Archive Collection JG - Gillray Prints

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Reference code



Gillray Prints


  • 1851 (Creation)

Level of description

Archive Collection

Extent and medium

1 linear metre

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Name of creator


Biographical history

James Gillray was born in Chelsea, Middlesex, on 13th August 1756. Due to the extreme Protestantism of his parents, Gillray was sent to the Moravian School of Bedford in 1762 (aged 5 ½), but returned home in 1764 for financial reasons. These circumstances also prevented Gillray from taking an expensive apprenticeship with a well-known artist, a route taken by many of his contemporaries. He was instead apprenticed to one Harry Ashby, a lettering engraver based in Holborn, London, who produced trade cards, stationery, and maps, and who introduced Gillray to the penmanship and engraving techniques characteristic of his later works. In 1778, Gillray was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in London, where he studied under Francesco Bartolozzi, the Italian master of the stipple or ‘dot’ method. Gillray’s early work oscillated between the types of satire he would later become known for, and more conventional illustrations. He provided two stipple engravings for Fieldings’ The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, (1780), and a pair for Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1784). Indeed, from 1783, Gillray distanced himself from satire in an attempt to gain recognition as a reproductive engraver, a well-paid and recognized profession in Georgian London.

Gillray ‘returned’ to satire only a few years later and soon emerged as London’s premier caricaturist. The four decades spanned by his adult life, from the American Revolution to the Battle of Waterloo, offered a wealth of potential subjects- a circumstance which accounts in part for this period’s description as the ‘golden age’ of English political satire. France was gripped by Revolution from 1789 and was led by Napoleon into two decades of war on the continent. Domestic politics were characterized by the rancour of party-division. Opposing political leaders such as the Tory William Pitt and Whig Charles James Fox were gifted and forthright, but more importantly for Gillray, held a memorable presence and easily caricatured habits. Whilst some of Gillray’s works required an immediate knowledge of the political scene, however, his concern was not solely to provide comment on social justice or rectitude. Private customers for his prints wanted amusement and something artistic which could be kept in portfolios or displayed on the walls of their houses. Taverns, coffee houses, and barber-shops also put them on display, and wanted humour and interest. Gillray’s name is frequently accompanied by that of Mrs Hannah Humphrey, a print-seller. Having sold Gillray’s prints intermittently from 1779, she went on to be the exclusive seller of his prints from 1791. Indeed, Gillray lodged at Humphrey’s shop from 1793, although little is known regarding the exact nature of their relationship.

From 1797, Gillray provided sympathetic for the weekly magazine The Anti-Jacobin, a project of future Tory Prime-Minister George Canning, aimed at ridiculing the political Opposition and boosting the war effort during the Napoleonic Wars. The two men worked well together. Canning required the propaganda provided by Gillray to unsettle and ridicule his political opponents, while from Canning, Gillray obtained valuable information and ideas. With the decline of Lord Grenville’s ‘ministry of all the talents’ in 1807, following closely the death of two of his great subjects, Fox and Pitt, in 1806, Gillray’s enthusiasm waned. Indeed, many of Gillray’s later works turned back towards social and moral satire rather than depicting the high drama of English politics. Gillray continued providing prints right up to his death in 1815, although the last four years of his life were complicated by occasional bouts of insanity.

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Scope and content

Consists of 42 prints made from James Gillray's original engravings and documents relating to Newcastle University's acquisition of the prints.

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Language of material

  • English

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Digital copies of the items in this collection can be viewed on CollectionsCaptured:

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