James Gillray, the famed Regency caricaturist, died in his fifties on June 1, 1815, an alcoholic, losing his eyesight, out of his mind, and penniless. In his hey day he was the quintessential commentator of his time, and people stood in lines outside his shop to purchase his biting political cartoons. He observed people and their habits as keenly with lines and color washes as Jane Austen did with her well-placed words.
He was a withdrawn, silent and lonely man, greatly slandered in his lifetime, probably by his victims and their friends. He worked in such a fury of creative energy that even his acquaintances years before his breakdown, wondered if he might be part-demented. He was so popular that there were often queues at the print shop, above which he worked, waiting for his latest cartoons and caricatures. At once the most ferocious and most brilliant caricaturist of his time, Gillray had a genius for turning public figures into monsters that were yet recognizable, his wild exaggeration being itself a criticism of their personalities.*
In the first print Gillray has captured the foppish, aristocratic bearing of the Prince Regent, even though all one can see is his back. Despite his proud bearing, not every sartorial detail is in place (note the untucked shirt peeking through the coat tails, and the Prince’s coat collar dusted white from powder falling off his wig.) The Prince has not yet attained the gross proportions of his later years. Two dandies (Sir Lumley St George Skeffington; Montague James Mathew) are well defined and delineated in the second caricature, one dark and menacing, the other angelic in features. Their boots are polished to a spit shine, and the evidence of their research into boot blacking is evident from the accoutrements Gillray has included in the background. In the third illustration, that of an old maid embarking on a journey, one can see that some things never change. Helped by strangers, this woman of a certain age brings her close family along with her – a dog and bird – as well as her needlework and her pitifully small amount of luggage.
*The Prince of Pleasure, J.B. Priestley, 1969, Harper & Row Publishers, NY, page 157
1 Prince of Wales, Gillray, 1802
2 A Pair of Polished Gentlemen, Gillray, 1801
3 The Old Maid on a Journey, Gillray, 1804
- To read about the difference between cartoons and caricatures, click here.
- Read more of my posts about James Gillray here.