James Gillray: The Scourge of Napoleon

Cartoon historian Mark Bryant looks at the work of the man who invented the art of political cartooning, and asks what effect his drawings had on one of their targets.

The world being carved up into spheres of influence between Pitt and Napoleon.If William Hogarth can be seen as the founder of modern cartoons and caricature, then the father of the modern political cartoon was James Gillray (1756-1815). He was also the first professional political war cartoonist, and in the same way that the New Zealander David Low, the Dutchman Louis Raemaekers and the Australian Will Dyson later produced some of the most memorable cartoon images of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Stalin and Kaiser Wilhelm in the twentieth century, so too did Gillray become the scourge of that other great European dictator of modern times, Napoleon Bonaparte.

James Gillray was born in Chelsea on August 13th, 1756, at the start of the Seven Years' War and died just seventeen days before the Battle of Waterloo. His father, a Scotsman, was a former professional soldier who had lost an arm while serving in the cavalry in Flanders under the Duke of Cumberland during the War of the Austrian Succession. James was the third of Five children, and the only one to survive infancy.

Apprenticed at first to an engraver in the City of London he then joined a company of travelling players before returning to London aged nineteen. Here he again took up employment as an engraver and then studied at the Royal Academy before returning to his trade, producing illustrations and original designs for a number of companies including William Humphrey, Matthew and Mary Darly, William Holland and Samuel Fores. He then teamed up with Hannah Humphrey (sister of William) above whose printshop near St James's Palace - the court of George III and itself at the centre of a coffeehouse and gentlemen's club area - he lived until his death.

'A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion' (1792)
'A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion' (1792)

Influenced by the satirical prints of John Mortimer (1740-79), he became a full-time caricaturist at about the age of thirty. (The word 'cartoonist' was not used in this sense until 1843.) Within a short time he soon became the leading figure in this field with such now-classic drawings as 'A March to the Bank' (1787), The Wierd [sic] Sisters' (1791), 'A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion' (1792, featuring a bloated George IV when Prince of Wales) and 'Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal' (1792, featuring George III and Queen Charlotte). When revolutionary France declared war on England on February 1st, 1793, he began to produce political propaganda drawings, including such poignant images as The Zenith of French Glory' (1793).

Though only prints, the impact of Gillray's cartoons should not be underestimated as the first British newspapers - such as the Morning Post (1772) and the Daily Universal Register (1785, later renamed The Times) - had no illustrations of any kind, let alone cartoons (though ironically it was The Times which pioneered the use of illustrations in newspapers when it published a woodcut of Nelson's funeral car on January 10th, 1806). Images of public figures - whether portraits or caricatures - were only widely available as prints produced by specialist shops for sale or hire, or else viewed in the publisher's shop itself, making printshop windows important sources of pictorial news and satire, especially in wartime.

Gillray also became the first political cartoonist to be an officially accredited frontline war artist. This came about when the forces of the Duke of York (the second son of George III), commander of the English army in Flanders, captured Valenciennes in June that year in a famous victory that left Paris vulnerable to attack by the Allies. As a result a London printseller, Valentine Green, commissioned George Ill's favourite painter, Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740-1812), to paint a large commemorative picture of the battle, 'The Grand Attack at Valenciennes' ( 179394), to be reproduced as prints. De Loutherbourg - himself an occasional caricaturist - asked Gillray to join him to help with sketches of military leaders etc, and the two went to France in August that year. Gillray later incorporated some of his research into his own drawing 'Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders' (May 20th, 1793).

