Political and social caricatures from the reign of George III, including satires dealing with the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Includes numerous images of Britannia and John Bull and an early representation of a merry-go-round. Individuals portrayed include Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Lord North, Admiral Rodney, Tallyrand and John Horne Tooke.
Biographical/historical: The golden age of English caricature, extending from the late 1770s to the second decade of the nineteenth century, encompasses the life of its leading exponent, James Gillray (1756–1815), who contributed in no small measure to the eminence of the political, personal, and social satires of this period. Gillray subjected all the key political figures of his day, along with the King, Queen, Prince of Wales, and assorted aristocracy, to his exaggerations, elaborations, and confabulations and, in the process, transformed the then new genre of personal caricature into art. He was a draftsman and printmaker, whose firm grasp of the essentials of history painting, fashionable portraiture, and contemporary romantic and “gothic” art allowed him to burlesque those traditions, even as allusions to these sources enriched his satires. His images, interwoven with carefully worded titles and texts, reflect his familiarity not only with current events, issues, and scandals, but with ancient history, mythology, and contemporary and classical literature.
At a time when the press and parliamentary reporting encouraged an active awareness of current events and contemporary players, Gillray’s prints commented upon the historical, political, and social events of the day. However, his own politics, passions, and prejudices are often elusive. He seems to have had an underlying distrust of those in power (whether royalty or a reigning prime minister), lampooning what he perceived as corruption, injustice, and abuse of power in public life, and the foibles of society at large. He responded to the excesses of the French Revolution and the ensuing, ongoing war with France by aligning himself more or less with the King and the Tory party against the reformist and republican sympathies of the Whig party, and received a stipend from the Tory government for a time.
Though there was a wide audience for caricature throughout Britain and on the Continent, Gillray’s hand-colored etchings were priced for and primarily collected by an upper-class clientele (including the Prince of Wales). Londoners purchased satires or rented albums of caricatures, usually viewing his prints in the privacy of the library, where the images could be discreetly enjoyed.
Biographical/historical: Samuel J. Tilden (1814–1886), lawyer, New York governor, and unsuccessful (though popularly elected) candidate for the U.S. presidency, acquired and assembled a collection of Gillray prints and preparatory drawings from several major English collections. These materials – some 831 prints (nearly all of Gillray’s work), along with 156 original drawings and several letters – came to the Print Collection as part of a bequest from the Tilden Trust, one of the cornerstones (along with the Astor and Lenox libraries) of The New York Public Library.
Extent: <820> prints : etching, engraving, aquatint, some col. 53.4 x 68.2 cm. or smaller.