Savage Satire: From the Pen of James Gillray Back

With a career stretching from the 1770s through to the early nineteenth century, James Gillray was a pioneer of the art of caricature and a master of satire. His most famous works were printed in the 1790s and 1800s. Exploring political and social concerns, Gillray’s satires provide the eagle-eyed and informed viewer with a wealth of material to digest. Humorous and sophisticated in equal measure, they offer a glimpse into the period’s social, political, and economic landscape. The ‘Savage Satire’ exhibition at Fairfax House, York, brings together over 35 images with a particular focus on the 1790s.

The prints on display belong to Donald Coverdale, a private collector, and have been grouped according to common themes, making it possible to see how attitudes shifted towards certain political events over time. The exhibition begins with a mezzotint of Gillray himself, before turning to address six areas: Britishness and constitutional crisis; the French Revolution; war with France; political caricature and party politics; taxation; trade; and the 1797 banking crisis. A central cabinet is dedicated to the techniques Gillray used to create his images.

Not one to shy away from grotesque representations, or to sanitise his views unnecessarily, Gillray creates frank and often startling depictions of politics around the time of the French Revolution. One particularly grotesque print on display in the exhibition is The Zenith of French Glory; – The Pinnacle of Liberty (12 February 1793) which shows the execution of Louis XIV. In addition to the death of the monarchy, the print also attacks religion, showing the corpses of a bishop and two monks, alongside that of a judge, all of whom are shown hanging from street posts. Meanwhile, in the background, a church burns, further emphasising the destruction of systems of law and order. Dominating the print is an image of a sans-culotte, who sits on a street post, elevated above the crowd of bonnets-rouge, with his foot resting on the dead monk’s head. The sans-culotte casually watches the execution as he bids farewell to religion, justice, loyalty, and all the bugbears of unenlightened minds.

The sans-culotte recurs time and again in Gillray’s prints. In the print A Democrat, – Or – Reason & Philosophy (1 March 1793) he goes so far as to depict Charles James Fox as an unshaven, grotesquely hairy sans-culotte, passing wind and uttering the revolutionary ‘Ciara!’. Like the figure in The Zenith of French Glory, Fox carries a bloody dagger, which captures the bloodthirsty nature of the bonnet-rouge – something that Gillray would return to again and again in his images relating to the French wars.

Turning his pen to address matters at home, many of Gillray’s prints attack George III and satirise the English nation through the figure of John Bull – the stout, middle-aged, country-dwelling citizen who embodies the nation. While The Vulture of the Constitution (3 January 1789) shows William Pitt capitalising on the ill health of the king by trying to crush George III’s crown and sceptre and prevent the succession of George IV as Regent, Gillray takes a sideways swipe at the reigning monarch in The French Invasion; – Or – John Bull Bombarding the Bum-Boats (5 November 1793). This scatological image of George III is particularly crude, showing the monarch defecating on France and is modelled on images of John Bull – suggesting that the King is at one with the (crude) spirit of the nation.

The exhibition is especially rich in prints that satirise the state of the English nation and which explore matters relating to party politics and taxation. One particular example is the caricature John Bull Ground Down (1 June 1795). An attack on taxation and the hypocrisy of bestowing pensions and annuities in the civil list, the print shows John Bull being fed into a gigantic coffee mill. Pitt continues to crank the handle, exclaiming “God save great George our Kin…”, turning a blind eye (and a deaf ear) to John Bull’s cries of “Murder” as the nation is symbolically destroyed to line the coffers of the ministry. Pitt’s left knee rests on an enormous pile of guineas. Behind Pitt, Dundas and Burke kneel on the ground scrounging for money, and to the left of the print is the Prince of Wales, who collects a large portion of the coins, offering them to a line of creditors who hold debts of honour and lending agreements.

Turning away from its narrative about Britishness, party politics, and the constitution, the exhibition’s centrepiece considers how Gillray created his famous images. Gillray used the intaglio process, which involved making marks and incisions on a copper plate, to create most of his prints. This was achieved by covering a copper plate with an acid-resistant substance such as wax, onto which Gillray would etch his designs using an etching needle. Once the sketch was almost finished, a burin (a sharp V-shaped tool) could be used to add finer details, or to add emphasis to specific sections. When completed, the copper plate would be placed in a bath of acid which would bite into the plate where the copper had been etched, leaving the remainder of the plate smooth. As part of its exploration of print production, the exhibition features an original copper plate for Anecdote Maconnique. A Masonic Anecdote (21 November 1786). The caricature and its plate are presented together in a central display case. This plate is a particular highlight of the exhibition; plates of this quality are incredibly rare due to the deterioration of the copper and the fact that many plates were reused to reduce costs as the metal was an expensive commodity.

The exhibition concludes with a display of twenty-first century caricatures that reveal how Gillray continues to influence satirical representation. A caricature by Seamus Jennings, captioned On Brexit, or, Un Petit Souper after Gillray recreates The Plumb-Pudding in danger; – or – state epicures taking un petit souper, which featured earlier in the exhibition. Other modern takes on Gillray’s work satirise Donald Trump, Theresa May, and our current economic situation. What this exhibition drives home is how the concerns of the eighteenth century – politics, trade, democracy, taxation, and fears of isolation – transcend their original moment. The age of eighteenth-century satire is far from over.

Savage Satire was at Fairfax House, York, from 15 February to 7 June 2019.