Caricature engraving by James Gillray of a man driving a chariot through the sky and being attacked by mythical creatures

Andrew Edmunds

‘Phaeton alarm’d!’; engraving by James Gillray, 1808. The caricature satirizes British foreign secretary George Canning’s 1807 bombardment of Copenhagen during the Napoleonic Wars.

What James Gillray found funny could be hard to predict. During the 1790s and early 1800s, as counterrevolutionary alarm swept Britain, he filled his satiric prints with guillotined bodies—not tragic bodies, limp and bloodstained, but absurd ones that managed to suggest, in their incompleteness, the half-comic madness of lopping human heads off human necks. In The Apotheosis of Hoche (1798), a print sardonically marking the death of a French military leader, a choir of jolly-looking severed heads belts out “La Marseillaise” and the revolutionary song “Ça ira.” In Political-Dreamings—Visions of Peace!—Perspective Horrors! (1801), headless bodies, fully clothed, appear in a dream to William Windham, the former secretary of war, their neat, chicken-like necks poking out from robes and cassocks. Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion (1796), an apocalyptic vision of revolutionary terror in London, features the guillotining of the lord chancellor, Lord Loughborough, whom Gillray habitually caricatured as a giant wig: there’s a dark, spiraling comedy in the image of Loughborough’s executioner triumphantly holding that same wig aloft, having succeeded in detaching—according to the logic of the joke—neither head from body nor body from head.

Caricatures, the more you consider them, come to seem like a strange species of severed head: exaggerated stock portraits of individuals (or individuals-as-wigs) that become, as they’re recycled across multiple prints and by various artists, increasingly detached from the real bodies they represent. In early caricature satires of the 1780s, politicians’ figures would be sketched and arranged, then their heads, carefully copied from “official” portraits by Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough, superimposed onto their waiting necks. Gillray, the greatest and best-known caricaturist of the age, was adept at stretching and fixing his subjects into recognizable shorthand shapes: Napoleon, or “Little Boney,” crazed and tiny; Pitt the Younger, tall and skeletal, with his drunkard’s red nose; his great Whig enemy, Charles James Fox, plump, unshaven, wild-eyed; Edmund Burke, distilled, like a summary, to a long, twitching nose and a vast, suspicious pair of spectacles; George III’s homely wife, Queen Charlotte, all chin, bony fingers, and missing teeth.

Such an art of selection and distortion relied, many early commentators felt, on a meanness of vision, a vicious, secretive fascination with people’s uglinesses or failings. “Who would wish to know the haunts and habits of a sort of public and private spy?” the Athenaeum asked in 1831, responding to the publication of an Illustrative description (1830) of Gillray’s works and the details of the artist’s life revealed in Henry Angelo’s Reminiscences (1828). “The man must have hated while he drew,” a reviewer for the Morning Chronicle concluded sadly. As the writer and cartoonist Draper Hill observed in 1965, in the first modern biography of Gillray, Victorian antipathy to the eighteenth-century graphic satire trade, and in particular to Gillray’s acceptance of a salary from Pitt’s Tory ministry in 1797, had produced, in the decades after his death, a “two-dimensional portrait” of the artist—as a “licentious drunkard,” a man “acutely sensitive and consciously degraded,” in the words of one contemporary, driven mad in his final years by the self-hatred born of his embrace of reactionary politics.

Setting the record straight in the years since Hill’s biography has involved attention to the remarkable artistry of Gillray’s prints, the way they seem to transcend, in ambition or finish, their political occasion. The risk here, as scholars have pointed out, is one of overcorrection. Georgian satirists and printsellers operated in market conditions that rarely sponsored free, imaginative expression: draftsmen tended to work anonymously, accepting, as they had to, commissions or “hints” from patrons on both sides of the political aisle; most would have conceived of themselves as talented artists-for-hire rather than fearless, independent commentators. Tim Clayton’s new biography, the product of meticulous attention to the milieu printmakers worked in, suggests that in Gillray’s case circumstance and exceptional skill went hand in hand.

