With another General Election announced by British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday, my mind turned to politics and satire. It’s one of life’s best spectator sports for history lovers like me and a good political caricature or cartoon adds to the fun.

Theresa May is often portrayed as a long lanky woman with an enormous witch like nose and bags under her eyes – not very flattering but some how it’s accurate.

Being interested in all things late 18th century my mind naturally turned to James Gillray. As a writer of history and historical fiction set in the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries these satirical cartoons provide a snapshot of the age.

In satire the people in question are caricatured. The word comes from the Italian carico and caricare, meaning, to “load” and “to exaggerate.” Members of the 16th-century Carracci family in Bologna were the first to apply the terms to pen drawings of people with exaggerated features, noses, eyebrows, lips, or hair.

The art of political cartoonist and satirist is to pick out those features of a person that makes them instant recognisable and to sum up the political situation in a flash of inspiration that lays it bear. James Gillray had a gift for this type of art and left behind a treasure trove of political portraits that summed up an age.

Gillray, who was born in August 1756 was raised in a strict Protestant sect that stressed the depravity of mankind and saw death as a release from human failings. The religious beliefs he grew up in informed Gillray’s attitude to the political world of the late 18th century which was an age of big issues and big personalities, The Prince Regent, the main protagonists of the French Revolution and the parliamentary contest between Whig leader Charles James Fox and Pitt. These larger than life characters provided him with a rich seam for satire and material for 1,500 caricatures between 1786 and 1811 and established him as “the foremost living artist in his genre” at the time.

Gillray was apprenticed to a London writing engraver then honed his skills in the Royal Academy schools, though he resented the fact that engravers were denied membership of the academy. He began his working life in book illustration and engraving trade cards and moved into satire and caricature full-time in 1786. The Bridal Night is one of his early productions.

National Portrait Gallery: NPG D12613 1797

The Bridal Night print above, shows the grotesquely corpulent 6 ft 11 inch Prince of Würtemberg [3], conducting his new wife Charlotte, the Princess Royal and the eldest daughter of George III [4]  towards the bridal chamber led by her father King George III [1] in a farmer’s hat carrying a candlestick in each hand and her mother, the Queen [2], who is shown covered with jewels with her face hidden by a poke-bonnet. The queen carries a steaming bowl of ‘Posset’ (hot milk, egg, treacle and nutmeg) a celebratory nightcap for the newly weds.

On the back of the Prince’s coat are slung five ribbons from which dangle the jewels of orders; three garters encircle his leg; a star decorates the bag of his wig. The Princess gazes at him from behind her fan. Round her waist is the ribbon of an order, to which is attached a jewel containing a whole length miniature of her husband, which exaggerates his corpulence. Gillray exaggerates their girth to show just how indulgent and greedy they were. The common people who paid the taxes to keep the royals in their well fed splendour were not living off the fat of the land.

The Princess Royal and Queen of Württemberg

Behind the Princess is a group of princes: the Prince of Wales  in his regimentals [5], is fat and sulky. Prince William of Gloucester stands with splayed-out feet[6]. The Duke of Clarence [7] puts a hand on the right arm of the Prince of Wales. Behind is the more handsome head of the Duke of York [8]. Lord Salisbury, the Lord Chamberlain [9], stands with a staff and key holds open the door through which the King is about to pass. Pitt, on the outskirts of the procession [10], carries a sack inscribed ‘£80,000’ (the amount of the Princess’s dowry). On the wall is a large picture, inscribed ‘Le Triomphe de l’Amour’,depicted as an elephant with a little cupid sitting on his neck blowing a trumpet. Needless to say the marriage was not a great success. The pair had one still born child.


In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, one of the great London attractions was the ever-renewed spectacle of the new Gillray caricature in the window of his patron and employer Mrs Humphreys in Old Bond Street. For the main political actors of the day, it was a harrowing moment, even more so if they discovered they had been left out of the picture.

Hannah Humphrey, one of the leading London print sellers, whose shop window displayed his latest creations. Gillray had few material wants, and lived above Hannah Humphrey’s shop, fuelling speculation that they were lovers. He spent his days sketching potential subjects for his caricatures or in his workroom, etching the copper plates from which the prints were produced.

By 1807, Gillray’s eyesight was failing. Shortly after his last signed print appeared in 1809, he sank into depression and alcoholism. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt in 1811, he was cared for by Hannah Humphrey. Gillray died on 1 June 1815, having successfully established the legitimacy of caricature as a weapon of political propaganda.

George Cruikshank became the leading cartoonist in the period following Gillray (1820s–40s). His early career was renowned for his social caricatures of English life for popular publications. He gained notoriety with his political prints that attacked the royal family and leading politicians and was bribed in 1820 “not to caricature His Majesty” (George IV) “in any immoral situation”. His work included a personification of England named John Bull who was developed from about 1790 in conjunction with Gillray, and Thomas Rowlandson.

This very English tradition continues today with artists such as Steve Bell in the Guardian, MATT and Nicholas Garland ( Boris Johnson has commissioned political cartoonist Nicholas Garland, his former colleague at the Daily Telegraph and Spectator magazine, to provide a graphic record of the Games) and Peter Brookes in The Times.

Julia Herdman is a novelist. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1 is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and on Kindle

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