James Gillray – Prince of Caricaturists

Francis Grose, the famous English antiquarian and lexicographer, wrote a book titled Rules for Drawing Caricatures and in it he offered this definition of caricatures:

“The sculptors of ancient Greece seem to have diligently observed the forms and proportions constituting the European ideas of beauty … [and] a slight deviation from them, by the predominancy of any feature constitutes what is called character, and serves to discriminate the owner thereof and to fix the idea of identity, [which then] … forms caricatura.”[1]

James Gillray, Courtesy of Wikipedia

James Gillray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Caricatures, therefore, were exaggerations of a person’s natural features — straight noses were even straighter, fat faces even fatter, and rosebud lips even fuller. Caricatures were also used to satirize the social and political nature of the times.

Among the greatest of the caricaturists of the eighteenth century was James Gillray. In fact, he was called the “Prince of Caricaturists” because of his uncanny talent, keen wit, and incomparable humor. He was born in 1757 and was apprenticed as a letter engraver but found the job so tedious and monotonous he ran away and joined a strolling company. Eventually, however, he ended up back in London where he became a student at the Royal Academy and where he studied design and became a pupil of man named Byland.

James Gillray, c. 1800, Courtesy of British Museum

James Gillray, c. 1800. Courtesy of British Museum.

Gillray must have enjoyed engraving because even after he became a well-known caricaturist, he continued to work as engraver. The young engraver also quickly discovered his specialty, “and he began timidly at first, and with some stiffness of hand, to throw off caricatures on the topics of the day.”[2] Soon, however, Gillray’s caricatures were unequaled because he had a unique way of working. Historians maintained that he stored memories of his caricatures in his mind and that he created his etchings directly upon the copper without ever making a drawing. Although, it was also noted that he was in the “habit of using, as guides in his portrait caricatures, small engraved likenesses of the principal statesmen of the day, which he constantly carried about with him.”[3]

Gillray never married. Instead he lived with a woman named Hannah Humphrey (sometimes called Mrs. Humphreys), who was the younger sister of print shop owner William Humphrey. Supposedly, at one point Hannah and Gillray were headed to the altar when he declared, “This is a foolish affair, methinks, we had better let well alone.”[4] Although they didn’t marry it seems that Humphrey was more than a live-in partner to Gillray. She learned the trade from her brother and started to exclusively publish Gillray’s works. Later, she opened her own shop: It first opened on the Strand, then moved to New Bond Street, then to Old Bond Street, and finally to St. James’s Street.

L'Assemblée Nationale (1804) was called "the most talented caricature that has ever appeared," partly due to its "admirable likenesses" of the assembly. The Prince of Wales paid large sums of money to have it suppressed and its plate destroyed. Courtesy of Wikipedia

L’Assemblée Nationale (1804) was called “the most talented caricature that has ever appeared,” partly due to its “admirable likenesses” of the assembly. The Prince of Wales paid large sums of money to have it suppressed and its plate destroyed. Courtesy of Wikipedia,

James Gillray was described as an enigma. People who casually mingled with him described him as quiet, shy, and inexplicable. He was known to gravitate towards low company, gross mirth, and the sexually impure. Gillray was also said to have a “man’s appetite” and to have intemperate habits. He drank to excess and despite being under an exclusive agreement to work only for Humphrey, he would etch plates for other publishers (but disguise his work) so he could obtain money for liquor. In fact, his love of liquor eventually resulted in him suffering “delirium tremens, followed by imbecility, [and] carried him off in the fifty-eighth year of his age.”[5]

One of Gillray's Racy Engravings titled "The Whore's Last Shift", Courtesy of Wikipedia

One of Gillray’s Racy Engravings titled “The Whore’s Last Shift,” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Gillray had other passions beside liquor. For instance, his work indicated the tone and temper of the times, and it gave clues as to the “various political and parliamentary pieces of scandal.”[6] One reporter noted that “Gillray mocked, distorted, sought to endow his political adversaries with every species of moral and physical monstrosity and horror.”[7]

A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion. Courtesy of Wikipedia,

No political party was free from Gillray’s attacks. Gillray reputedly had an “insane antipathy, a venomous detestation, of the Liberal party — particularly the sympathizers with the French Revolution, whom it was the labour of his life to gibbet with his pencil.”[8] He was also equally willing to attack the Tories as vigorously as he attacked the Whigs. One writer noted that he was not “a keen political adherent of either … party [as] he dealt his blows pretty freely all round.”[9] Moreover, it was noted that the caricatures used in these blows and rancorous attacks were derived and invented from newspapers and from public places or sometimes were supplied to him by noblemen or aristocratic gentlemen.

