Satirical panel by James Gillray, 1796
'Promis'd Horrors of the French Invasion - or - Forcible Reasons for Negotiating a Regicide Peace'. British politician Charles James Fox flogs Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. The head of future Prime Minister George Canning hangs on a pole. (Published 20th October 1796).

James Gillray was one of the most famous and celebrated British cartoonists of all time. Together with William Hogarth and George Cruikshank, he is regarded as one of the "Big Three" of 18th-century cartoons. He ridiculed many aspects of late 18th century and early 19th century society, including politics, economy, science, sports and fashions. He offended many people, including the English king and Napoleon Bonaparte. Gillray is infamous for his grotesque caricatures and crass comedy. Nevertheless they express powerful imagination and are drawn with a fine eye for detail. Even without the proper context, they still amuse audiences today. In his home country, Gillray is an institution, often regarded as the father of editorial cartooning. His influence on later generations of cartoonists, both in the U.K. and abroad, is still felt. James Gillray was also a comics pioneer. He popularized speech balloons and caricatural portrayals. While most of his cartoons are single-panel drawings, some use multi-panel sequences. 

Cartoon by James Gillray
'The Friend of the People and his Petty New-Tax-Gatherer, Paying John Bull A Visit'. Cartoon ridiculing tax collectors, featuring speech balloons (published 28 May 1806).

Early life and career
James Gillray was born in 1757 in Chelsea, London. His father was an outdoor pensioner and a sexton in the Moravian Brotherhood. To protect his children from the corrupting infuences in the world, he sent James and his older brother Johnny to a Moravian boarding school in Bedford. The teachers were so strict in their corporal punishment that Johnny actually died there at the age of eight. Gillray understandably gained a cynical outlook on life. At age 14, he became an apprentice of engraver Harry Ashby. Although he briefly joined a travelling theatrical group, the teenager eventually returned to the visual arts. He ranked William Hogarth, John Hamilton Mortimer and James Sayers among his main graphic influences. In 1778, Gillray started his studies at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, while earning his income as an engraver.

From 1775 on, Gillray began publishing caricatures and political cartoons, some under pseudonyms. The earliest identified work is the 'Paddy on Horseback' (1 March 1779) print. At the time, several stores in London attracted customers by displaying funny cartoons on the glass panes of their shop window, an idea invented by Matthew and Mary Darly. It popularized caricatures and cartoons with general audiences, but also inspired amateurs to pick up a pencil too. Gillray might have started his career at the Darly's store, but this cannot be confirmed. It is certain, however, that his work was often on display in the shop window of Hannah Humphrey, a print seller in The Strand. She later moved to New Bond Street, then Old Bond Street, and eventually settled in St. James Street. Gillray actually lived at her home, leading to rumors that they were a couple. Even though she took care of him until his death, they never married. 

Popularity
In the early 1780s, Gillray tried to make a living as a "serious" artist, but by 1785 it was clear that audiences were far more enthusiastic about his cartoons and caricatures. Like many other English caricaturists of the time, he indulged in grotesque exaggerations, slapstick and crass toilet humor. And like other political cartoonists, he followed the events of the day. He distinguished himself by his virtuoso art style. Gillray's cartoons lack the stiff look of his predecessors and contemporaries. His characters are expressive, bodies follow proper anatomy and every image is filled with funny details. Even his exaggerations feel believable. While the men and women in his work often have pudgy bodies, pointy noses, fang-like teeth and animalistic faces, they still have a certain appeal. In this regard, Gillray set a standard for other cartoonists to give their characters a more lively look. He also pioneered, or perfected, many techniques that would become staples for political cartoonists in the centuries to come, for instance the use of symbolic metaphors and parodies of familiar stories. For extra witty comedy, the cartoonist also used speech balloons. 


'The Cow-Pock, or The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation' (12 June 1802).

Lampooning British society, Gillray was one of the foremost satirists of his lifetime. He poked fun at hated professions like tax collectors, dentists and prostitutes. He laughed at fashions, such as preposterous wigs, dresses and the effeminate dandy subculture. True to the times, he also mocked people from other nations, such as Scots, Irishmen, Flemings, Dutchmen, Germans and Frenchmen. His famous cartoon 'The Cow-Pock, or The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation' (12 June 1802) depicts people getting vaccinated against cowpox, but developing all kinds of absurd cow-like features. At the time, vaccination was still a young medical breakthrough and many people didn't fully understand its effects, which Gillray loved to ridicule. However, the cartoonist's most popular targets were the upper-class and politicians, from the Prime Minister to the Royal Family. This also explains why he was so popular with common people. He ridiculed topics they were familiar with and often hated. In this sense, Gillray gave a voice to the oppressed, while viciously offending the lower, middle and upper class. It made him notorious both in his home country and abroad. His cartoons, estimated to number up to 1,000, circulated all over Europe. Three years after his death, in 1818, John Miller, Bridge Street and W. Blackwood in Edinburgh published nine volumes worth of his collected work under the title 'James Gillray: The Caricatures'. In 1851, Henry George Bohn brought out a new edition, directly based on Gillray's original plates. He added a special volume with Gillray's most offensive caricatures, naming them 'The Suppressed Plates'. 

