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'James Gillray: the Art of Caricature', at Tate Britain: a must-see show for anybody interested in political art.

Aidan Campbell

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Topics Politics

‘James Gillray: the Art of Caricature’, at Tate Britain, London, is a must-see show for anybody interested in political art of the highest order.

This is the most comprehensive ever collection of the work of the eighteenth century’s finest – and most scabrous – caricaturist. True, Gillray (1756-1815) had the advantage of living in interesting times – the American and French revolutions plus the Napoleonic Wars. Added to this turmoil were domestic elections between Whigs and Tories every three years, which bore a close resemblance to pitched battles – and this at a time when the vast majority of the adult population of Britain was disenfranchised.

Gillray was definitely not kind to animals and small children. He was always portraying the most despicable people of his era as pigs and kids. On the other hand, he was very fair. He was equally merciless in castigating friends and enemies, foreigners and widows. In an age when the laws of slander and libel and censorship still had to be invented, he regularly depicted all sorts of politicians and royalty in highly embarrassing scatological and sexual situations.

In his immense output, nobody was spared the lash of Gillray’s brush. Not to be on the receiving end of his wit was considered to be an insult, too. If you hadn’t been ridiculed in one of his etchings, you probably were an insignificant non-entity.

Caricature blurs the boundaries between art and society. It was part of Gillray’s tragedy that he was fascinated by politics at a time when art was trying to isolate itself from life under the aegis of aestheticism. In those heated times, apparently you couldn’t do both. Gillray trained as a serious artist at the recently founded Royal Academy, but as a despised engraver he was never granted full membership rights there. The Tate displays many of his superbly crafted engravings, all of which demonstrate his obvious artistic talent.

As an artist, Gillray had sold himself to Mammon and that was considered sufficient reason to blackball him for life. In 1807 he suffered his first nervous breakdown, and he went completely mad three years later. But it is for his sublimely nasty cartoons that history will always remember Gillray. His ‘The Plum Pudding in Danger’ (1805), depicting the British prime minister William Pitt and the French emperor Napoleon gleefully carving up the globe between them, is still the most famous political cartoon of all time.

Much is made of Gillray’s influence on modern cartoonists like Steve Bell and the Spitting Image TV puppets. What is that influence? It is widely accepted that Gillray was a brutal Tory hack. Between 1797 and 1801, that party paid him a retainer of £200 a year to contribute to their counter-revolutionary pamphlets. Yet all the while he continued to bait the pillars of society as if nothing had happened.

Consequently, the ferocity of Gillray’s visual repartee can be ostentatiously welcomed by political commentators of all shades today, even though they have redefined toleration to mean something Gillray wouldn’t recognise. Offensiveness of the Gillray calibre is now a social crime. The great and the good of modern times are also protected by laws of privacy, censorship, libel and slander.

The current ambiguity about Gillray extends wider than the purely historical issue of where his true political loyalties lay. It exposes a contemporary sensitivity towards graphics of any kind. Will a caricature challenge the system or help shore it up? Why did designer spin rebound on the people that created it to bite them on the bum? Does political satire canonise or demonise?

Take a trip down to the Tate and see how exciting politics can be when people lighten up and don’t feel so apprehensive about imagery.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

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