This year is the 200th anniversary of the death of the London cartoonist James Gillray (1756 – 1815). He’s one of our best-known illustrators, usually mentioned in the same breath as Hogarth, Tenniel and Shepard. Like Hogarth earlier in the century, Gillray trained as an engraver and followed that trade for a short while before discovering his métier.
That profession was the vicious lampooning of prominent persons, primarily politicians and royalty. So rich were his ideas conceptually that they have provided templates for cartoonists ever since, but primarily during our own times. He’s imitated more so even than Hogarth because his illustrations are more punchy, more precise, less cluttered.
This frequent habit of cartoonistic homage down the years forms the basis of a new exhibition celebrating the Gillray anniversary: Gillray’s Ghost, at the Cartoon Museum. It features about 70 items: original hand-coloured prints by Gillray, alongside the modern equivalents by the likes of Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Chris Duggan, Martin Rowson, Dave Brown, Nick Garland and others.
The most fecund of these, and the headline illustration of the show, is The Plumb Pudding in Danger from 1805 (pre Trafalgar), featuring Pitt and Bonaparte carving up the globe. Food and gluttony are, of course, a common trope for cartoonists down the years. There are at least half a dozen variants of this in the show. Here, using David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon, is Steve Bell’s.
To my mind, the most famous of all is A Voluptuary, the image of the Prince Regent, leaning back languidly, picking his teeth with a fork, not a care in the world. Chris Duggan’s cartoon shows a select committee absentee, ditto.
Here we have Pitt, Fox and Adlington wrestling each other while Bonaparte is about to assassinate Britannia from behind a curtain. Britannia Between Death and the Doctor’s (sic). Dave Brown’s version shows Brown and Clegg as the doctors with Cameron as Death.
And so on. The exhibition is well conceived and nicely executed. As ever with the Cartoon Museum, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Gillray’s Ghost runs at the Cartoon Museum until 17 January 2016. The exhibition is included in museum entry of £7 adults. Friends of the Museum and Art Fund members enjoy free entry.
London Historians Private View.
Monday 16 November, 17:30. Introductory talk by Cartoon Museum director, Anita O’Brien. Glass of wine included. All tickets £12.50 + fee. Book here.
A Taste of Gillray
26 November, 18:30. Presented by the Cartoon Museum and the Georgian Dining Academy (as it so happens, run by a pair of LH Members). An evening of convivial conversation, gin punch, 18th century cuisine and top Georgian entertainment. £40. LH Members £35 (if that’s you, contact us.)