Gillray, Clayton shows, was a “hard-working art-businessman,” bent on making a living, compelled to make choices he might not always have liked; he collaborated and compromised with the printsellers who employed him, in particular Hannah Humphrey, an astute maker and destroyer of reputations with whom he entered a lasting professional alliance. Yet those who supplied him with ideas for satires must have “appreciated [his] transformative power,” the fact that what he produced was unlikely to read as straightforward propaganda or to be without its excesses or aberrations of style. Sometimes he preferred pleasing, or irritating, many different kinds of customers rather than appealing to one camp; on occasion he liked guillotined heads a little too much.

James Gillray was born in 1756 in Chelsea, one of five siblings, none of the rest of whom survived to adulthood. His father, also named James, was an army veteran and a member of the puritanical Moravian religious brotherhood who worked as a caretaker for the local Moravian chapel and cemetery; his mother, Jane, was part of the same devout congregation. Very little is known about the young James’s early years. He attended the Moravian school in Bedford and left when it closed in 1764; given the sophisticated reading his prints display, his education is likely to have continued elsewhere, but no records of it survive.


Lacking the money or connections to apprentice their artistically gifted son to a well-known painter or engraver, the Gillrays found him a place with Harry Ashby, a calligrapher and letter engraver in Covent Garden. There, James learned the main printmaking skills of etching—drawing with a steel needle on a wax-covered copper plate—and engraving, incising lines directly into the copper with an instrument known as a burin, a technique used for both drawing and lettering. In 1778 he won admission to the Royal Academy Schools in Somerset House, where, alongside contemporaries including William Blake, he attended life-drawing classes and studied history painting, landscape, anatomy, perspective, and architectural drawing.

Gillray’s beginnings in his trade are obscure, but he seems to have started making a living for himself as an engraver around 1777. The character of his output during the following decade reflected both his changing ambitions and the influence of the printsellers who employed him. For several years, inspired by his academic instruction, his hopes lay in the world of “serious” engraving: he designed sublime, large-scale scenes of shipwreck, composed of crashing waves and desperate bodies; he illustrated passages from Fielding’s Tom Jones and Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village; he sought, without any luck, prestigious engraving commissions from the history painter Benjamin West and the publisher John Boydell.

In a different register, he undertook paid work for the growing roster of satirical printsellers who sought his talents. During the late 1770s and early 1780s he etched topical, comic, often “mildly pornographic” prints for William Humphrey, a prominent publisher of satires who ran his business alongside his sister, Hannah. For Elizabeth d’Achery, another successful female printseller for whom he worked in 1782 (the rapid expansion of the London print market brought many women into the business), he grew adept at executing political attacks on the basis of sketches and suggestions d’Achery received from her anonymous “polite” clientele. For William Holland, a notorious figure specializing in “the literature of flagellation” (exhibit A: Lady Termagant Flaybum going to give her Step Son a taste of her Des[s]ert after Dinner), he produced a series of extraordinary satires on the royal family. In The Morning after Marriage (1786), the Prince of Wales, yawning, disheveled, his ceremonial garter slipping halfway down his calf, is shown being invited back to bed by Maria Fitzherbert, the older Catholic widow he had controversially married in secret, without the king’s approval.

The most cynical early work Gillray undertook, Clayton argues, sat somewhere “at the intersection of blackmail and pornography.” Around 1787–1788 he engraved a defamatory caricature of the Countess of Strathmore, perhaps at the instigation of her estranged husband, Andrew Bowes, in an effort to skew public opinion during their divorce proceedings. In the print, the countess lolls drunkenly in a chair, her cheeks flushed; she is clutching a full glass of wine and has smashed another; and she is half undressed, her voluptuously caricatured bare breasts suckled, obscenely, by two cats.

The Strathmore scandal, and Gillray’s intervention in it, indicate one reason for the growing prominence of caricature in graphic satire during the late eighteenth century. Satires, political and social, didn’t reflect events or personalities per se, but rather the way events and personalities were narrated in newspaper columns. Georgian media culture tended to be hyperbolic, inflammatory, especially after the French Revolution; caricature (from the Italian carico, “to load” or “to charge”), with its strategies of inflation, its warped transformation of the merely marked into the grotesque, supplied news stories with an appropriate visual vocabulary. Gillray’s Un petit Souper a la Parisienne (1792) is an appalling vision of starving sansculottes guzzling entrails, snacking on human arms, and spit-roasting a weeping child; Paris newspapers and propaganda of the period, as the art historian Ronald Paulson notes, spoke approvingly, only half in jest, of “having an aristocrat for breakfast.” Gillray’s treatment is braggadocio for braggadocio, the excessive made a subject in its own right.

