Today marks the opening of a new exhibition at the Cartoon Museum called “Gillray’s Ghost: James Gillray and his influence on political cartoons”. As such I thought it was about time, perhaps even overdue, to look into the inspiration of the exhibition and countless illustrators.
James Gillray was born in Chelsea, London on August 13, 1756 (or 1757). He was sadly the only child of five to survive infancy. When Gillray was five years old, he was sent away to be educated at the Moravian Academy, Bedford. He left education when he was eight and became an apprentice to a letter engraver, Harry Ashby. After learning the trade, Gillray got bored and decided to join a group of strolling players traveling England, putting on theatrical performances.
In 1775, Gillray returned to London. He started to sell his engravings to local print shops. When he was 22 he entered the Royal Academy where he studied under Francesco Bartolozzi. He supported himself by selling his engravings. He may have even been submitting a number of caricatures under pseudonyms. The first caricature that is definitively a Gillray is “Paddy on Horseback,” published in 1779.
In the early 1780s, Gillray set up a small portrait studio on Little Newport Street in Soho. It was not met with great success, garnering very few commissions. Gillray was forced to keep producing etchings. At first they centered around social subjects, but by 1782 he was producing more political caricatures. Around the same time, he began to sell his etchings exclusively to publisher and print seller, Miss Hannah Humphrey.
Gillray helped Miss Humphrey become a leading print seller in London and in 1793 he moved into a room above the shop in Old Bond Street. Humphrey moved to new premises twice after, the first to New Bond Street, then to St. James’s Street, and twice Gillray accompanied her. In fact, Gillray lived with Miss Hannah Humphrey throughout his period of fame. Humphrey would always have a Gillray in her shop window. Gillray featured Humphrey in at least two of his prints. “Very Slippy-Weather” shows Miss Humphrey’s St. James’s Street shop in the background. In “Twopenny Whist,” the older lady with spectacles and a bonnet is presumed to be Miss Humphrey.
The regular publication of his etchings in broadsheets both contributed to their popularity and spontaneity. During the height of his success, he took a trip to France and Flanders with fellow artist Philip James de Loutherbourg. In 1805 he published arguably his most recognisable work, “The plumb-pudding in danger.”
Sadly, just a year later Gillray’s eyesight began to weaken, even with spectacles he could not match his previous high standards. This terribly affected Gillray, being unable to work drove him to depression and drinking. He produced his last print in September 1809. He suffered from gout and further declined mentally. Miss Hannah Humphrey looked after Gillray up until his death on 1 June 1815.
Strangely, even after producing an enormous body of work and mingling with many influential people in his lifetime, his death went almost without notice. Which is made stranger considering today Gillray is regarded as one of the most influential political caricaturists of all time and has even been called “the father of the political cartoon.”
Being such an important historical figure there is no shortage of places you can find out more about him and his work. The British Museum has a huge collection of his work. If you are looking for a tastier alternative, perhaps you should check out Gillray’s Steakhouse & Bar. There are many published books that feature his work, two of the more sort after being James Gillray: The Art of Caricature and The Satirical Etchings of James Gillray.
Of course you should also check out the “Gillray’s Ghost: James Gillray and his influence on political cartoons” exhibition. It will feature almost seventy works by Gillray as well as the works of artist he has inspired, including Leslie Illingworth, ‘Vicky’ (Victor Weisz), Nicholas Garland, Peter Brookes, Steve Bell, Peter Schrank, Dave Brown, Martin Rowson, Chris Duggan, and Morten Morland.
The exhibition will be starting today, 4 November 2015, until January 2016. You can find all the details on the Cartoon Museum website.