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Friday 6 December 2002, 23:02 - 23:30

PROGRAMME 8: Steve Bell on James Gillray

Picture of the Prince of Wales by eighteenth century caricaturist James Gillray.James Gillray was one of the great caricaturists who livened up British political life at the end of the nineteenth century. Alongside the likes of Hogarth and Cruikshank, Gillray satirised the foibles of the rich and powerful at a time of great social upheaval.

Gillray was the son of a Scottish soldier (also called James) who had lost his right arm at the battle of Fontenoy. Invalided to the Chelsea Royal Hospital the elder James met and married Jane Coleman. She gave birth to the young James at the hospital on 13th August 1757, he was the only one of their five children to survive childhood.

James was educated at the Moravian Academy in Bedford (home to an austere religious sect) then apprenticed to an engraver in London (Harry Ashby) when still a child. Apparently he found the work boring and ran off to join a band of strolling players, although by 1775 he was back in London trying to sell his engravings to the London print shops.

After joining the Royal Academy (1778) he tried a career as a portrait painter, but, lacking commissions he was forced to rely on his satirical engravings for an income.

While holding radical views in his youth he turned his pen to the service of the Tories after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793. As Gillray himself admitted, the radicals, "are poor, they do not buy my prints and I must draw on the purses of the larger parties."

The targets of his comedy tended to be the darlings of the Whig faction - Prince George (the sometime Prince Regent), Charles Fox (the Whig leader) and Napoleon (who was seen as a liberator in his earlier days). From 1795 he worked for George Canning's Tory pamphlet The Anti-Jacobin, and from 1797 his work for the government was considered so effective they paid him a pension of £200 per year (a fortune for those days).

Since 1791 he worked exclusively for Hannah Humphrey, living above her shop in Old Bond Street. He moved with her when she relocated to New Bond Street and then St James's Street, fuelling speculation that the relationship was more than just commercial.

They stayed together when he began losing his eyesight in 1806, eventually producing his last print in 1809. His work over he descended into depression and alcoholism, Hannah nursed him through it, even when insanity overtook him following his farcical suicide attempt in 1811.

As The Examiner described, "On Wednesday afternoon Mr. Gillray the caricaturist who resides at Mrs Humphrey's, the caricature shop in St. James's Street, attempted to throw himself out of the attic story. There being iron bars his head got jammed and being perceived by one of the chairmen who attends at White's the unfortunate man was extricated."

He finally died in 1815.

Picture of Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell.Left-hander Steve Bell has been drawing If… in The Guardian for over 20 years. Before that he worked as a freelance cartoonist on a number of publications and as a teacher in Birmingham.

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