The Work of James Gillray

English engraver and print maker James Gillray revolutionised political satire with his biting caricatures which reflected and guided the views of the people and revealed the darkest and seediest aspects of the ruling classes.  During his life time Gillray was feared and revered in equal measure both for his power to sway popular opinion and for his artistic virtuosity which still influences the methods of countless satirists today.  He was amongst the first caricaturists to exaggerate the facial features of his subjects, influenced by James Sayers.  His caricatures were recognisable and he maintained a likeness that ensured a direct and biting focus on those he scrutinised in grotesque detail.  After the fall of the Bastille in 1789, English public opinion became fervently anti-French, a sentiment Gillray shared and revelled in.     His most famous etchings focus on social satire featuring members of the royal family, anti-Napoleonic imagery and domestic politics which he would eventually abandon in favour of alternative subjects.  Some of his most trenchant and exhilaratingly aggressive work focused on George III.  During the French revolution Gillray took a broadly Conservative stance against the French and glorifying John Bull, a national personification of Britain as a whole.  He did, however focus his attentions on members of both sides of the political spectrum throughout his career.  The atmosphere in which Gillray lived and worked was highly conducive to political criticism, participation and experimentation in art.  The strong feeling, larger-that-life characters and bitter rivalry between passionate figures of the ruling classes, elected figure heads and members of the aristocracy made for fertile and inspiring material.     His keen sense of absurdity, immaculate artistic execution and talent for story telling manifested in some of the most poignant political commentary in British history and is still widely reffered to by virtue of it’s originality, artistry and historical record.  A prolific and industrious worker, Gillray had one thousand caricatures attributed to him by conservative estimations.  According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica “Gillray is as invaluable to the student of English manners as to the political student, attacking 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 Miltonic sublimity of conception.

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