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James Gillray 1765-1815, the Genius of Satire


We have a wonderful satirical hand coloured print for sale by that master of satire and invective, James Gillray. In the eighteenth century two giants held sway in the field of satire, Hogarth and Gillray. Until recently Hogarth was recognized as the greater figure, but recently the position seems to have changed to Gillray, an extraordinary caricaturist and political satirist. He brilliantly made fun of the monarchy, especially George III and George IV and other leading political and well known figures.

Mrs. Fitzherbert

Our print, ‘Wife & no Wife – or – A Trip to the Continent’ is a brilliant ridicule of George, Prince of Wales’s ‘illegal’ marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert, a Catholic. Under the terms of the Act of Succession a member of the monarchy was not allowed to marry a Catholic. Mrs. Fitzherbert was a twice widowed Catholic lady who totally infatuated George, Prince of Wales. He finally persuaded her to marry him, but could not allow his father, King George III to know about it. He was quite a ne’er-do-well and had racked up enormous debts, so could not in any way take the risk of being disinherited.

Huge debts

The wedding was in effect a secret farce that many had heard about, but could not be certain. Gillray seized upon this chance to lampoon George and some of the leading men of the time. In the print the curate who officiates at the service was the Rev. John Burt, who had been languishing in the debtors’ prison. George paid off his debts of £500, an immense sum for the time. How on earth could a curate rack up such a huge debt, when one considers a teacher would earn little more than £18 a year? Edmund Burke in Jesuit’s priest’s clothes is conducting the service, another poke at the Catholic wedding. Mrs. Fitzherbert is being given away by James Fox the well known orator and politician in a long cloak, the suggestion being he was off to escape to the continent as soon as he could. The figure with bottles of wine in his pockets could be the well known drinker, Sheridan. Lord George North is slumped in a chair.


Caroline of Brunswick

All the characters were well known to contemporaries. Gillray signed the print as Carlo Khan, another dig at James Fox. Carlo Khan became Fox’s nickname when he tried to pass the India Reform Bill, which caused some very negative comments about his motives. Gillray’s contemporaries would have known this immediately. Fox had stated publicly that this wedding hadn’t taken place, which was extraordinary considering he had strongly opposed the match calling it a ‘very desperate step’. A lot of poking fun at Fox was involved in Whig Tory politics. Clearly something had been done to placate Fox. The wedding did not have a happy ending. George had managed to achieve the fantastic sum of £600,000 in debts, which would be many, many millions today. The only way he could overcome the problem was by marrying a woman chosen by parliament. So he was almost dragged very drunk to the altar to marry Caroline of Brunswick, whom George regarded as unattractive and unhygienic. She was not accustomed to washing herself or her clothes very often, but was very popular with the crowds. Needless to say that marriage was not made in heaven, especially as George had to give up Mrs. Fitzherbert.

Lonely death

Where is the Gillray or Hogarth of today? After a brief spurt of satire in the fifties with the Goons and John Cleese & co in the sixties, everything has become so tame with freedom of speech and jest being deeply eroded by some rather strange people. Students now require a quiet room to recover from hearing opinions they do not like or upset them. What on earth is the point of going to a university other than hearing many opinions and ideas that are totally contrary to one’s beliefs and ideals? Why can’t so many people laugh at themselves any more? Sadly there is a new weapon these days of tyranny, the internet, where some absolute failures incognito can persecute others with the keyboard. None of this is original, clever or very artistic compared to Gillray and Hogarth who still influence cartoonists today, alas in a much more muted way. We need a genius like Gillray to show up the feeble attitudes of today. Like so many comics, Gillray died a lonely drunkard. It is even thought he committed suicide.

‘Wife & no Wife – or – A Trip to the Continent’ features in our 9th July 2018 sale which can be viewed here. For more information, please contact Jonathan Riley of Grand Auctions.

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