James Gillray (1756 - 1815)
James Gillray was born on 13th.August 1756 and was the only one of his parents' five children to survive childhood. Gillray's father, a Scot, had become a member of an austere and strict evangelical sect called the Moravian Brotherhood and in 1749 had been appointed sexton of the Moravian Chapel in Chelsea.
The Moravian community had an abhorrence of any sort of pleasure and children were forbidden games. Instead, they were encouraged from the earliest age to contemplate and to welcome death as a glorious release from the iniquities of earthly life. Indeed, Gillray's eldest brother died saying "Pray don't keep me. O let me go, I must go..." It was in this gloomy atmosphere that Gillray was brought up and educated and which surely had an effect on his personality. Still, from childhood Gillray was determined on a career as an artist and for a time was apprenticed to a shop which produced such everyday engraved items as cheques, certificates, etc. However, in 1778 he attended the recently established Royal Academy Schools to study engraving but without any apparent inclination to become a caricaturist.
At this time a good income was to be had from the engraving of the works of 'serious' artists but success in this field depended on the engraver making a faithful reproduction of an artist's work without imposing anything of his own personality on the image. It soon became apparent that Gillray couldn't take on a subject without exaggerating some aspect or other and as a result achieved little success in this particular field. His strength lay in the exaggerations of character and the personal.
One of Gillray's obvious predecessors in the tradition of English satire was William Hogarth who died while Gillray was still a child. But whereas Hogarth expressed his satirical ideas through morality tales such as 'The Rake's Progress' Gillray by contrast seems to have entirely dispensed with the idea of morality and appears to have held the belief that humankind was utterly irredeemable which was probably a result of his Moravian upbringing.
Gillray had also become expert and innovative in the techniques of etching and engraving and by 1790 there was an abundance of material upon which Gillray was able to exercise this expertise. The French revolution, the leading politicians of the day and Royalty were all caricatured mercilessly as were the fashionable personalities parading the streets of London.
Initially Gillray had worked for various print publishers, principal among them being William Humphrey and his sister Hannah Humphrey but gradually he began to work solely for Hannah, Mrs. Humphrey and in 1793 took up lodging with her in Old Bond Street. This arrangement continued for the rest of his life, moving with her to New Bond Street and then finally to 27 St.James's Street. There were mutual advantages in this set-up. It gave Gillray security, a place to work and his domestic needs were taken care of. For Mrs.Humphrey's part she was able to show that she had sole rights to the work of James Gillray. Gillray's prints were not cheap and by now his reputation had spread to Europe.
A journalist writing for the German periodical 'London und Paris' wrote of Gillray's "extensive literary knowledge of every kind; his extremely accurate drawing; the novelty of his ideas and his unswerving, constant regard for the essence of caricature; these things make him the foremost living artist in his genre".By now, many prominent personages were anxious to be portrayed by Gillray though ultimately this would affect Gillray's independence when he was awarded an annual pension of ??200 by the Tory government. Thereafter, there were fewer caricatures of George III and his Queen, to be replaced by merciless attacks on the Whigs who are depicted as pro-French traitors with particularly scathing attention being paid to Charles James Fox.
Towards the end of his career Gillray's primary target was Napoleon Bonaparte and as "Little Boney"s power and ambition increased so did Gillray's caricatures of him become ever more extreme.After the turn of the century however, Gillray's output lessened as he fell into ill health. In 1807 Mrs.Humphrey sent him to Margate to convalesce which did little to improve his condition and in 1811 he produced his last print : 'A Barber's Shop in Assize Time' by which time he had become incurably insane. He was looked after by Mrs. Humphrey and at one point tried to kill himself by attempting to throw himself from the attic but managed only to get his head stuck between iron bars and was rescued by an attendant from White's club opposite who had witnessed the attempt.Gillray died on 1st. June, 1815 and his death went almost unremarked except for a brief mention in the Gentleman's Magazine.
After Mrs.Humphrey's death in 1818 the business was taken over by her nephew George Humphrey who, along with a fellow publisher Thomas McLean tried to market a series of prints from Gillray's original plates but met with little success. After the death of George Humphrey the business was carried on by his widow until she retired in 1835 and in July of that year offered her entire stock, including Gillray's drawings, prints and original copper plates for auction. Several hundred drawings were sold but on the last day of the sale when some 610 of Gillray's plates were offered no-one was prepared to meet Mrs.Humphrey's reserve price, thought to have been at least ??1,000. The plates remained unsold until her death whereupon the executors offered them for the price of the copper. An enterprising publisher by the name of H.G.Bohn happened to hear of this in time to save them from being melted down and went on to publish, in 1851, two massive volumes - "The Works of James Gillray from the Original Plates". One volume being of 45 "suppressed plates". These suppressed plates were intended for gentlemen only and not for the delicate sensibilities of the female population.
Today only five plates engraved by Gillray are known to exist and it can only be assumed that the rest were melted down or otherwise disposed of.