Those who admire and wish to propagate the bourgeois virtues—prudence, thrift, industry, honesty, moderation, politeness, self-restraint, and so forth—are sometimes haunted by an uncomfortable question: how would the world be if, as is not very likely, everyone were to adopt these virtues as his own? Would not the world be a duller (though of course a much better ordered) place—a kind of giant Lucerne or Vevey? It is surely not a coincidence that the iconography of hell is so much more vivid and interesting than that of heaven, a location that induces a deadly boredom even as one strains to imagine what its attractions might be. Vice is like suffering: each individual instance of it is regrettable, but what sensible person would wish to eliminate it altogether? Indeed, life without the possibility of vice, and therefore without its actual practice, would be deprived of all moral meaning. And once the world is made virtuous, will there be no more cakes and ale?

The problem of upholding virtue and denouncing vice without appearing priggish, killjoy, bigoted, and narrow-minded has become so acute that intellectuals are now inclined either to deny that there is a distinction between the two or to invert their value. There is no higher word of praise in an art critic’s vocabulary, for example, than “transgressive,” as if transgression were in itself good, regardless of what is being transgressed. Likewise, to break a taboo is to be a hero, irrespective of the content of the taboo. Who is more contemned than he who clings stubbornly to old moral insights?

A recent magnificent exhibition of the work of the great British caricaturist James Gillray (1756–1815) at the Tate Gallery in London demonstrates that the criticism of morals and manners was not always associated in Britain with puritanism, bigotry, and small-mindedness but on the contrary was once vigorous, joyful, and uproariously funny. Few of the spectators at the exhibition laughed, however: an art gallery being a temple of culture, the nearest thing a modern city has to a functioning cathedral, it would have been sacrilege to have smiled, let alone to have emitted a sound indicating amusement. I noticed the same strenuously poker-faced deportment at the exhibition of the work of Honoré Daumier in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris shortly before, a deportment that, in the light of the wonderfully funny material, can only be described as heroic.

As soon as you entered the Tate’s rooms whose walls were covered with Gillray’s astonishing output of work, you realized—however much you thought you already knew about Gillray—that he did not so much depict or satirize as create and people a world. It is the same kind of achievement as Dickens’s, fecund, imaginative, and throbbing with life. Gillray’s work, like that of Dickens, uplifts even as it pours scorn on what it criticizes or derides. It is the expression of an uninhibited and fearless freedom of spirit such as one rarely encounters anywhere today and that is possible only in a free society that contests neither individuality nor individualism. You left the exhibition thinking not that human weakness, folly, and vice were any the less weakness, folly, and vice—on the contrary, you left with a heightened awareness of them all around you—but that life is a rich and splendid experience, if only you viewed it aright. You can have both fun and a moral standpoint: they are not mutually exclusive.

Gillray, like Swift before him and Dickens after him, saw everything through a lens that clarified even as it distorted. It highlighted and distilled the salient moral characteristics of everyone and everything upon whom and upon which he turned it, and left the inessential out. This way of seeing is a mark (not the mark, of course) of original genius. It became second nature to Gillray, just as it was to Dickens, who, answering the accusation that his characters were mere caricatures, wrote in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewit that what were caricatures to his critics were to him straightforward representations of people who were easily to be found by those with eyes to see and ears to hear: the fault was not in his writing but in his critics’ restricted and unimaginative powers of perception.

Remarkably little is known about Gillray’s life, considering that his work was so celebrated in his own lifetime. He was born in humble circumstances to a father who had lost an arm as a dragoon at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745—a fact that might explain why one of the only unequivocal expressions of pity in Gillray’s generally pitiless oeuvre is for an ex-serviceman with two wooden legs and both arms amputated, who sits, unsuccessfully imploring alms, at the bottom left-hand corner of the print “A New Way to Pay the National Debt” (page 102), in which George III emerges from the Treasury with bags of gold, while being offered yet more by the prime minister, William Pitt, who has already filled his own pockets with gold.

