Archive for category Subject: James Gillray

James Gillray || Tim Clayton

Although the claim of this book’s blurb that he invented political satire is perhaps an exaggeration, James Gillray was certainly the most prominent caricaturist in an age where the genre grew up and flourished.

There are many reasons why such a lack of respect for authority should emerge in the late Eighteenth Century. The republican experiment under Oliver Cromwell some hundred years previously had shown that monarchs were not indispensable, and absolute power, even after the Restoration, was waning. The Hanoverian Georges seemed, and frequently were, alien. Finally, the Regency became a period of loose rules and morals that emboldened what we may call the chattering classes. Yes, that is a very simplified account, but this is a book review, not a history and Tim Clayton’s thorough and admirable account of the life and work of a major figure in the creative life of the age will fill in all the gaps for you.

Gillray was prolific, acerbic and precise in his targeted attacks, both on individuals, events and public mores. This is a lavish account of his life and work that is set firmly in its historical context. Caricature in the Eighteenth Century was an elaborate affair. The simple line of modern cartooning had not developed, neither had the simple one-line caption. Every illustration rewards detailed examination and more than a superficial understanding of its context. In modern times, the work of Martin Rowson and Chris Riddell offer something of a parallel, with minor figures, repeating motifs and sometimes, too, in-jokes.

Many of Gillray’s works remain famous today, such as The Plumb-pudding in danger, which has the Emperor Napoleon and Pitt the Younger carving up the globe and is an excellent example of Gillray’s incisive ability to reduce complex politics to simple motifs. There are many more works, however, which have faded into obscurity as the individuals and events have fallen away from general memory. Tim Clayton includes many of these as part of the broad canon of Gillray’s work. This is a complete and, indeed, beautifully produced account of the work of man who, although by no means forgotten, deserves his time in the spotlight once more.

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