On James Gillray, for The Guardian / by Rich Hobbs

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.