Who would you prefer to have a drink with, Hogarth or Gillray? That may
sound like an insanely arcane question, but it’s one that I’ve discussed with
other cartoonists on several occasions.
Ours is a small profession, with an exaggerated reverence for its past masters,
mostly because we’re always stealing from them. And William Hogarth and
James Gillray are, without question, the greatest gods in our firmament. The
20th century cartoonist David Low, himself now firmly embedded in the
pantheon, was bang right when he described them, respectively, as the
grandfather and father of the political cartoon.
Things that we’d now call political cartoons - mocking allegorical pictorial
representations of public events - have been part of the political scene since
printing. But in the 1730s Hogarth took the form to new heights with his
"Modern Moral Tales" like "The Rake’s Progress" or "Marriage a la Mode".
And twenty years after Hogarth’s death, Gillray honed Hogarth’s universal
satirical vision (as a student at the Royal Academy schools the young Gillray
revered Hogarth’s work ) by focusing on what has remained the agenda of
political cartoonists ever since: responding to contemporary events in ways
that have far more in common with journalism than with what’s commonly
called "Art". And between them Hogarth and Gillray marked out either end of
the open sewer of satire that ran through the heart of the Enlightenment.
To a large extent we understand the 18th century through Hogarth and
Gillray’s eyes. From a world before photography, it’s Hogarth’s vision of
London that endures, with the savage slapstick of its greater and meaner
thoroughfares, its mincing rakes, syphilitic whores, gin-
sodden murderers, squashed cats and gallows. Likewise, at the tail end of the
century, if we have a visual awareness of Britain’s statesmen, it’s probably
Gillray’s versions of them, the freckly beanpole Pitt or the spherical Charles
James Fox, or Edmund Burke who was transformed by Gillray almost out of
recognition into a pointy, interfering nose and, thanks to his short-sightedness,
Irishness and rumoured Catholicism, spectacles and a biretta.
Parallel to that open sewer of satire in Georgian London were real open
sewers. A lot of the humour of 18th century satirists is coloured by the realities
of urban living, and the colour’s often brown. London was expanding
exponentially northwards and westwards, but it was still a city with no flush
toilets. No wonder, then, there’s a kind of faecal satirical trickledown, from
Swift’s scatology, via Hogarth, to Gillray and his contemporaries. In "The
French Invasion; - or - John Bull bombarding the Bum-Boats", published in
1793 under a pseudonym, Gillray anthropomorphised the map of England
into the body of George III, who’s shitting turds out of his arse (Portsmouth)
onto the French fleet. Likewise, "MIDAS, Transmuting all into PAPER",
published in 1797, shows Pitt vomitting bank notes and shitting money into
the Bank of England.
This earthiness - "Hogarthian" earthiness defines it perfectly - didn’t
necessarily age well. Swift’s dark last book of Gulliver’s Travels, which his
contemporaries "got" with no trouble at all, led the Victorians to dismiss him
as an insane misanthrope. Gillray has suffered a similar fate, but they had
stronger stomachs back then. They had to just to be able to walk down the
street, and not just because of the shit in the gutters, but also because of the
likelihood that round the next corner another child was being publicly
executed for stealing a bun. That said, it’s the rawness of their filthiness that
makes Gillray and Hogarth far more approachable than many of their
Which gets us to the heart of the beast, and why Gillray in particular still
matters. Personally, I believe Satire is a survival mechanism to stop us all
going mad at the horror and injustice of it all by laughing instead of weeping.
More simply put, Satire serves to remind those who’ve placed themselves
above us that they, like us, shit and they, too, will die. That’s why, if we can,
we laugh at both those things, as well as being disgusted and terrified by them.
But beneath the veil of humour, there’s always a deep, disturbing darkness.
And that’s why, for my money, Gillray’s greatest print was the one he
produced after the Battle of Copenhagen, and which appeared at first sight to
be a simple piece of jingoist triumphalism: Jack Tar, the naval avatar of John
Bull, sits astride the globe, biffing Bonaparte and giving him a bloody nose.
The caption, though, gives Gillray’s game away. It’s called "Fighting for the
That interplay between text and image, of irony and nuance ceaselessly
undercutting each other, is a textbook example of how a political cartoon
should work, which is why Gillray remains great. He also matters because he
can lay claim to having produced the greatest political cartoon ever in "The
Plum Pudding In Danger", which is almost the type specimen of the medium.
That’s why it’s been pastiched again and again by the rest of us.
