Counterculture

James Gillray-The Art of Caricature

James Gillray-The Art of Caricature

Published: 2016-01-12 | Original Article
Attribution Victor Navasky-BuzzFeed

Napoleon once said that the English caricaturist James Gillray “did more than all the armies in Europe to bring me down.” Here’s an example: “Manic ravings, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit” (1803).
Napoleon once said that the English caricaturist James Gillray “did more than all the armies in Europe to bring me down.” Here’s an example: “Manic ravings, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit” (1803).

James Gillray (1756-1815) was the leading caricaturist of his time, an artist of outstanding inventiveness who continues to influence satirists today. 

He was born in Chelsea, London. His father, a native of Lanark, had served as a soldier, losing an arm at the Battle of Fontenoy, and was admitted, first as an inmate, and afterwards as an outdoor pensioner, at Chelsea Hospital. Gillray commenced life by learning letter-engraving, at which he soon became adept. This employment, however, proved irksome to James, so he wandered about for a time with a company of strolling players. After a very checkered experience he returned to London and was admitted as a student in the Royal Academy, supporting himself by engraving, and probably issuing a considerable number of caricatures under fictitious names. His caricatures are almost all in etching, some also with aquatint, and a few using stipple technique. None can correctly be described as engravings, although this term is often loosely used to describe them. Hogarth's works were the delight and study of his early years. Paddy on Horseback, which appeared in 1779, is the first caricature which is certainly his. Two caricatures on Admiral Rodney's naval victory at the Battle of the Saintes, issued in 1782, were among the first of the memorable series of his political sketches.

Satire has often been seen as the disposable art of an urban, commercialised culture, one of the plethora of consumer goods which are continually outdated and replaced by new offerings. Graphic satire usually deals with fleeting events, so that its value as art, whether of the cartoons in our daily papers or 18th century caricatures, appears to last no longer than the topicality of its subject matter. This exhibition investigates the tensions between this view of satirical prints, and the prolonged and enjoyable examination which is invited by Gillray’s work, through his use of ambitious and complex printmaking techniques, and the depth and range of his references. Gillray’s prints, from the time they were first produced, belonged both to the street and to the connoisseur’s study. They retain an ambivalent status today, hung in a kind of limbo between political history and art history. This exhibition sets out to re-examine Gillray’s art, through a selection of the finest impressions of his caricatures, almost all of which are examples of the hand-colouring applied at the time they were produced, alongside a selection of the sketches and preparatory drawings which show the obsessive care with which he developed not only the images but also the vitally important written texts which accompany them.


A Sphere, projecting against a Plane 1792


Attribution Victor Navasky-BuzzFeed