The Gillrays that were too rude for the Victorians

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Cartoons that fell foul of 19th-century censors are put on display

To a modern eye, the pictures look elaborate, funny, somewhat dated and a little bit naughty. But around 160 years ago, someone in authority was so disgusted by them that the entire album of 40 drawings – including these four examples – was seized and consigned to a vault in the Home Office. There it stayed, forgotten, long after ideas on what was fit for the public to see had liberalised.

Then two years ago the Home Office was broken up and many of its functions transferred to the newly created Ministry of Justice. That involved moving personnel, equipment and files to new MoJ headquarters. As a mountain of old files came in from the department that dealt with pornography, David Pearson, an MoJ civil servant, came upon an unusual find which, on examination, turned out to be drawings by James Gillray, one of the greatest political caricaturists in history.

"The folio was carefully wrapped up alongside a collection of seized material that had been handed to the old obscene publications unit over the years. That material is fairly tame by today's standards but when I uncovered the folio it was clear that it was something a little out of the ordinary. Even so, after some research, I was amazed to discover it had such historic value," Mr Pearson said.

James Gillray's work is a corrective to anyone who thinks that contempt for our political leaders is a modern phenomenon. Britain was a satirists' paradise in the final years of the 18th century, when the elderly King George III was going through periodic bouts of madness, the behaviour of his worthless sons was scandalising London, the House of Commons was being torn apart by party political warfare, and censorship seems barely to have existed.

His drawings are taken very seriously as works of art and as a historical record. George III asked to see some of them but remarked testily that he did not understand them. This only inspired Gillray to draw one of his most famous and cruellest drawings, in which the King was sarcastically described as a "connoisseur", although he was depicted as an ignorant, ageing miser.

Another favourite target was the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, political patron of the Whig party, who had a series of well documented affairs and could not bear the sight of his wife. He tried to have Gillray's work banned. French revolutionaries and their Whig sympathisers and Napoleon were other favourite targets.

The Tories were happy enough to see him lampooning their opponents. In 1798, a peer named Lord Bateman wrote to him to say: "The Opposition are as low as we can wish them. You have been of infinite service in lowering them, and making them ridiculous." They were less happy when he started caricaturing William Pitt, who tried unsuccessfully to buy him off by offering him an annual pension of £200.

Gillray had a difficult boyhood. His father was a soldier, who lost an arm fighting the French, and was an inmate of Chelsea hospital, where Gillray was born in 1756. As a five-year-old, he was sent to a boarding school run by a strict Protestant sect, the Moravian Brothers, who taught that human life was depraved and death was a release from worldly wickedness. That may help explain the sardonic view he took of life.

He was trained as an engraver, but was bored by the work, and had drifted around achieving very little until, in his 40s, he started displaying his drawings in a shop window in the Strand, drawing curious crowds. The shop belonged to a woman named Hannah Humphrey, a publisher with a shrewd business sense. They lived under the same roof and it is said that he frequently thought of marrying her, though he never did.

Nearly 30 years after his death in 1815, a Victorian publisher named Henry Bohn, bought his plates and reissued his drawings as single prints and in bound volumes. Unfortunately for Mr Bohn, censorship had tightened since the turn of the century and one album of "Curiosa" got him into trouble.

Having been lost for so long, it has now been turned over to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which already has a collection of 500 Gillray cartoons, acquired in 1869. Stephen Calloway, curator of prints in the word and image department at the V&A, said: "We are delighted to receive this extraordinary volume of works by Gillray to complement our existing folio, acquired 140 years ago. This is a significant and exciting find and we're pleased that the public will now have the opportunity to view both together in our Prints and Drawings Study Room."

What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.

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