The old story famously goes that to curb vainglory as their victory parades marched onward, conquering Roman generals stationed a slave behind them to murmur “Memento mori”—remember you are mortal. Going the Romans one better, King George III and his great prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, looked to the caricaturist James Gillray, whose dazzling prints never let them forget that they were not merely mortal but human, all too human.
Even these grandees sensed that the artist who saw through them was an “inimitable genius,” as his first publisher marveled. They certainly took a keen interest in his work. The King and his children were faithful Gillray collectors, and the Whig leader Charles James Fox would invite visitors to leaf through the album of Gillrays in his anteroom. The Tory foreign secretary George Canning beseeched a mutual friend to prod the artist to include him in a cartoon. “Have you heard from Mr. Gillray lately?” he importuned. “And do you know how soon . . . I am likely to come out?” Admiral Nelson, after the Battle of the Nile, asked to be sent all the latest caricatures of himself. As one contemporary remarked, “The notice of a caricaturist is a proof of eminence; his severities a tax on distinction.”
The gaunt, bespectacled figure who was arguably the greatest political cartoonist of all time is the subject of a sumptuous new coffee-table book, James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire, by the historian and curator Tim Clayton.1 Produced by Yale’s Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art to its usual exacting standards, the volume is distinguished for its lavish illustrations, most reproduced from the matchless collection of the late print dealer Andrew Edmunds. Many have marginal notes in Gillray’s own hand, identifying the various characters depicted and thus enhancing their historical value.
Born in a Chelsea cottage in 1756, Gillray was raised in the Moravian Brotherhood and educated in one of that sect’s rigorous schools, kindling in him (I can’t help thinking) that spirit of dissent and liberty that Edmund Burke saw within all Protestantism. Trained as an engraver, he published his first caricatures at twenty-one, before enrolling in the Royal Academy school the following year. He tried his hand at the fine-art engravings then in vogue, but when the French Revolutionary Wars shut down the rich Continental market, he turned almost exclusively to caricature. He attached himself both professionally and personally to the publisher and printseller Hannah Humphrey, moving into her flat above her West End shop around 1790 and reportedly deciding, as the pair walked to church intending to be married, that “we live very comfortably together, and we had better let well alone.” Thus Hannah remained, in Canning’s word, Gillray’s “concubine.” When he became mentally unstable around 1811, she tenderly cared for him, and he left everything to her, his “dearest friend,” at his death at fifty-eight in 1815.