James Gillray, sometimes spelled Gilray (13 August 1757 - 1 June 1815), was a British caricaturist and printmaker famous for his etched political and social satires, mainly published between 1792 and 1810.
He was born in Chelsea. His father, a native of Lanark, had served as a soldier, losing an arm at the Battle of Fontenoy, and was admitted, first as an inmate, and afterwards as an outdoor pensioner, at Chelsea Hospital. Gillray commenced life by learning letter-engraving, at which he soon became adept. This employment, however, proved irksome to James, so he wandered about for a time with a company of strolling players. After a very checkered experience he returned to London and was admitted as a student in the Royal Academy, supporting himself by engraving, and probably issuing a considerable number of caricatures under fictitious names. His caricatures are almost all in etching, some also with aquatint, and a few using stipple technique. None can correctly be described as engravings, although this term is often loosely used to describe them. Hogarth's works were the delight and study of his early years. Paddy on Horseback, which appeared in 1779, is the first caricature which is certainly his. Two caricatures on Rodney's naval victory, issued in 1782, were among the first of the memorable series of his political sketches.
The name of Gillray's publisher and print seller, Miss Hannah Humphrey-whose shop was first at 227 Strand, then in New Bond Street, then in Old Bond Street, and finally in St James's Street-is inextricably associated with that of the caricaturist himself. Gillray lived with Miss (often called Mrs) Humphrey during the entire period of his fame. It is believed that he several times thought of marrying her, and that on one occasion the pair were on their way to the church, when Gillray said: "This is a foolish affair, methinks, Miss Humphrey. We live very comfortably together, we had better let well alone." There is no evidence, however, to support the stories which scandalmongers invented about their relations. One of Gillray's prints, "Twopenny Whist," is a depiction of four individuals playing cards, and the character shown second from the left, an ageing lady with eyeglasses and a bonnet, is widely believed to be an accurate depiction of Miss Humphrey.
Gillray's plates were exposed in Humphrey's shop window, where eager crowds examined them. One of his later prints, Very Slippy-Weather, shows Miss Humphrey's shop in St James's Street in the background. In the shop window a number of Gillray's previously published prints, such as Tiddy-Doll the Great French Gingerbread Maker , Drawing Out a New Batch of Kings, His Man, Talley Mixing up the Dough, a satire on Napoleon's king-making proclivities, are shown in the shop window. His last work, from a design by Bunbury, is entitled Interior of a Barber's Shop in Assize Time, and is dated 1811. While he was engaged on it he became mad, although he had occasional intervals of sanity, which he employed on his last work. The approach of madness may have been hastened by his intemperate habits. Gillray died on 1 June 1815, and was buried in St James's churchyard, Piccadilly.
During the French Revolution, Gillray took a conservative stance, and he issued caricature after caricature ridiculing the French and Napoleon (usually using Jacobin), and glorifying John Bull. A number of these were published in the Anti-Jacobin Review. He is not, however, to be thought of as a keen political adherent of either the Whig or the Tory party, he dealt his blows pretty freely all round.
The times in which Gillray lived were peculiarly favourable to the growth of a great school of caricature. Party warfare was carried on with great vigour and not a little bitterness, and personalities were freely indulged in on both sides. Gillray's incomparable wit and humour, knowledge of life, fertility of resource, keen sense of the ludicrous, and beauty of execution, at once gave him the first place among caricaturists. He is honourably distinguished in the history of caricature by the fact that his sketches are real works of art. The ideas embodied in some of them are sublime and poetically magnificent in their intensity of meaning, while the forthrightness-which some have called coarseness-which others display is characteristic of the general freedom of treatment common in all intellectual departments in the 18th century. The historical value of Gillray's work has been recognized by many discerning students of history. As has been well remarked: "Lord Stanhope has turned Gillray to account as a veracious reporter of speeches, as well as a suggestive illustrator of events."
Gillray's caricatures are generally divided into two classes, the political series and the social, though it is important not to attribute to the term "series" any concept of continuity or completeness. The political caricatures comprise an important and invaluable component of the history extant of the latter part of the reign of George III. They were circulated not only in Britain but also throughout Europe, and exerted a powerful influence both in Britain and abroad. In the political prints, George III, George's wife Queen Charlotte, the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent, then King George IV), Fox, Pitt the Younger, Burke and Napoleon Bonaparte are the most prominent figures. In 1788 appeared two fine caricatures by Gillray. Blood on Thunder fording the Red Sea represents Lord Thurlow carrying Warren Hastings through a sea of gore: Hastings looks very comfortable, and is carrying two large bags of money. Market-Day pictures the ministerialists of the time as cattle for sale.
A selection of Gillray's works appeared in James Gillray The Caricatures printed between 1818 and the mid 1820s published by John Miller, Bridge Street and W. Blackwood, Edinburgh. Nine parts were released, the next edition was Thomas McLean's, which was published with a key, in 1830. A somewhat bitter attack, not only on Gillray's character, but even on his genius, appeared in the Athenaeum for 1 October 1831, which was successfully refuted by John Landseer in the Athenaeum a fortnight later.
Gillray's eyesight began to fail in 1806. He began wearing spectacles but they were unsatisfactory. Unable to work to his previous high standards, James Gillray became depressed and started drinking heavily. He produced his last print in September 1809. As a result of his heavy drinking Gillray suffered from gout throughout his later life. In July 1811 Gillray attempted to kill himself by throwing himself out of an attic window above Humphrey's shop in St James's Street. Gillray lapsed into insanity and was looked after by Hannah Humphrey until his death on 1 June 1815.
James Gillray was buried in the courtyard of St James's Church, in Piccadilly, London.