Drawing on the popular pseudoscience of physiognomy, eighteenth-century caricature worked by emphasizing and aggravating prominent or defective parts (a beaky nose; a pear-shaped head; a paunch; an unfortunately sized penis), which the artist spotlighted in order to indicate moral or political defects in the individual. It was a kind of body language, “a method of projecting inner characteristics, real or imagined, into appearances,” which brought aesthetic and moral categories close together. Gillray’s Monstrous Craws (1787), a depiction of George III, Queen Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales at supper, spooning ladlefuls of gold coins into the grotesque “craws,” or baggy stomach tracts, that emerge from their necks, makes avarice into something that grips the body like a cancer. The queen’s ballooning throat is an extension of her caricatured features, the flaring nostrils and boggling eyes distended into outsize emblems of hunger and greed.


The royals, British and French, were perfect subjects for Gillray and his contemporaries because they were celebrities: instantly familiar, even when hyperbolized, to all classes of potential viewers. From the 1780s, however, as caricature became increasingly yoked to political satire, and prints began to feature caricatured versions of specific ministers and MPs (whose faces, as well as their character attributes, weren’t widely known), printmakers needed strategies to render them both recognizable and legible. The recognizability problem was largely a question of repetition, of making shorthand equivalents stick—represent Loughborough as a wig enough times and viewers will know who you mean.

But achieving legibility, making faces and bodies into readable symbols of hypocrisy or ambition, wasn’t as straightforward. One popular solution, as the literary historian David Francis Taylor has shown, was to look sideways to literature: to make individuals less specific and more comprehensible by placing them within the “typologies offered by literary narratives.” Fox, as a republican and rebel, might be shown as an unkempt, chubby version of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost—the additional benefit being that his power to disrupt was implicitly neutralized by analogy with the fated end of Satan’s war against authority.

For Gillray, who was known to be “an extremely well-informed and widely read man,” as a contemporary remarked, working allusively between images and texts came naturally. In his hands, though, analogies have a tendency to overstep, to say and do more than their explanatory role seems to demand. Sin, Death, and the Devil (1792), a fearless caricaturing of power published by Hannah Humphrey, parodies a scene from Paradise Lost to dramatize the recent ejection from office of the lord chancellor, Edward Thurlow. Thurlow, the king’s friend, is cast as Satan, squaring up to his enemy, Pitt, sinewy and skeletal as Milton’s Death; the two are narrowly kept apart by the queen, caricatured, half naked, wrinkly, and serpent-haired, as Sin, Satan’s daughter.

There’s a fittingness to the analogy: Pitt, like the crown-wearing Death in the poem, was thought to want power of a more monarchical than ministerial kind; the queen, a close ally of his, was suspected of intriguing to force Thurlow’s exit, maneuvering between parties. But the picture also harbors details that don’t explain anything—extra, self-delighting jokes that seem half at the expense of Milton’s text. In the center of the composition, the thick, serpentine coils of the queen’s lower body are there to transform her and make her grotesque but also, slyly, to form a contrast with Pitt’s tiny, hidden penis, shielded from view by the palm of her outstretched hand.

Gillray’s art was a verbal as much as a pictorial one. That he was sensitive to language is clear from the care he took over titles and speech bubbles, sketching out designs rapidly but tinkering with text, as surviving drafts show. He liked to write his own anonymous puff paragraphs in the newspapers, lingering gleefully over double entendres. (“The young Lady is drawn astride on a piece of ordnance, and a certain Marquis is represented applying his match to the touch-hole!”) The lines his caricatured figures are shown spouting are comic but precise all the same, skewering their hypocrisies and fears. Pitt’s rising panic in John Bull bother’d (1792), as he insists he sees an invading French army on the horizon (“where’s the Lord Mayor John?—are the Lions safe?—down with the Book-stalls!—blow up the Gin-shops!—cut off the Printers Ears!”) nicely captures the sense of chaotic interchangeability that alarmist rhetoric often exuded, with all things being potential threats and all threats existential.