Royalty also became a target of Gillray’s satirical pencil. In fact, many of Gillray’s important caricatures involved King George III. One engraving attacked the King’s money woes and his disagreements with his free spending son, the Prince of Wales. The engraving, “A New Way to Pay the National Debt,” was printed in 21 April 1786 and shows King George III and Queen Charlotte exiting the Treasury overloaded with money, while the shabbily dressed Prince of Wales is thankful for what he received from the Duke of Orleans.

A New Way to Pay the National Debt, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A New Way to Pay the National Debt. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There were two other interesting attacks on George III by Gillray. A year after publication of “A New Way to Pay the National Debt,” Gillray’s published the satirical “Monstrous Craws.” It  demonstrates the avarice of George III, Queen Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales. In fact, the English people claimed the King and Queen were “devouring money,” and as for the Prince of Wales, he was known to have acquired mountains of debt because of his desire for amusement, sumptuous hospitality, and generous disposition, which in turn required mountains of money to maintain. Another engraving, produced in 1804 and related to George III, portrayed the compromise and agreement eventually reached between the King and his son and was titled The Reconciliation.

Monstrous Craws, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Monstrous Craws. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

James Gillray also attacked Britain enemy Napoleon Bonaparte in several caricatures, one being “Buonaparte Hearing of Nelson’s Victory, Swears by His Sword to Extirpate the English from off the Earth.” This was created on 8 December 1798 in “reference to Buonaparte’s vain-glorious boasting after the disaster which had overwhelmed the French fleet at the mouth of the Nile.”[10] Gillray focuses his cartoon primarily on Napoleon’s stature and shows him attempting to compensate for his size with his swagger, extravagant uniform, and enormous hat with its feathers and cockade, but he also show him as a contradiction: the personification of the principles of the French Revolution and a despotic ruler with the tent, camel, and crescent moon on his hat. As Napoleon’s features were not well known to English caricaturists, Gillray helped to set the tone as to how Napoleon would be portrayed.

“Buonaparte Hearing of Nelson’s Victory, Swears by His Sword to Extirpate the English from off the Earth.” Caricature by James Gillray. Courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich.

James Gillray loved his work but in certain ways he may have been worthy of producing numerous caricatures of himself. He was also prolific. He reportedly produced 1500 caricatures between 1779 and 1800. Unfortunately, after his eyesight failed in 1806, he was unable to work and became suicidal. One suicide attempt involved him throwing himself out the window of his house on St. James. The last time Gillray was seen was on 1 June 1815. He was discovered standing in Humphrey’s shop where his caricatures were sold: He was naked, unshaven, and disoriented. Someone found him and returned to his bedchambers, where he died later that same day.

Engraving of Humphrey's Shop with Gillray's Works in the Window, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Engraving of Humphrey’s Shop with Gillray’s works in the window. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As for Humphrey, she derived a satisfactory income from James Gillray’s caricature for years, but when the demand for his works began to decline and she was in need of money, “she obtained a loan of £1,000 upon the copper plates.”[10] She also attempted unsuccessfully to sell the plates.

When Humphrey’s died, unaware of the plate’s value, her executor sold them as “old copper for a smaller number of shillings than their proprietress had refused pounds.”[11] By mere accident someone discovered Gillray’s plates and rescued them. That is why today we can still enjoy the exaggerated resemblances of Gillray’s caricatures and view his engravings that offer a satirical and humorous look at the times in which he lived.


  • [1] Grose, Francis, Rules for Drawing Caricaturas, 1788, p. 6.
  • [2] “Gillray’s Caricatures,” in Morning Chronicle, 25 October 1851, p. 7.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] The London Quarterly Review, Vols. 136-137, 1874, p. 244.
  • [5] “Gillray’s Caricatures,” p. 7.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 10, 1891, Chicago, p. 600.
  • [10] Wright, Thomas, Esq. and Evans, R. H. Esq., Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray, 1851, p. 177.
  • [10] “Gillray’s Caricatures,” p. 7.
  • [11] Ibid.

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