After his enforced retirement from the army, Gillray’s father became a sexton for the Moravians, a fundamentalist Christian sect of Bohemian origin. The Moravians were such puritanical naysayers that, when ill, they prayed for death rather than for recovery, to leave behind this irredeemably corrupt world for the purity of heaven. James’s eldest brother, John, begged when he was grievously ill at the age of seven to have his coffin brought near him. His dying words soon afterward were, “Pray don’t keep me. O let me go, I must go!” Such prayers were often answered in Georgian London: at the time of Gillray’s birth, half of all children in London died before the age of five, and he himself was the only one of his parents’ six children who survived into adulthood.

It is not unusual for the children of religious enthusiasts to reject the doctrines of their upbringing, though some emotional trace of them usually remains behind. In Gillray, the residue of the belief that human life on this earth is a negligible and despicable thing conflicted with an exuberant love of that life, the result being an evenhanded ridicule of the human race that combined considerable ferocity with profound affection.

For the rest, Gillray as a person remains enigmatic. He preferred the company of tradesmen in a tavern (the shopkeepers of Napoleon’s contemptuous remark) to that of the beau monde that he became so famous for depicting, and whose members he sketched in the street and in the Houses of Parliament. It is said that those who associated with him in taverns had no idea that he was so distinguished and famous a man: his modesty was unselfconscious, and the company of the tradesmen no doubt served to preserve the earthiness of his outlook and his ability to puncture pretension wherever he found it.

No doubt also the early loss of so many siblings taught him a certain detachment: and the only self-portrait of him, a miniature in the National Portrait Gallery, is curious in its grayness—literally the predominant color of the portrait—and its blandness (page 103). The only thing it tells us about him was that he was self-effacing, without easily definable personality traits, which makes it all the more likely that the graphic world he created, unequaled in its energy and vibrancy, full of immensely fat or preternaturally thin people, where vanity, greed, naïveté, duplicity, and chicanery rule, was what was most important to him: and that the theater of the world was of more significance to him than his own internal drama.

It is likely that there was considerable internal drama, however, for Gillray is never known to have had intimate relations with anyone. For most of his adult life he lived in Mrs. Humphreys’s house, above her print shop on St. James Street. She was his publisher and business partner, and though they lived amicably together, their relationship was probably not a sexual one (Mrs. Humphreys was a spinster considerably older than he). Gillray probably had a problem with sex: he inevitably portrays contact between the sexes as gross, ridiculous, or both. His scatological disgust is almost of Swiftian intensity. And when he designed a print publicizing the excesses of the French Revolution, he lingered a little too lovingly on the whipping of the nuns by the Jacobins. Indeed, whenever he portrays whipping (as in a print depicting what would happen if the French Revolution crossed the Channel, in which Prime Minister Pitt is tied bare-chested to a post and whipped by his radical opponent Charles James Fox), one detects in the artist a more than average attraction to the subject. And when finally Gillray lost control of his inner demons, when portrayal of the external world no longer sufficed to satisfy him, he went mad. He spent his last few years being looked after by Mrs. Humphreys, believing himself to be Rubens.

Gillray’s draughtsmanship was as elegant as his subject matter was inelegant (he received training at the recently established Royal Academy of Arts), and his composition was sure: he worked at such a speed that he could afford no errors. He was master both of baroque detail and of classical simplicity, crowding some of his prints with so many contemporary allusions that it took many pages for the correspondent of the Prussian monthly journal, Paris und London, to explain them all to the readers. (Gillray was very popular in Prussia, where his prints were often reproduced, and his uninhibited commentary on the political and social affairs of his time aroused both wonder and envy, raising the subversive question in militarized Prussia of how a society that permitted such commentary not only failed to fall apart immediately but actually flourished.) Despite the fact that his formal schooling lasted only a few years at most, Gillray frequently used quotations from Milton and Shakespeare, quotations that the Prussian commentator claimed that “every Englishman knows,” thus implying the existence of a culture that was both widely diffused and of high quality. And certainly, Gillray imbued whatever he drew with a sophisticated and subtle outlook on life such as a deep acquaintance with literature is likely to confer.

For example, one of his most famous (and simplest) prints, a masterpiece of emblematic distillation, was called “Fashionable Contrasts, or the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot” (opposite). Two delicate little female feet in dainty, jewel-encrusted leather slippers pointing sideways are separated by two enormous male feet in buckled shoes, face downward on the bed. The sexual act has never been more suggestively portrayed (and Gillray’s disgust is made evident by the physical inequality of the couple, suggesting violation rather than consent).