Gillray borrowed inspiration for his dialogue from contemporary literary satire, drawing on language his viewers would have recognized as part of a preexisting joke. Taking Physick;—or—The News of Shooting the King of Sweden! (1792) shows the British king and queen interrupted on the toilet, compulsively “shitting in terror,” in Clayton’s words, as Pitt rushes in to inform them of the assassination of “another” European monarch. The king’s stuttering, monosyllabic exclamation—“What? Shot? What? what? what?—Shot! shot! shot!”—is a nod to the antiroyalist poems of John Wolcot, alias Peter Pindar, whose own George III conducts himself in helpless rhyming staccato: “Lo! the Monarch, in his usual way,/Like lightning spoke, ‘What’s this? what’s this? what? what?’”

Well-read viewers of Taking Physick, recognizing the source of the dialogue, would also have spotted in Gillray’s print a political allegiance: an implicit siding with the irreverent, oppositional treatment of monarchy that Wolcot was known to stand for. But Gillray could also produce, for the right patrons, royalist satire, as in The Hopes of the Party (1791), which inflates the possible threat Fox represented to the British monarchy by caricaturing him as a giant ax-wielding executioner, looming above the king’s thick neck. Sometimes Gillray switched back and forth between political camps within months or weeks. In the spring of 1788 he went out of his way to attack the king, Pitt, Thurlow, and the East India Company in a batch of prints for the publisher Samuel Fores; then, in the summer, he changed tack and etched seven prints in support of the ministerial candidate in a Westminster by-election, work paid for indirectly by Pitt.

During the early stages of the French Revolution, along with many of his contemporaries, he was cautiously optimistic, publishing prints celebrating France’s deliverance from Bourbon despotism. After the guillotining of the royal family in January 1793 and the escalation of the Terror later that year, however, he seems to have become disillusioned. He remained, though, privately inscrutable: during the 1790s even the work he was commissioned to produce by third parties became increasingly sophisticated and ambiguous, capable of pointing both ways.

The “contemptuous evenhandedness” of tone, in Paulson’s words, that Gillray developed in this decade—lashing out, memorably, at both the insubordinate Fox and the vengeful Pitt in a response to an assassination attempt on the king in 1795—makes sense in view of the growing security and independence he enjoyed. In 1791 he made the decision to work almost exclusively with Hannah Humphrey, lodging with her permanently from 1793 in her Old Bond Street premises, helping in the shop, and likely acting as her commercial partner. (Their relationship may have gone beyond business: Gillray never married or, as far as we know, had a significant relationship with anyone else.)

One of the virtues of Clayton’s book is the light it sheds on this decades-long collaboration: on Humphrey’s business practices, her family’s eclectic intellectual connections, the central place she occupied in Gillray’s professional and private world. In Hill’s biography, for many years the standard treatment, she features as “a shrewd, direct person of limited education and simple tastes,” possessing no “strong political views” and little interest in pushing Gillray toward one subject or another. Closer scrutiny reveals a dominant personality with considerable financial acumen and political intelligence, sponsoring both daring antiministerial caricature and, when necessary, “careful realignment” under increasingly repressive circumstances.

The rapidly growing fame of Gillray’s prints, coupled with the unpredictable political course he plotted, made him, as the 1790s drew on, a government target. In January 1796 he was arrested, along with Fores, for the publication of The Presentation—or—The Wise Men’s Offering, a relatively inoffensive satire on the Prince of Wales, whose use of scripture, the authorities declared, was blasphemous. It seems likely that the arrest, calculated to warn him that he was no cleverer in his maneuvers than the many other satirists and printsellers whom the law had ensnared, was part of a larger campaign to bring him over to the Tory camp. (The same month, a personal meeting appears to have taken place between the artist and the young MP George Canning, a loyal Pitt protégé.) In November or early December 1797, after a year in which Gillray produced no caricatures of the king and no especially hostile images of Pitt, he was received into the fold by Canning and given a pension of £200 per annum.

