Saturday, 28 November 2015

The anger in the ink.

This blog seems to have generated a little theme about art, artists and the mentally unbalanced, although it wasn't planned, similar subjects keep presenting themselves and so I duly take up the challenge.  Although I believe most artists are sane, they often are the least interesting in themselves, and as we as a species have an unquenchable taste for drama, those who behave strangely while being artistic geniuses are always going to catch our attention.  While the rest plod away at their work (even those we account as geniuses) and live very ordinary lives, the slightest strangeness makes them seem a bit more interesting and glamorous.  Those that are touched by the bizarre really stand out.

James Gillray was just such a one, a man who must have had some inner anger that had to have some outlet and which he sometimes unleashed onto the subjects of his political caricatures.  He was prolific, and did all sorts of subjects, often commenting on the outlandish garments and fashions adopted by his contemporaries which are funny and grotesque, but he kept his real venom for politicians, the French and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The history of the period is complex and detailed, just as the politics of our own age is difficult to follow in all of its winding threads, but to see a Gillray cartoon is often to be confronted by a confusing image that at the same time is so intriguing, perplexing and of such a violent and challenging nature that we feel driven to discover what its about, to read the often  intricate and hard to read captions and try to gain some sense from it.  Not that it wouldn't have made perfect sense to his contemporaries, but today a deep knowledge of British and European politics of the late eighteenth century is required to understand it fully.
James Gillray (1756 - 1815  Tales of Wonder 1802.  Captioned 'This attempt to describe the effects of the sublime & wonderful, is dedicated to M. G. Lewis Esq MP.'  M.G Lewis was Matthew Lewis the author of the early Gothic horror success 'The Monk'.
For example, the man burning in flames at the top of the page is Charles James Fox.  He was the MP for Midhurst, West Sussex and the great rival of William Pitt, the First Lord of the Treasury or Prime Minister in today's language.  Fox was a great radical and member of the Liberal party, a supporter of the American and later the French revolutions and a hater of George lll.  In turn, he seems to have been hated and distrusted by James Gillray.  But Gillray seems to have had an almost innate dislike of politicians in general, a sometimes supporter of Pitt, a Conservative, he could turn on them in a moment and depict them in the basest of terms.

The top of page image is from a larger print entitled Doublures of Characters; - Or striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy -"If you would know mens hearts, look in their faces"  It is an anti-Jacobin cartoon published in November 1798 illustrating seven individuals, members of the Liberal party and all supposed or actual radical supporters of the French revolution and the downfall of King George.  That quote, "If you would know mens hearts. . ."  is from the writings of Johann Kasper Lavater, the man who started the pseudo science of Phisiognomy - the reading of the bumps on a persons head.  He believed that everything about a person could be construed from the shape of their skull and the form of their faces.

James Gillray (1756 - 1815)  Doublures of Characters; - Or striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy
The cartoon is actually quite mild by Gillrays standards, but encapsulates what he must privately have thought about almost all politicians.  It purports to display each mans 'inner soul' in a double portrait that stands behind them.  The print reads from left to right along the top and doesn't name them but with a little research they are  1) Charles James Fox as 'A patron of liberty or The Arch Fiend' :  2) Richard Brinsley Sheriden as 'A friend of his country or Judas betraying his master' :  3) The Duke of Norfolk as a Character of high birth or Silenus debauching:  4) Charles Tierney as 'A finished patriot or The lowest Spirit of Hell' :  5) Sir Francis Burdett as Arbitur Elegantiarium or Sixteen string Jack  6) Lord Derby as 'Strong sense or a baboon' : 7) The Duke of Bedford as 'A pillar of the state or a Newmarket jockey'.

Many of Gillrays cartoons go much much further than this in their attacks on the character and reputations of the politicians of the day, and the Royal Family also took the brunt of much of the flack.  He also hated the French revolutionaries over the channel and when the details of their excesses are examined I can understand that.  To him it must have seemed that animals had taken over the government of the country, rather as we would feel if Daesh had taken over the whole of Paris instead of limiting their activity to merely killing a number of the cities innocent people.  Gillrays reaction to the French revolution is one of great fear and anger, and probably reflects how his contemporaries truly felt; it shows itself in horrible scenes of revolutionaries devouring people, chewing on severed arms and eating eyeballs from a spoon.  He hammers home time and again the results of not doing enough to suppress those that tacitly supported the revolution.
James Gillray.  A famous cartoon Of William Pitt entitled 'An Excresence; A fungus; Alias - A Toadstool upon a Dunghill'.  1791

 In his later career the Conservative William Pitt hired Gillray to make a number of cartoons that showed him and his party in a good light, but this didn't last for long.  Gillray continually depicted Pitt in excessive even scatological terms and obviously liked to give his shot the widest possible field.  To come back to the beginning - I mentioned that this thread had a touch of madness, and sadly Gillray succumbed to ill health, depression brought about because of his failing eyesight, and eventually tried suicide by attempting to throw himself from a window.  He fell into a bewildered insanity while working on his last print in 1811, and was nursed by Miss Hannah Humphrey who had owned and successfully run the print shop where Gillray had lived for decades.  His work had made her rich, and she saw him right in the end.

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