This elegantly drawn print is a devastating satire on the obsequious public commentary that followed the marriage of George III’s second son, the Duke of York, to Frederica, a short and plain Prussian princess. In the attempt to find something flattering to say about her, the press widely remarked upon the smallness and delicacy of her feet and the beauty of her footwear. A writer in the Morning Post wrote that a foreigner might suppose from this commentary that most British newspapers were “conducted by shoe-makers . . . so much have they said about the Duchess of York’s slipper.”

It was Gillray’s print that put paid once and for all to this ridiculous and fulsome praise. Gillray was implicitly arguing against flattery and in favor of sincerity, without embracing the brutal and dehumanizing notion that every truth must be told. Showing a certain delicacy of feeling, he did not intend his print to wound the princess—whose plainness and public prominence were neither her own fault nor her own desire—but rather the lickspittles who had made themselves ridiculous in praising her. No one could have done a better job of criticizing the flatterers without insulting the flattered.

Gillray appealed, of course, to public opinion and was a pioneer in doing so: for he knew that his exposure of abuses and follies (and not merely political ones) would help, if not to end, then to limit them. Public criticism was thus essential to public progress, and Gillray knew its power. He had, for example, more or less single-handedly ruined the career of Benjamin Perkins, an American quack who had settled in London, by publishing a hilarious print of Perkins applying his “metallic tractors” to the rubicund nose of an obvious tippler. On the table next to the credulous patient (thoroughly “electrified” by the metal prongs that Perkins points at him) is a newspaper with an advertisement for the Perkinsian method: “a certain Cure for all

Disorders, Red Noses, Gouty Toes, Windy Bowels, Broken Legs, Hump Backs.” There is no better preserver of common sense than ridicule, and no one who had once seen Gillray’s print could continue to credit Perkins’s false promises of a panacea. Like all the other caricaturists of the age, Gillray exhibited a great interest in medicine, and his print of the gout—the Georgian disease par excellence—as a little blue devil sinking its sharp fangs into the inflamed joint of the sufferer’s big toe is the sharpest pictorial representation of a disease ever drawn (page 105).

But it is for his political caricature that Gillray is most remembered, and it is doubtful whether he has ever been surpassed in this field, of which he was one of the first practitioners. George Orwell once said that he wanted to turn political writing into an art: Gillray had done that for political caricature a century and a half earlier.

Gillray’s sincerity and integrity have sometimes been questioned, since for a number of years he took a grant from the government, and he also remarked that he had gone over to the government side because the opposition had no money to pay him or to buy his prints. At a distance of two centuries, however, it would not be altogether easy for the uninformed to distinguish the politicians whom he supported from those whom he attacked, and certainly his caricatures of the prime minister, his sometime paymaster, were never flattering: Pitt always appeared in the prints as gangling, awkward, cold, not altogether honest, and perpetually taken by surprise. Only Napoleon, whom Gillray depicts as Little Boney, a grandiose Lilliputian, appears more physically ridiculous.

Gillray’s political evolution was determined not so much by his personal financial interest as by the stupendous events of the era in which he lived: the French Revolution, the birth of ideological politics, the expansion of democracy, and the dawn of romanticism. He began as a moderate admirer of the French Revolution but soon turned against it (well before he accepted government money) because of its evident excesses. As the struggle first with revolutionary and then with Napoleonic France grew ever more desperate, ever more like total war, so his attitude to George III relented. Originally depicting the king as contemptibly hypocritical and miserly—in refusing, for example, to put sugar in his tea, ostensibly out of sympathy for the poor slaves on the West Indian plantations but really for reasons of economy, to save a trifling sum of money (page 106)—Gillray became more indulgent, seeing him as the symbol of British national resistance to the universalizing pretensions of Napoleonic France. Gillray was a patriot, who defended as vigorously as any pen has ever done the freedom of his country without ever losing sight of the defects of its inhabitants.

In remaining staunchly patriotic while retaining a clear-eyed and humorously critical view of his own society, Gillray performed a feat that was to prove beyond the majority of intellectuals during a later titanic struggle, the cold war. Gillray never lost sight of the greater and lesser evils: though the Britain of his day was corrupt, ridden with snobbery and other vices that he had no hesitation in exposing and lampooning, he did not conclude that there was nothing to choose between it and French revolutionary excess or Napoleonic domination of the world. The choice for Gillray, as for all persons of good sense, was never between perfection and hell on earth, but always between better and worse. He chose the better without believing it was the best possible, and he would never have believed that the time would come when the services of critics such as himself were redundant.