His role—undeclared, since, as Canning knew, any pro-ministerial satires he produced would carry more weight if his position were deniable—was to transform hints and sketches from the Tory faithful into Gillrays: ambitious, dazzling designs whose propagandistic intent was cloaked by their baroque inventiveness. The Apples and the Horse-Turds (1800), a savage attack on Napoleon’s pretensions to monarchical legitimacy, shrinks the first consul of France into a crumbling, bobbing piece of excrement, confidently sidling up to the shining gold apples that represent Europe’s monarchs. New Morality (1798), produced to illustrate a poem of Canning’s on “Jacobin” (that is, pro-French) culture in Britain, shows the radical writers Southey and Coleridge sporting asses’ heads, catching sheets of their poems as they spew out of a “Cornucopia of Ignorance”; alongside, Charles Lamb and his poet friend Charles Lloyd squat meekly on the ground, a fat brown frog and a fat spotted toad.

The question of how to think about Gillray’s move to the Tories, how to evaluate it with regard to what we might want a political artist to do or stand for, has troubled critics since his own day. Gillray himself, according to one of his acquaintances, the journalist Johann Christian Hüttner, was simultaneously candid and obtuse on the subject in 1798: “Now the Opposition are poor, they do not buy my prints and I must draw on the purses of the larger parties.” Defenders of his reputation have insisted that it must have been less simple, that the choices he made must have taken their psychic toll. The artists James Northcote and John Landseer both maintained that his acceptance of a pension went painfully against his conscience. For Hill, in his biography, Gillray’s habit of presenting himself as a “bourgeois shopkeeper,” a man without politics, was merely a “pose,” a convenient means of allowing him to “submerge” his real convictions. Other critics have noted the unruliness of the works he produced even when on the Tory payroll, reading their ambiguity as the expression of a rebellious undercurrent, or indiscriminate cynicism.

What does seem telling is the degree to which Gillray himself, as an artist, thought about the problem: how frequently he thematized it in his prints, circling the idea of apostasy, or being bought off, with a kind of obsessive interest. The several caricatures he produced attacking Burke’s move to the Tories, depicting him on one occasion carrying his hefty £4,000 pension on his back, like baggage; the tiny detail of the spinning weather vane in the background of The Life of William Cobbett (1809), emblematizing Cobbett’s political volte-face; the depiction of propagandists queuing up to be paid in Election-Troops (1788), a print that makes the political hireling a subject for art: cumulatively, these hint at a preoccupation, and also at an awareness of how endemic selling out was in political life—part of the game, as inescapable as weather.

It’s against this background, perhaps, that the wild freedom of imagination that distinguishes many of his revolutionary-period prints makes sense. In Gillray’s hands, graphic satire was capable not only of schematizing the shape of an ongoing crisis, but also of “plot[ting] the trajectory of a political future,” as Taylor has suggested—going beyond the bounds of the actual “as an exercise in irony, in reassurance, or both.” Speculative rather than descriptive, such satire spawns fictional or counterfactual scenarios in order to revel in their unlikelihood, as in the acidic Exaltation of Faro’s Daughters (1796), which imagines Lady Buckinghamshire and Sarah Archer, two infamous high-society gamblers, slouched grumpily in the pillory for their sins, their voluminous feathered headdresses receiving a tribute of eggs, rotten vegetables, and what looks like a hurled cat.

Occasionally Gillray inhabited other people’s fantasies and fears, putting on their crazed spectacles to see the world. Delicious Dreams!—Castles in the Air!—Glorious Prospects! (1808) shows a handful of cabinet ministers slumped into contented dozes after a liquid supper: from Canning’s head, via thick swirls of cloud, emerges a vision of Britannia processing triumphantly to the Tower of London, dragging a tiny, humble-looking Napoleon behind her on a chain. (In 1808 the prospect of a British victory looked remote, if not impossible.) At the other end of the fantastic spectrum, in the realm of nightmare rather than dream, his Hogarthian Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion reifies the maddest visions of anti-Jacobin alarmism. From a butcher’s hook, the lower half of a body dangles, bleeding in chunks; Canning, in a noose, swings meekly from a lamppost outside his club; Burke is tossed into the air by a bull, spectacles flying; ghoulishly caricatured Frenchmen march over a mire of severed heads. A series of fearmongering prints Gillray was commissioned to design in 1798, Consequences of a Successful French Invasion—which imagines, among other things, a guillotine taking the place of the royal throne and a naked-from-the-waist-down Frenchman filching the scepter—had its anticipated Treasury funding withheld. “It was thought not quite prudent to represent dignity and authority trodden underfoot,” the British Critic noted, “although it was mere supposition.”

