Europe in turmoil, revolution overseas, Britain embroiled in long expensive wars, MPs accused of improper use of public funds, the press obsessed with celebrity gossip, and a “broad-bottomed” Conservative and Liberal alliance. Not Britain in 2012, but Britain of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whose excesses were so memorably captured by the great English caricaturist, James Gillray (1756 – 1815).
Gillray is the genius of early popular satire in Britain. His public savaging of monarchy, politicians ‘polite society’ and church was unprecedented. Even today, when there are few no-go areas for the media, Gillray’s satire retains its ability to shock. He lived in an era that saw the loss of the American colonies, Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror in France, the period also encompassed the movement to abolish slavery, and a monarch who lost his sanity – as did Gillray later in life himself.
He has left us some of the most abiding images of power humiliated, including a gargantuan, decadent Prince of Wales, a pint-sized Napoleon with major anger-management issues, a frugal and absurd King George III, and an emaciated hyperactive school boy Prime Minister – William Pitt the Younger.
As a caricaturist Gillray is still perhaps unsurpassed. A brilliant draftsman, he could distort bodies for comic effect, but leave viewers convinced of their reality. He restaged the events of the week in mock-heroic epics, borrowing from Shakespeare, Homer, Milton and the Old Testament, or parodying the fashionable Baroque and Romantic painters of his day. His use of visual metaphor borders on the Surreal. A portly bishop rises in a hot air balloon (a recent invention). Members of the opposition appear as a vicious swarm of bees.
Although two centuries and their choice of medium separate them, Gillray shares with Mika Rottenberg a delight in comic excess and bodily exaggeration as a means of making serious political points.
The exhibition was selected from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exceptional collection.