Controversy
While many enjoyed his work, Gillray's brutal cartoons often offended people. In 'The Presentation - or - the Wise Men's Offering' (9 January 1796), he drew the Whig Party - then in the opposition - kissing the bare behind of baby Princess Charlotte. He was promptly charged with blasphemy, because the scene parodied the Three Kings bringing gifts to baby Jesus. In 'Fashionable Contrasts' (1792), he mocked the affair between Prince Frederick, Duke of York, and Frederica Charlotte of Prussia. Rather than draw the blue blooded couple directly, he instead showed a close-up of two masculine legs in buckled shoes, lying on top of two female legs in jewelled slippers. Everyone knew whom he referred to and what they were doing. 

When shown Gillray's cartoons, King George III famously said: "I don't understand these caricatures." Given that the monarch already suffered from mental illness, this may not be surprising. Gillray, however, heard this anecdote and instantly drew a cartoon mocking the monach's "expertise": 'A Connoisseur Examining A Cooper' (18 June 1792) shows George III squinting at a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, using a candle to see the image better. It not only implied that the king was near-sighted, but at the same time poked fun at his thriftiness, since it's a small "save all" candle. Cromwell overthrew the British monarchy between 1653 and 1658, so the cartoon also hints that the king is oblivious to the fact that he may be overthrown in an upcoming revolution, like the one in France (1789). A few years later, Gillray actually fantasized about the British monarchy being abolished in the cartoon 'L'Assemblée Nationale, or Grand Cooperative Meeting in St. Ann's Hill' (18 June 1804). The picture shows politician Charles James Fox and his wife holding a reception to meet members of the opposition, after the Republic has been declared. In the right corner, the contours of George, Prince of Wales (the future king George IV) can be recognized. The prince felt so offended by this particular cartoon, that he tried to have the plate banned and destroyed. He even paid a sum for his wish to be granted, but his plan failed. 

Cartoon by James Gillray
'The Plumb-pudding In Danger' (26 February 1805): British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon dividing the world.

Ridiculing Napoleon
While Gillray didn't shy away from mocking his fellow countrymen, he was equally vicious towards England's military enemies. In 1792, England declared war on France, greatly disturbed by the events of the French Revolution, that had led to the execution of king Louis XVI. The wars intensified once Corsican-French general Napoleon Bonaparte got in charge and became the new head of state in 1799. Since many people at the time had no idea what he looked like, Napoleon was originally portrayed in British cartoons as a man with a curly black moustache. This was based on the stereotypical idea of what a Corsican (read: Italian) looked like. Napoleon's effective propaganda soon made sure that glorified images of his face were distributed all over Europe. As a result, Gillray and his colleagues were able produce more reliable caricatures. In 1802, France and England signed the Peace of Amiens. Gillray drew a cartoon titled 'The Nursery, with Britannia, Reposing in Peace' (4 December 1802), in which the United Kingdom is a baby in a cradle. The British government keeps the infant asleep, while the walls are decorated with French imagery, including a portrait of Napoleon playing a fiddle. Rumor has it that the real-life Napoleon found this cartoon very amusing. Nevertheless, he didn't laugh long. In 1803, England declared war on France again. 

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, by James Gillray 1803
'The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver'. 26 June 1803. Cartoon depicting King George III of England inspecting a miniature version of Napoleon. He peers through a looking glass, quoting from Jonathan Swifts's novel, 'Gulliver's Travels' ('Voyage to Brobdingnag'), in which Gulliver is also a small person compared with the giants who discover him. 