Though he committed himself to caricature, Gillray never forgot his early aspirations to “high” engraving. His most ambitious prints, as the art historian Mark Hallett has argued, “depended for their power” on the comparison they offered to “more highly regarded forms of pictorial representation,” borrowing, respectfully as well as disrespectfully, storylines, characters, and forms from history painting. Some contemporaries were disconcerted by what they saw as a case of genre confusion, a kind of unwarranted brilliance. According to the Weimar journal London und Paris, the magnificence of Gillray’s Confederated-Coalition;—or—The Giants storming Heaven (1804), a satire on bitter factional maneuvering, exhibited “the talent of an artist who would have been capable of something far better than simply wasting his intelligence on caricatures.”

Others suggested that the hyperbole traditional to history painting meant it had something in common with the grotesque representations of caricature, as an art also predicated on excess, disproportion, and freedom of conception. Gillray’s “extraordinary graphic hyperbole,” one admirer wrote, came close, “in its highest flights,” to meeting “the outposts of the creations of Michael Angelo”; his work showed, according to the London and Westminster Review in 1837, that the “ludicrous” was not “divided by a step from the sublime, but blended with it and twined round it.”

Sometimes Gillray’s ludicrousness weighed down sublimity, satirizing its pretensions and clipping its wings. The Fall of Icarus (1807), one of the last political caricatures he designed, mocks the embarrassing fall from grace of Earl Temple, an aristocrat on the ministerial payroll who had been caught filching government stationery. The print’s heroic framing, the story of Icarus’s hubris, sits awkwardly with its action—Temple’s plunging, naked, meaty body, limbs akimbo, about to be impaled, buttocks-first, on a sharp stake. A satire about falling—or, more precisely, flying too high and then falling—involves, self-reflexively, a falling style.

But then there is Phaeton alarm’d! (1808), a large showpiece satire attacking Canning, who had recently masterminded a controversial and deadly bombardment of the city of Copenhagen (see illustration on page 10). In the print, Canning is depicted in the lavish, heroic style in which, we’re invited to think, he probably imagined himself: as a muscular nude posed on a flaming chariot. Like Phaeton in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though, he has lost control of his horses and is plunging off course, causing the sun’s rays to set the earth below on fire. The print has, as we’d expect, its absurd elements: the horses are also Tory statesmen, their alarmed looks indicating confusion as to why they’re there; Lord Grenville, the former prime minister, is swollen into an immensely fat scorpion, one of the signs of the zodiac; there is, as ever, a miniature Napoleon present, engulfed in flame. But in its size and splendor, its vast orchestrating of the many chaotic forces willing Canning’s fall, and in the way it responds to a real-life epic disaster, the razing of a city to the ground, Phaeton alarm’d! isn’t all mock-heroic. It reads as a vast, hyperbolic exclamation mark, an only semicomic warning.

Canning was one of Gillray’s last fertile subjects. Pitt died in January 1806, then Fox in September. (Gillray couldn’t resist a last caricature at Fox’s expense: Visiting the Sick, published by Hannah Humphrey in July, shows him looking swollen and miserable in a dressing gown and nightcap, surrounded by false friends.) Their deaths were, as Clayton writes, a “professional blow” for Gillray, marking the end of an era structured neatly by their political and physical differences. As his own health began to decline—he suffered badly from rheumatism, and by 1807 his vision was deteriorating—his extraordinary rate of production dwindled, and he limited himself to engraving other people’s sketches. From 1810 he was subject to acute fits of depression that incapacitated him and made him unable to work. He died in June 1815 in unrecorded circumstances (two sources, neither very trustworthy, suggest it might have been suicide), just a couple of weeks before the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, a man he had spent almost two decades shrinking down to size.