The Gillrays that were too rude for the Victorians

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor