His father, a native of Lanark, had served as a soldier, losing an arm at Fontenoy, and was admitted first as an inmate, and afterwards as an outdoor pensioner, at Chelsea hospital. Gillray commenced life by learning letter-engraving, in which he soon became an adept. This employment, however, proving irksome', he wandered about for a time with a conmany of strolling players. After a very checkered experience he returned to London, and was admitted a student in the Royal Academy, supporting himself by engraving, and probably issuing a considerable number of caricatures under fictitious names. Hogarth's works were the delight and study of his early years. "Paddy on Horseback," which appeared in 1779, is the first caricature which is certainly his. Two caricatures on Rodney's naval victory, issued in 1782, were among the first of the memorable series of his political sketches.
The name of Gillray's publisher and printseller, Miss Hannah Humphrey--whose shop was first at 227 Strand, then in New Bond Street, then in Old Bond Street, and finally in St James's Street--is inextricably associated with that of the caricaturist. Gillray lived with Miss (often called Mrs) Humphrey during all the period of his fame. It is believed that he several times thought of marrying her, and that on one occasion the pair were on their way to the church, when Gillray said: "This is a foolish affair, methinks, Miss Humphrey. We live very comfortably together; we had better let well alone." There is no evidence, however, to support the stories which scandalmongers invented about their relations. Gillray's plates were exposed in Humphrey's shop window, where eager crowds examined them. One of his later prints, "Very Slippy Weather" shows Miss Humphrey's shop in St. James's Street in the background. In the shop window a number of Gillray's previously published prints, such as "Tiddy-Doll the Great French Gingerbread Maker, Drawing Out a New Batch of Kings; His Man, Talley Mixing up the Dough," a wonderful satire on Napoleon's king-making proclivities, are shown in the shop window.
A number of his most trenchant satires are directed against George III, who, after examining some of Gillray's sketches, said, with characteristic ignorance and blindness to merit, "I don't understand these caricatures." Gillray revenged himself for this utterance by his splendid caricature entitled, "A Connoisseur Examining a Cooper," which he is doing by means of a candle on a "save-all"; so that the sketch satirizes at once the king's pretensions to knowledge of art and his miserly habits.
The excesses of the French Revolution made Gillray conservative; and he issued caricature after caricature, ridiculing the French and Napoleon, and glorifying John Bull, He is not, however, to be thought of as a keen political adherent of either the Whig or the Tory party; he dealt his blows pretty freely all round. His last work, from a design by Bunbury, is entitled "Interior of a Barber's Shop in Assize Time," and is dated 1811. While he was engaged on it he became mad, although he had occasional intervals of sanity, which he employed on his last work. The approach of madness must have been hastened by his intemperate habits. Gillray died on the 1st of June 1815, and was buried in St James's churchyard, Piccadilly.
The times in which Gillray lived were peculiarly favourable to the growth of a great school of caricature. Party warfare was carried on with great vigour and not a little bitterness; and personalities were freely indulged in on both sides. Gillray's incomparable wit and humour, knowledge of life, fertility of resource, keen sense of the ludicrous, and beauty of execution, at once gave him the first place among caricaturists. He is honourably distinguished in the history of caricature by the fact that his sketches are real works of art. The ideas embodied in some of them are sublime and poetically magnificent in their intensity of meaning; while the coarseness by which others are disfigured is to be explained by the general freedom of treatment common in all intellectual departments in the 18th century. The historical value of Gillray's work has been recognized by accurate students of history. As has been well remarked: "Lord Stanhope has turned Gillray to account as a veracious reporter of speeches, as well as a suggestive illustrator of events."
His contemporary political influence is borne witness to in a letter from Lord Bateman, dated November 3, 1798. "The Opposition," he writes to Gillray, "are as low as we can wish them. You have been of infinite service in lowering them, and making them ridiculous." Gillray's extraordinary industry may be inferred from the fact that nearly 1000 caricatures have been attributed to him; while some consider him the author of 1600 or 1700. He is invaluable to the student of English manners as well as to the political student. He attacks the social follies of the time with scathing satire; and nothing escapes his notice, not even a trifling change of fashion in dress. The great tact Gillray displays in hitting on the ludicrous side of any subject is only equalled by the exquisite finish of his sketches--the finest of which reach an epic grandeur and Miltonicic sublimity of conception.
Gillray's caricatures are divided into two classes, the political series and the social. The political caricatures form really the best history extant of the latter part of the reign of George III. They were circulated not only over Britain but throughout Europe, and exerted a powerful influence. In this series, George III, the queen, the prince of Wales, Fox, Pitt, Burke and Napoleon are the most prominent figures. In 1788 appeared two fine caricatures by Gillray. "Blood on Thunder fording the Red Sea" represents Lord Thurlow carrying Warren Hastings through a sea of gore: Hastings looks very comfortable, and is carrying two large bags of money. "Market-Day " pictures the ministerialists of the time as horned cattle for sale.
Among Gillray's best satires on the king are: "Farmer George and his Wife," two companion plates, in one of which the king is toasting muffins for breakfast, and in the other the queen is frying sprats; "The Anti-Saccharites," where the royal pair propose to dispense with sugar, to the great horror of the family; "A Connoisseur Examining a Cooper"; "Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal"; "Royal Affability"; "A Lesson in Apple Dumplings"; and "The Pigs Possessed." Among his other political caricatures may be mentioned: "Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis," a picture in which Pitt, so often Gillray's butt, figures in a favourable light; "The Bridal Night"; "The Apotheosis of Hoche," which concentrates the excesses of the French Revolution in one view; "The Nursery with Britannia reposing in Peace"; "The First Kiss these Ten Years" (1803), another satire on the peace, which is said to have greatly amused Napoleon; "The Handwriting upon the Wall"; "The Confederated Coalition," a fling at the coalition which superseded the Addington ministry; "Uncorking Old Sherry"; "The Plumb-Pudding in Danger"; "Making Decent," i.e. "Broad-bottomites getting into the Grand Costume"; "Comforts of a Bed of Roses"; "View of the Hustings in Covent Garden"; "Phaethon Alarmed"; and "Pandora opening her Box."
The miscellaneous series of caricatures, although they have scarcely the historical importance of the political series, are more readily intelligible, and are even more amusing. Among the finest are: "Shakespeare Sacrificed"; "Flemish Characters" (two plates); "Twopenny Whist"; "Oh that this too solid flesh would melt"; "Sandwich Carrots"; "The Gout"; "Comfort to the Corns"; "Begone Dull Care"; "The Cow-Pock," which gives humorous expression to the popular dread of vaccination; "Dilletanti Theatricals"; and "Harmony before Matrimony" and "Matrimonial Harmonics"--two exceedingly good sketches in violent contrast to each other.
A selection of Gillray's works appeared in parts in 1818; but the first good edition was Thomas McLean's, which was published with a key, in 1830. A somewhat bitter attack, not only on Gillray's character, but even on his genius, appeared in the Athenaewm for October 1, 1831, which was successfully refuted by John Landseer in the Athenaeum a fortnight later. In 1851 Henry George Bohn put out an edition, from the original plates; in a handsome folio, the coarser sketches -- commonly known as the "Suppressed Plates" -- being published in a separate volume. For this edition Thomas Wright and RH Evans wrote a valuable commentary, which is a good history of the times embraced by the caricatures. The next edition, entitled The Works of James Gillray, the Caricaturist: with the Story of his Life and Times (Chatto & Windus, 1874), was the work of Thomas Wright, and, by its popular exposition and narrative, introduced Gillray to a very large circle formerly ignorant of him. ?This edition, which is complete in one volume, contains two portraits of Gillray, and upwards of 400 illustrations. Mr JJ Cartwright, in a letter to the Academy (Feb. 28, 1874), drew attention to the existence of a manuscript volume, in the British Museum, containing letters to and from Gillray, and other illustrative documents. The extracts he gave were used in a valuable article in the Quarterly Review for April 1874. See also the Academy for February 21 and May 16, 1874.
There is a good account of Gillray in Wright's History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art (1865).