James Gillray - The Art of Caricature - Tate Britain

On 2 June 2001, I went to Tate Britain to see James Gillray - The Art of Caricature an exhibition about the political and social satirist and caricaturist and his grotesque and amusing prints which enhance the physical characteristics and short-comings of famous figures. He was best known for his cartoons of the Napoleonic Wars period.

The exhibition includes three of Gillray's greatest prints - Shakespeare Sacrificed 1789, Lieutenant Governor Gall-Stone 1790 and Titianis Redivivus 1797. Shakespeare Sacrificed ridicules the print publisher John Boydell who in 1789 opened a "Shakespeare Gallery" supposedly to provide patronage for struggling British history painters but, Gillray claims it was merely to make large amounts of money for the sale of reproductive prints of their work! Titianis Redivivus (Titian Born Again) deals with a woman, Ann Povis, who claimed to have "rediscovered" the lost secret of Titian's painting technique. The President of the Royal Academy and other leading members of the art establishment were taken in by the woman's impostures but her career didn't last long after the publication of Gillray's print. Lieutenant Governor Gall-Stone is a sustained and savage attack on one man, the former Governor of Landguard Fort in Surrey who claims to have discovered the painter Gainsborough but who was variously accused of extortion, blackmail and libel. These prints were Gillray's way of getting back at the art establishment that had rejected him. He also had a stab in his prints at the Government of the day with caricatures of Charles and James Fox. Supporters of Gillray feared the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789 would bring the French invasion to Britain and he feared Fox etc. would rejoice in encouraging the French to cross the channel and destroy the British way of life. Many people had at first been sympathetic to the French wars but when events grew bloodier the threatening public opinion began to turn.

The areas of London in which he worked - Bond Street, New Bond Street and St James - enabled him to observe the rich who strangely enough were eager to buy Gillray's caricatures of themselves. His caricatures of the hapless George III and his dysfunctional family were some of his most famous prints but far from suppressing Gillray's work the King and the Prince of Wales became some of his greatest clients. Other caricatures include John Bull (Gillray's print of what he thought to be a typically English farmer); Thomas Paine (who wrote the famous treatise "The Rights of Man"); William Pitt (Prime Minister) and Richard Brinley Sheridan (politician and playwright, famously known for his play School for Scandal- a satire on manners).

He published his last print in 1809 and by 1810 was incurably insane. He was nursed until his death in 1815 by his publisher, Hannah Humphreys who, although a spinster, preferred to be known as Mrs Humphreys. He had lived with her for many years and it was she, who set him on the road to fame by putting his prints in her shop window, after they had been printed in her basement. Although there were rumours about Gillray's relationship with her, he seems to have lived a modest bachelor life and it is more likely that she remained his publisher, housekeeper and friend rather than his sexual partner.

He debunked the high and mighty. He caricatured the lecherous Earl of Sandwich seen lunging hungrily at a barrow girl on the corner of New Bond Street. In another image he attacks the vicious blackmailer and lecher Philip Thicknesse who hunted down runaway slaves in Jamaica.

"He would have brought a refreshing breath of sanity to today's political scene" says Gerald Scarfe, a successful satirist, caricaturist and cartoonist of 35 years' standing. Scarfe who, like Gillray spent his early years in morbid surroundings, feels an affinity with him and considers him one of the greatest artists of his time. On a lighter note, Scarfe is married to famous actress and professional cake-maker Jane Asher!!

Verinha Ottoni.


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