He was a withdrawn, silent and lonely man, greatly slandered in his lifetime, probably by his victims and their friends. He worked in such a fury of creative energy that even his acquaintances years before his breakdown, wondered if he might be part-demented. He was so popular that there were often queues at the print shop, above which he worked, waiting for his latest cartoons and caricatures. At once the most ferocious and most brilliant caricaturist of his time, Gillray had a genius for turning public figures into monsters that were yet recognizable, his wild exaggeration being itself a criticism of their personalities.*Born in 1757, James Gillray was educated at the cheerless and funless Moravian Academy in Bedford and later apprenticed to Harry Ashby, an engraver in the printer's district in London.
When qualified, he broke away from the engraving business and studied at the Royal Academy. He set up his own studio and intended to paint portraits but he was not patronised and eventually he had to return to the money-spinning business of engraving.
After experimenting with social subjects, such as the etching above, he started to do political satire and his popularity flourished. No-one was safe from his earlier work, neither politician nor royal prince.
He worked exclusively for Hannah Humphreys in Bond Street, and moved into the premises.
Towards the end of his career Gillray's primary target was Napoleon Bonaparte and as "Little Boney"s power and ambition increased so did Gillray's caricatures of him become ever more extreme.
He was eventually given a "pension" by the Tory government, after which his attacks concentrated less on the Tories, and more on the Whigs... Perhaps the Whigs should have given him a pension too...
When his eyesight began to fail, and he was no longer able to create the quality of work he had been used to do, he began to drink and sink into depression.
Sadly, in 1811, Gillray attempted suicide by throwing himself from the attic of Humphrey's shop, after which he was deemed insane. Hannah Humphreys tended to him until the day he died in June 1815.
* The Prince of Pleasure, J.B. Priestley.
James Gillray Online