Dave Brown: We've only just begun to value his genius

Cartoonist's view

Share
Related Topics

James Gillray is widely regarded as the father of the political cartoon, one of the first, and possibly the greatest exponent of a form of graphic satire which caricatured not only the mores and foibles of society but of specific individuals in a manner still familiar today.

His remarkable prints illuminated my school history books and were a way in to the world of George III and Napoleon, William Pitt and Charles James Fox but more importantly their wit and inventiveness and, let's face it, their vulgarity and gross exaggeration, enthused me.

In his time Gillray was influenced by, but was also an influence upon, such artists as Goya and David, yet a few years after his death his reputation had declined to the point where Henry Bohn (who republished the cartoons in this portfolio) could acquire his remaining prints and plates at auction for less than the reserve price.

Gillray's reputation as a satirist was revived some time ago but it is only recently that he has begun to be appreciated for the remarkable artist he was. He was an artist of truly outstanding visual inventiveness. Possibly Gillray's most famous creation, "The Plumb-pudding in Danger", has become the most pastiched cartoon ever; its conceit of the globe as dessert, carved in two by Pitt and Napoleon, is brilliant in its simplicity and has stood the test of time and continued re-interpretation.

That Gillray's art didn't find favour in the Victorian era is hardly surprising, although to blame this purely on prudishness is to oversimplify. Gillray's prints were on public display in Hannah Humphrey's Bond Street shop but his clientele would have been a select one of educated men from fashionable society.

Advances in printing in the 19th century meant political cartoons could appear in newspapers and periodicals, and this "democratisation" in part led to the medium becoming more respectful.

Indeed it was really only in the liberalising 1960s that political cartoonists, particularly Steadman and Scarfe, rediscovered their appetite for the gross exaggeration and robust vulgarity that Gillray indulged in. And today several of us still attempt to follow in his footsteps as we wade through the sordid details of new sleaze allegations and royal sex scandals, hoping a little of his spirit has stuck to our shoes.

Dave Brown is The Independent's political cartoonist

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape