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

Cartoonist's view

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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

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