrative description by m'Clean in 1830, 2 vols. In 1851 Bohn issued 582 of them in one atlas folio volume, with a separate octavo key by Thomas Wright and R. H. Evans. The chief authority for Gillray, however, is the Works of James Gillray, the Caricaturist, with the History of his Life and Times, described on the title-page as edited by Thomas Wright, but now understood to have been the work of Joseph Grego, the author of Rowlandson, the Caricaturist, and published (n.d.) by Chatto & Windus. It has ‘over four hundred illustrations,’ many of which were drawn on wood by Grego. Besides this, George Stanley's sketch in Bryan, ed. 1858, pp. 283–3*, Buss's English Graphic Satire, 1874, pp. 113–29, and Everitt's English Caricaturists, 1886, may be profitably consulted.]