James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire by Tim Clayton - review by Freya Johnston

Freya Johnston

Prince of Caricatura

James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire


Yale University Press 408pp £50

Children do not tend to feature prominently in the satirical works of the ‘Prince of Caricatura’, James Gillray. As someone professionally committed to excoriating the politicians and celebrities of his day, he was paid to train his eye on the grown-ups. One exception to this rule comes in A March to the Bank, a vast, elaborate print of 1787. It was published in the wake of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in London and reflects the city’s outrage at the subsequent military crackdown on public disorder. Gillray blends straight portraiture with lurid exaggeration in his etching: an absurdly dandified, impossibly skinny officer goosesteps over a mob of Londoners, who lie crushed and abandoned in various states of disarray. At the centre of the picture, with the officer’s foot daintily poised on her midriff, lies the grotesque, ungainly figure of a fishwife, still grasping a basket of eels, her hefty legs splayed wide open. A fragment of cloth barely covers her genitals. Next to her lies a baby boy, perhaps her son, who is naked from the waist down and spread-eagled on the edge of the pavement. An impassive-looking soldier has placed the tip of his boot squarely on the child’s face.

Gillray seems here to be alluding, as he often did, to his fellow artist William Hogarth, whose Gin Lane (1751) also displays in the foreground a dishevelled female figure with exposed breasts and a half-naked male baby crying and falling from her arms to the ground. In the case of Hogarth’s infant, the fall seems more than likely to prove fatal; in Gillray’s, it is hard to tell. At the very edge of the print, a wild-eyed man, perhaps the baby’s father, is grabbing the infant’s arm while trying with his other hand to push the soldier’s boot away, but his distorted, antic expression makes it difficult to be sure that this is a gesture of protection. There may be another reason for the child’s face to have been obscured by a soldier’s boot, though this is speculation on my part: Gillray was perhaps unsure of his ability to depict the very young. One early print of a boy, after Ozias Humphry, was published in 1781, but Gillray subsequently spoiled the plate, scoring the whole image through with lines in such a way as effectively to erase it (although, very strangely and, in Tim Clayton’s view, perhaps uniquely in this period, fans continued to buy copies of the image in its mutilated state). It is tempting, albeit again perhaps unwarranted, to relate the reluctance of Gillray to include children in his work to the fact that none of his siblings lived beyond the age of ten. He had no offspring of his own.

Two versions of A March to the Bank are included in Clayton’s wonderful new book. The first, uncensored one of 1787 was titillatingly advertised as ‘a curious treat to the Gentlemen of the Army’. Gillray, the son of a soldier who had lost an arm while serving in

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