Images of Napoleon Bonaparte first started appearing in France after he quelled the Paris riots in October 1795 (described by Carlyle in the famous phrase 'a whiff of grapeshot') and took control of the French army in Italy. The first engraved portraits of him began to arrive in London in 1796 and the first English caricature of him was credited to Isaac Cruikshank (March 12th, 1797). Over the next fifteen years or so more than 2,000 prints featuring Napoleon were produced in Britain alone, showing him in many guises including horned devil, caged animal and as a Corsican bloodhound. Of these only about forty were drawn by Gillray. Nonetheless, from 1798 until 1809 (when his health began to fail) Gillray dominated the field and created some of the most enduring satirical images of the French dictator. Among these were 'Tiddy-Doll, the Great French Gingerbread Maker' (1806) and 'The Plumb-pudding in Danger' (1805), shown at the top of this article. This latter drawing, featuring British prime minister William Pitt and Napoleon carving up the globe in the form of a Christmas pudding, is not only one of the best known political cartoons of all time but is also one of the most parodied, being used as a vehicle by cartoonists worldwide to attack the ambitions of political leaders of all kinds since Napoleon's era.

Such was the success of Gillray's wartime drawings that his latest productions were eagerly awaited by the British public and one French émigré living in London in 1802 said that:

If men fighting over there for their possessions and their bodies against the Corsican robber, they are lighting here to be first in Ackerimnn's shop and see Gillray's latest caricatures. The enthusiasm is indescribable when the next drawing appears; it is a veritable madness. You have to make your way in through the crowd with your fists ...

Gillray also created the character of 'Little Boney' which was later taken up by many other artists. He had at first drawn Napoleon normal size, for example in 'Exit Liberté á la François!' in 1799 just before Bonaparte became First Consul and moved into the Tuileries Palace in Paris. By portraying him as a belligerent, ranting midget (he was in fact only five feet six inches tall) wearing a huge hat Gillray was deliberately trying to 'cut him down to size' and make him look ridiculous.

Little Boney first appeared in Gillray's 'German Noncbalence [sic] or the Vexation of Little Boney' (January 1st, 1803) and celebrated examples to appear later the same year were 'Maniac Ravings, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit' (May 24th) and The Corsican Pest' (October 6th). A particularly powerful example is 'The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver' (June 26th), featuring a huge George III and a tiny Napoleon in a reference to Swift's satire Gulliver's Travels (1726).

'Maniac Ravings, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit' (1803)

Napoleon himself was very aware of the power of caricature and in 1805 wrote to his Minister of Police: 'Have caricatures made: An Englishman, purse in hand, entreating the various Powers to take his money, &c.' He was also apparently upset by Gillray's personal attacks on him, notably after he became Emperor. According to a 19th-century French commentator Napoleon could not look at one of these – 'The Grand Coronation Procession of Napoleon the 1st Emperor of France' (January 1st, 1805) - 'without entering into the most violent anger'. And a British art historian writing at the same time added:

These caricatures were brought to his notice by his spies and emissaries in England; they rendered him furious; and one of them - Gillray's admirable, and as it subsequently proved, prophetic satire of 'The Handwriting on the Wall' - is said to have given him not only offence, but even serious uneasiness.

This drawing, alluding to the biblical story of Belshazzar's Feast where a ghostly hand writes on the wall that the king's time is up, was published on August 24th, 1803, two months after Napoleon had boasted that he only needed three days of fog to be master of London, Parliament and the Bank of England.

Gillray's Napoleonic satires represented only a small fraction of his total work – some forty drawings out of perhaps 1,000 – and an even smaller percentage of the many thousands of anti-Napoleon drawings published internationally during the French dictator's lifetime (in Russia a 200-year-old ban on personal caricature was lifted specifically so that Napoleon could be attacked). However, such was their impact that they not only influenced Gillray's contemporaries worldwide but also set the standard for future generations of political war cartoonists to come.

Gillray's final years from 1809 until his death were beset with drink problems, deteriorating eyesight and fits of madness (possibly brought on by the effects of the acid fumes used in the engraving process) and he was confined to the upper rooms of Mrs Humphrey's shop at 27 St James's Street where she took care of him. He died there on June 1st, 1815, aged fifty-eight. Legend has it that he committed suicide by jumping from an upstairs window, though most of Gillray's biographers now dispute this.

Mark Bryant is the author of Illingworth's War in Cartoons: One Hundred of his Greatest Drawings 1939-1945 (Grub Street, 2009).



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