Apart from military worries, Napoleon was annoyed by the way Gillray ridiculed him. The English cartoonist consistently depicted the "little corporal" as a midget with a preposterously large hat. In 'The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver' (26 June 1803), Napoleon is drawn as a Liliputian, resting on George III's hand. Another cartoon, 'The Plumb-Pudding in Danger' (26 February 1805), shows English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and the tiny Corsican emperor cutting up the world. It became Gillray's most iconic cartoon, parodied and modernized by many political cartoonists since, including Leslie Gilbert Illingworth (1967), Ed McLachlan (1983) and Steve Bell (2005). By transforming the mighty conqueror into a silly-looking dwarf, many Europeans who suffered under his tyranny were in less awe of him. In 1815, while in exile on the isle of Elba, the deposed dicator said: "Gillray's depictions of me did more damage than a dozen generals." Indeed, to this day, people still believe Napoleon was a small man in real life. Countless cartoonists and comic artists have depicted him as a comical dwarf in an oversized hat. It even led to the medical term "Napoleon complex", applied to small people who try to compensate their length by seeking power. Many short-sized monarchs, prime ministers, presidents, generals and business people are still associated with the term, all while the real Napoleon was actually of average height. His nickname, "le petit corporal" ("the little corporal"), was meant affectionately, not literally. Adding to the misconception were people observing Napoleon standing next to his soldiers who, due to their bearskin hats, looked taller than they actually were. Gillray is also credited with giving Napoleon another nickname, "Boney", which he first used in his cartoon 'German Nonchalance - or the Vexation of Little Boney', printed on 1 January 1803. The British have called Napoleon "Boney" ever since, which led to the popular song 'Boney Was A Warrior' (1815). 

John Bull
James Gillray is additionally credited for creating the standard visual presentation of John Bull, the national personification of England. The name John Bull originated in John Arbuthnot's pamphlet 'Law Is A Bottomless Pit' (1712) and also appeared in the satirical story 'The History of John Bull' (1712). For several decades, it was merely a name. Cartoonists sometimes mentioned him, like William Hogarth in 'A Catalogue of the Kitchin Furniture of John Bull Esqr leaving of House-keeping now' (1762) and the anonymous cartoonist who drew 'John Bull's House Sett in Flames' (1762), but always as an off-screen character. On 9 April 1790, Gillray first visualized him, though still as a literal bull, in 'John Bull Baited By The Dogs Of Excise'. It took a couple of cartoons before he found his definitive portrayal. In 'Alecto And Her Train at the Gate' of Pandemonium', printed on 4 July 1791, John Bull is shown as an obese man, though depicted as a country hick in a brown-grey raincoat. In 'Anti-Saccharites, or, John Bull and His Family Leaving Off The Use Of Sugar', printed on 27 March 1792, he receives a blue waistcoat. The familiar obese character with blue waistcoat and black frock hat was first presented on 31 May 1792 in 'The Landing of John Bull and his Family, at Boulogne Sur Mer'. Other cartoonists copied this visual representation of John Bull until the early 20th century, both in the United Kingdom and abroad. 

Prototypical comics
Many Gillray cartoons can be considered prototypical comics, because of their use of speech balloons and droll antics. Inspired by William Hogarth, he also made cartoons with sequential narratives. 'Wife & No Wife, or A Trip to the Continent' (27 March 1788) and 'The Morning After Marriage, or A Scene on the Continent' (5 April 1788) mock the Prince of Wales and his wife Mrs. Fitzherbert in two before-and-after cartoons. Although released separately, they share a thematic connection and the same characters. On 28 June 1791, Gillray made 'The National Assembly Pertrified/ The National Assembly Revivified' (1791), as two-panel picture with a before-and-after scene. In the first panel, stereotypical Frenchmen are shocked that the imprisoned king Louis XVI managed to escape. In the image below, people are delighted that the monarch has already been recaptured.

Cartoon by James Gillray
'John Bull's Progress', 3 June 1793. 

'French Liberty, British Slavery' (21 December 1792) shows two sequences providing a contrast between a Frenchman and an Englishman. The lean and ragged Frenchman is shown enjoying his newly found freedom after the French Revolution, but otherwise lives as a poor man. The obese Englishman enjoys a luxurious life, but still complains about having to pay his taxes. 'Flemish Characters' (1 January 1793) is an atmospheric two-panel scene, depicting a group of people in Flanders going to church in the first panel and visiting the market in the second. The two panels only share a thematic connection. More comedic in tone is 'John Bull's Progress' (3 June 1793), featuring the British national representation John Bull going to war, only to have a "glorious return" by returning on crutches with both an eye and a leg missing. The entire situation is told in four panels, with a descriptive text underneath the images, making it an early example of a text comic.

'Hollandia Regenerata' (1796) is the longest of all Gillray's picture stories. The designs were made by Swiss amateur caricaturist David Hess, after which Gillray made the final etching. The work was a propaganda piece of 20 plates, intended to mock the Batavian Republic. A year earlier, French revolutionaries had set up a republic in what is nowadays the Netherlands and Belgium. Although granted some independence, it was still a French puppet state. 'Hollandia Regenerata' circulated in the Low Countries and the rest of Europe with the intention to thwart France's military expansion in the continent. It obviously didn't help much, given that Napoleon soon conquered other countries. 


'National Conveniences' (25 January 1796).

