Having developed the skills of draughtsman and engraver, James Gillray established himself as the first professional caricaturist in Britain, and dominated the field. Breaking free of the rigid symbolic language of amateur caricaturists, he employed his rich imagination, and exaggerated the features of his targets, to powerful political ends. James Gillray was born in Chelsea, which was then in the county of Middlesex, on 13 August 1756. He was the only surviving child of a disabled Scottish ex-soldier who joined the extreme protestant sect of the Moravian Brethren, and became sexton of its burial ground in Chelsea. in 1762, at the age of five, Gillray was sent to the Moravian school in Bedford, but returned to his parents two years later, when the school was closed for financial reasons. it is uncertain what further general education, if any, he received, but he certainly developed a talent for drawing while still young.
By 1770, he was apprenticed to Harry Ashby, the writing engraver and publisher, based at Russell Court, Covent Garden. However, he soon became bored and left ‘to join a company of strolling players’ (as reported by a German journalist in 1798, and quoted by Anita McConnell and Simon Heneage in their entry on Gillray in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, page 298).
By 1775, Gillray had returned to London, and was engraving satirical prints for the publisher, William Humphrey, who was then based at Gerrard Street, Soho. Those that he designed as well as engraved were greatly influenced by the work of John Hamilton Mortimer. His work as an engraver enabled him to support himself through his studies at the Royal Academy Schools, which he entered in 1778. He is likely to have attended the lectures of the engraver, Francesco Bartolozzi, and may also have received some lessons from the pioneering stipple engraver, William Wynne Ryland. While producing a range of illustrations, miniature portraits and reproductive engravings during this period, he developed his own distinctive style of caricatures, and over the next six years gradually established his reputation as the leading caricaturist in Britain.
During the 1780s, Gillray focussed on English party politics, attacking both the Whigs and the Tories, and also members of the royal family, including George, the Prince of Wales. Of the three great stipple engravings that he produced in 1792, A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion caricatures the results of the Prince of Wales’ debauchery in a particularly explicit way.
Regarding his attitude to international affairs, Gillray was initially pleased when the ancien régime fell in France in 1789. However, he altered his opinion as events turned more bloodthirsty, and produced some horrific satires of the revolutionaries, including Un Petit Souper à la Parisienne (1792), in which Sans Culottes are shown dining on the remains of their enemies. The rise of Napoleon inspired a further group of incisive caricatures, including The Plum Pudding in Danger (1805), in which Napoleon and the Tory leader, William Pitt, divide a globe-like pudding between them. Having attacked the response of the Whig Opposition to the revolution, he accepted a pension from Pitt in 1797.
Alongside the political subjects, Gillray produced a large number of social caricatures, often based on designs or ideas by such amateur artists as the Rev Brownlow North, the Rev John Sneyd and Charles Lorraine Smith. Before the mid 1780s, Robert Wilkinson, of 58 Cornhill, published many of Gillray’s caricatures while, after that date, they were issued by Samuel Fores, of 3 Piccadilly, and significantly by Hannah Humphrey, of 51 New Bond Street. The younger sister of William Humphrey, Hannah became his sole publisher in 1791, and his landlady from 1793, by which time she had moved to 18 Old Bond Street. She continued to offer him steady support, and he would move with her to 37 New Bond Street in 1794, and then 27 St James’s Street in 1797.
A decade later, in 1807, his physical and mental health began to decline. Exhibiting signs of insanity in 1810, he attempted to commit suicide in the following year. Eventually, he died on 1 June 1815, in his room above Mrs Humphrey’s shop in St James’s Street, and was buried at St James’s Church, Piccadilly.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Library, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate; and the Library of Congress (Washington DC).
Further reading: ‘Gillray, James (b London, 13 Aug 1756; d London, 1 June 1815)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 12, pages 639-641; Richard T Godfrey, James Gillray: the art of caricature, London: Tate Publishing, 2001; Draper Hill (intro), James Gillray (1756-1815): Drawings and Caricatures, London: Arts Council, 1967; Draper Hill, Mr Gillray the Caricaturist: a biography, London: Phaidon, 1965; Anita McConnell and Simon Heneage, ‘Gillray, James (1756-1815)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 22, pages 298-305; Thomas Wright, Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray, London: Henry G Bohn, 1851; Thomas Wright, The Works of James Gillray: the caricaturist, with the story of his life and times, London: Chatto and Windus, 1873