Satirical panel by James Gillray, 1796
Charles James Fox in revolutionary dress flogs William Pitt as the streets run with blood and figures (Canning and Jenkinson) hang from the street lamps. (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 cartoonists. He ridiculed many aspects of late 18th century and early 19th century society, including politics, economy, science, sports and fashions. Many people felt offended, including the English king, as well as 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. as well as abroad, is still felt. James Gillray was also a comics pioneer. He popularized speech balloons and caricatural characters. While many of his cartoons are one-panel drawings, some use narrative multi-panel sequences. 

Cartoon by James Gillray
Cartoon by Gillray about the taxman, 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. While studying at the Royal Academy he began publishing caricatures and political cartoons. During his lifetime Gillray was notorious both in England and abroad. People flocked by to look at his work being exposed in the windows of Hannah Humphrey's print shop in London. It is estimated that he drew over 1,000 cartoons, which circulated all over Europe.

While many enjoyed his work he got in trouble an equal amount of times. The drawing 'The Presentation - or - the Wise Men's Offering' (1796) caused the artist to be charged with blasphemy for having the Whig opposition kissing the bare behind of the then newly born Princess Charlotte. English king George III wasn't amused by his depiction as a greedy obese slob and his successor George IV tried to have the cartoon 'L'Assemblée Nationale' (1804) suppressed for ridiculing him and fellow aristocrats. One of Gillray's most daring but subtle cartoons is 'Fashionable Contrasts' (1792), which shows a close-up of two masculine legs in buckled shoes, lying on top of female legs in jewelled slippers. Without even depicting their faces or any nudity, every viewer at the time immediately understood that the drawing depicted Prince Frederick, Duke of York, making out with Frederica Charlotte of Prussia.

Cartoon by James Gillray
'The Plumb-pudding In Danger' (1805): Pitt and Napoleon dividing up the world

Ridiculing Napoleon
While Gillray didn't shy away from mocking his fellow countrymen he was merciless tackling Napoleon Bonaparte and the French army. His 1805 cartoon 'The Plumb-pudding In Danger', depicting English Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and the Corsican emperor cutting the world into pieces, has become iconic. It also led to the popular misconception that Napoleon was a small man in real life. A decade later, while in exile on the Isle of Elba, the deposed dictator personally claimed that Gillray's depictions of him "did more damage than a dozen generals." Gillray's 'plumb-pudding' cartoon has often been imitated, parodied and modernized by cartoonists, including by Leslie Gilbert Illingworth (1967), Ed McLachlan (1983), Draper Hill and Steve Bell (2005).

Other cartoons
Other famous political cartoons by Gillray are the 'Anti-Saccharites' (1792), the 'Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders' (1793) and 'The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver' (1803). His non-political cartoons include 'Cookney Sportsman' (1800), 'The Pic Nic Orchestra' (1802), 'The Cow Pock' (1802),  'Elements of Skating' (1805) and 'The Rake's Progress at the University' (1806), among others.

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. 

Prototypical comics
Many of Gillray's cartoons can be considered as prototypical comics in their use of speech balloons and droll antics. Inspired by William Hogarth, he also made some cartoons that feature sequential narratives. 'French Liberty, British Slavery' (1792) shows two sequences to provide a contrast between a Frenchman and an Englishman. The lean and ragged Frenchman is shown enjoying his newly found freedom after the events of the French Revolution, but otherwise lives as a poor man. The obese Englishman enjoys a luxurious life, yet still complains about having to pay his taxes.  'John Bull's Progress' (1793) features 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 written underneath the images, making it an early example of a text comic.

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

'The Tables Turn'd' (1797) depicts British Prime Minister William Pitt The Younger being grabbed by the devil in the left panel, who mocks him with the news that the French have landed in Wales. In the right panel it's Pitt who has the last laugh by informing the devil that his country has beaten the Spanish Fleet. The most ambitious text comic by Gillray is 'Democracy, or – a Sketch of the Life of Buonaparte' (1800) , which satirizes Napoleon’s achievements in eight narrative panels. The first seven critically depict many significant events in his life. The final panel shows him asleep, tormented by the ghosts of all the victims his regime caused and those who plan to overthrow him. 

Democracy, or – a Sketch of the Life of Buonaparte
'Democracy, - or - a Sketch of the Life of Buonaparte', 1800.

Final years and death
As his eyesight began to falter Gillray became unable to properly see what he was drawing. Unhappy with this condition he succombed to alcoholism and made a failed suicide attempt. In 1809 he published his final drawing. Later in life he sank into early senility and died in 1815. 

Legacy and influence
Among the many artists who are inspired by his work are Richard Newton, George Cruikshank, André GillWilliam Heath, Thomas Rowlandson, Johan Tobias Sergel, Ronald Searle, Arnold Roth, Gerald Scarfe and Steve Bell. In 1984, as an ultimate tribute to his legacy and influence on British political cartoons, Gillray was made into a puppet on the satirical TV show 'Spitting Image' (1984-1996) by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, who made puppet caricatures of famous celebrities. The puppet was only used as an extra during scenes set in Buckingham Palace, where he could be seen as one of the Queen's servants.

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

Series and books by James Gillray in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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