In 'National Conveniences' (25 January 1796), Gillray used four panels for comedy effect. The picture story combines national stereotypes with repulsive and literal toilet humor. Gillray contrasts the toilet habits of four different European people. He starts off mocking his own people, with an obese Englishman pulling laughable faces while sitting on a fancy water closet. In the second panel, a Scottish woman is seated on a bucket in a farm. The farm animals even eat her excrement. In the third image, a Frenchwoman, presumably a prostitute, is seen in a latrine with three apertures. In the fourth panel, a Dutchman just relieves himself in a lake. The cartoons imply that the Scots are cheap, the French are lewd and the Dutch downright uncivilized, while the British at least have a modern toilet. Yet the Englishman doesn't look more dignified than his fellow Europeans either, showing Gillray's gift for self-mockery.


'The Tables Turn'd' (4 March 1797).

'The Tables Turn'd' (4 March 1797) is another two-panel cartoon. On the left it depicts Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger being grabbed by a devil, a caricature of his political rival Charles James Fox. The demonic Fox is delighted because the French army landed in Wales, which means that Pitt will probably have to abdicate, opening possibilities for him. In the right panel, however, the tables have indeed turned, as the title implies, because the French army has been defeated. Pitt mockingly informs Fox of the news. 'The Tables Turn'd' is the closest Gillray ever got in creating a balloon comic, since, apart from the two sequences, he also uses speech balloons. 

'Democracy, or - a Sketch of the Life of Buonaparte' (12 May 1800) satirizes Napoleon's achievements in an eight panel narrative. The first seven critically depict significant events in his life. The final panel shows him asleep, tormented by the ghosts of all the victims of his regime and those who plan to overthrow him. On 2 October 1805, Gillray published two thematically connected cartoons, 'Harmony Before Matrimony' and 'Matrimonial Harmonics'. The first cartoon depicts a harmonious couple before their marriage, happily performing music together. At the time, it was common for upper class girls to teach music, drawing and French to attract a husband. The second, more cynical cartoon, shows the couple regretting their marriage, having grown more distant over the years. 

Democracy, or – a Sketch of the Life of Buonaparte
'Democracy, - or - a Sketch of the Life of Buonaparte' (12 May 1800).

In 'A Rake's Progress at University' (22 October 1806), Gillray parodied William Hogarth's famous picture story 'A Rake's Progress', only set in a university. In this five-part story, a university student is expelled from the campus for tiny offenses. More of a thematically connected series of individual scenes, but still worth mentioning, is 'Elements Of Skating' (1809), which laughs at people trying to stay in balance on the ice. 'The Life of William Cobbett - Written By Himself' (1809) is a series of eight plates providing a biographical overview of the life of political pamphleteer William Cobbett. The images show eight stages in his life, only portrayed in a satirical manner and loosely based on Cobbett's actual life. Since each picture is printed on a full page and presented in book format, Gillray treated the project as a genuine book illustration job. Together with 'Hollandia Regenerata' (1796), it counts as the largest illustrated series he ever produced, though the artwork here is far more elaborate and sophisticated. Given the amount of time spent on this work and the satirical portrayal of Cobbett, it appears that Gillray made this work as a commission. 'Progress of the Toilet' (26 February 1810) is a three-part chronological story in which a woman is dressing herself up with help of her maid. The first plate shows the maid stringing down her mistress' corset. In the second plate she puts on her wig, while in the third plate her dress is completed. Compared with Gillray's other works, 'Progress of the Toilet' is a more straightforward and realistically drawn depiction of an everyday activity, without the caricatural imagery he was famous for. 

Final years and death
By 1807, Gillray's health went downhill. He complained about rheumatism and "poor eyesight". Unhappy with his condition, or perhaps seriously overworked, he succombed to alcoholism, making him miss deadlines. He even made a failed suicide attempt. By 1810, his production came to a halt. He was described as "having lapsed into a state of insanity". Historians believe the ageing cartoonist suffered from senility. George Cruikshank recalled visiting Gillray around this time. He was perplexed that Gillray didn't recognize him and believed himself to be Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. In 1815, James Gillray passed away at age 58. 18 days after his death, in symbolic coincidence, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. 

Legacy and influence
James Gillray remains one of the most famous and influential caricaturists and political cartoonists of all time. Among the many artists inspired by his work are/were Richard Newton, William Charles, George Cruikshank, André GillWilliam Heath, Thomas Rowlandson, Johan Tobias Sergel, Ronald Searle, Arnold Roth, Robert CrumbGerald Scarfe and Steve Bell. In 1984, as an ultimate tribute to his legacy and influence on British political cartoons, Gillray appeared as a puppet on the satirical TV show 'Spitting Image' (1984-1996) by Peter Fluck and Roger Law. The puppet was only used as an extra during scenes set in Buckingham Palace, where Gillray was seen as one of the Queen's servants.

James GillraySpitting Image
James Gillray's portrait and his Spitting Image puppet.

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