In it, Pitt and Bonaparte carve up the World between them in a visual allegory
for geopolitical struggle that’s never been bettered. It is, of course, just
possible to imagine this being done straight: to conceive of a "serious" artist
depicting noble statesmen earnestly if allegorically carving up a plum pudding
and making the same point as Gillray but with considerably more gravitas. But
that hypothetical painting (I imagine it being about 40 foot wide and
occupying a whole room in a Palace) would have stunk. The power in "The
Plum Pudding..." lies entirely in its capacity to make us laugh, which arises
from the way Gillray portrays the two great statesmen: Pitt, lanky and crafty;
Bonaparte, short and manic. (In exile on Elba Napoleon said Gillray’s
depictions of him did him more damage than a dozen generals.) But then
there’s the Plum Pudding itself: there’s something deeply preposterous about
reducing the titanic struggle for global hegemony to a fight over a pudding.
After all food, like shit, is for some reason always funny. But then we might
start reflecting about the deeper, defining absurdity of two men, already
defined as looking ridiculous, being ridiculous enough to imagine that
between them they could eat the whole world and everyone in it. The bathos
thus melts inexorably into pathos. That’s what a great political cartoon can do.
So, to get back to that imaginary drink: Hogarth or Gillray? When we’ve
argued over this in the past, we’ve always ended up opting for Hogarth.
Gillray was, without question, a genius, but he was also a miserable sod, a
quality not uncommon among cartoonists. He died mad as a consequence of
his alcoholism, which got worse when his eyesight started failing. It’s possible
he killed himself, following an earlier attempt to throw himself out of the
window of the room he occupied above Hannah Humphrey’s Print Shop in St
James’, where the Economist Building now stands. His friends described him
as "hypy", neurotically obsessed with his own ill health, while he grew up in
the Moravian Church, which viewed our earthly existence as a hideous burden
to endure before we’re released into eternal life after death, a journey already
undertaken by many of Gillray’s siblings in infancy.
Add those factors to a career spent staring into the abyss of reality at its worse
before working his alchemy to transmute horror into laughter, and it’s no
wonder, like the cartoonists Vicky or Phil May (among many others), he either
topped himself or drank himself to death.
He’s been accused of worse things. A former comment editor on this
newspaper, when I was justifying the number of words I’d used in a cartoon
by citing the example of Gillray, dismissed my argument with the words
"Gillray was a Tory". He certainly took a pension from Pitt’s Government and
produced some embarrassingly propagandist stuff for Canning’s "Anti-
Jacobin", though in mitigation we should consider "Light Expelling
Darkness", showing an heroic Pitt as Apollo (April 1795) against "Presages of
the Millenium [stet]", where Pitt is depicted ridiculously as Death on a Pale
Horse, published two months later, not forgetting Gillray’s famous 1791 print
of Pitt as an "Excrescence; a Fungus; - alias - a Toadstool upon a Dunghill",
growing out of the British Crown.
But Gillray even gets damned for his even-handedness. Next weekend, the
Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is hosting a seminar titled "Gillray:
Caricaturist Without a Conscience?". The flier for the event accuses him of
being "an unreliable gun for hire" and having "no moral compass". It also
repeats the story about Gillray proposing a toast to the French Revolutionary
painter David at a public dinner, implying he then betrayed his revolutionary
fervour by his prints attacking the Jacobins (like the wonderfully overwrought
"Apotheosis of Hoche"). Well, maybe, though I’ve always thought what
Gillray was guilty of there was that most indigestible of things for an
historian: he was joking.
And I’m compelled as an act of professional solidarity to say give him a
break. Cartoonists aren’t romantic heroes. For the most part we’re just hacks
trying to make a living by providing our readers an opportunity for a bit of
giggle. Occasionally something horrific happens like the Charlie Hebdo
murders, alongside all the other cartoonists that governments around the world
imprison and murder. But whatever the response, we’re still cartoonists, not
Not that Gillray didn’t have similar if less deadly encounters with the objects
of his scorn. "The Presentation - or - The Wise Men’s Offering", depicting the
Whig Opposition led by Fox and Sheridan kissing the bottom of the Prince
Regent’s newly born daughter Princess Charlotte, got Gillray arraigned on a
charge of blasphemy. This, remember, was when booksellers risked being
transported to Australia if they stocked Thomas Paine’s "The Rights of Man".
In addition to these travails, Gillray had also been courted for months by the
ambitious young Tory MP George Canning to be included in one of Gillray’s
prints. This in itself demonstrates Gillray’s significance, confirming the
perpetual truth that the one thing politicians hate more than being in a cartoon
is not being important enough to be in one. As things turned out, Canning got
Gillray off, and got him his government pension into the bargain.
But it’s how Gillray repaid his saviour that, for cartoonists at least, means we
will revere him forever. In one of his finest, maddest prints, "Promis’d Horrors
of the French Invasion" a sans-culotte army of Jacbins march down Pall Mall
as the gutters run with blood, Fox flogs Pitt, and ministers and princes are
beheaded and defenestrated. Some have dismissed the print as alarmist Tory
propaganda, though to me it looks more like one of Hogarth’s joyously dark
carnivalesque scenes at Tyburn. Either way, just visible in the background,
hanging from a lamp-post and represented in the most demeaning fashion, is
Canning. Just perfect.