What were the values Gillray cherished? Despite the almost hallucinatory, chaotic pullulation of so many of his prints, he believed in a constitutional order that reduces, if it does not eliminate entirely, the exercise of arbitrary power, and that rests upon equality before the law. In “A March to the Bank,” he mocks the arrogance of those who believe themselves to be unaccountable, and who therefore think they have the right to trample roughshod (in this case, quite literally) over the lesser fry by whom they are surrounded (page 107). Here we see a brigade of the militia that marched every day to guard the Bank of England after the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, led by a self-important and preposterous popinjay officer goose-stepping with narcissistic satisfaction over the sprawled bodies of the common people in the street, convinced of his own warrant to behave as he likes. Gillray so lovingly renders the popinjay, and we laugh so deeply at his pretensions, that the savagery of the social criticism, though devastating, is somewhat mitigated. In making such arrogance ridiculous as well as bad, Gillray helps to keep the guillotine at bay. His criticism, while fierce, is good-humored and measured.

For Gillray, the essential difference between the Britain of his day and post-revolutionary and Napoleonic France was that between a nation of self-directed free men, pursuing their own interests under a law that permitted what it did not forbid, and a nation of servitors, living under a law that forbade what it did not require. Among the freedoms that Gillray extolled was that of commerce, the freedom of Napoleon’s despised shopkeepers, whom Gillray knew well and counted as his friends. It is therefore no coincidence that his archetypal common Englishman, John Bull, is fat and robustly prosperous, more inclined to labor under “the horror of digestion” (to quote the title of one of Gillray’s unflattering depictions of the disreputable prince regent, later George IV) than under the rigors of starvation, unlike his French counterpart, who, lacking John Bull’s commercial freedom, is always thin, ragged, and sickly.

But Gillray is not insensible to the ironies of human existence, and if he is patriotically attached to the values that he believes make his country the superior of its enemies, he is certainly no xenophobe. Very occasionally, indeed, he gives in to the temptations of moral equivalence: for example, in one of the most famous political cartoons ever published, “The Plumb-Pudding in Danger—or State Epicures Taking un petit souper,” he shows Prime Minister Pitt sitting at a table with Napoleon, carving a world in the form of a plum pudding into slices with their swords, Pitt taking the ocean, and Napoleon Europe, without the faintest indication of any moral difference between them.

Even when he contrasts the fortunate state of John Bull with that of the French commoner, Gillray introduces a note of irony. John Bull is never an attractive figure for Gillray. In one print, entitled “French Liberty, British Slavery,” for example, he shows a bald John Bull so fat that he bursts at the seams—the very epitome of today’s British football hooligan—preparing to overeat from a huge roast beef, declaiming: “Ah! this cursed Ministry! They’ll ruin us, with their damn’d Taxes—why, Zounds! They’re making Slaves of us all, & Starving us to Death!” Opposite him is his French counterpart, thin and in rags, sitting on a stool before a wretched fire in a dilapidated room, gnawing hungrily on scallions, saying: “O! Sacre Dieu! Vat blessing be de Liberté. Vive le Assemble!—no more Tax! No more Slavery!—all Free Citizen!—ha! hah!—by Gar, how ve live! Ve svim in de Milk and Honey!” (page 109).

In the absurd satisfaction of the Frenchman with his wretched lot, Gillray points to a new and powerful source of human self-delusion that was not to reach its apogee until more than a century later and that is still with us: political ideology. Political abstractions, he realized, can disguise or change the meaning of the most elementary realities. Meanwhile, John Bull indulges in the natural human propensity to grumble and not to count blessings, a propensity that is far from harmless during a confrontation with a ruthless ideological enemy.

Gillray’s relations with the greatest political philosopher of the age, Edmund Burke, were also of an ironical nature. As a cultured man and avid reader, Gillray had likely read Burke and absorbed the lessons of his philosophy. Indeed, “The Tree of Liberty—with the Devil tempting John Bull” could be seen as a succinct graphic illustration of that philosophy (above). Of two trees, the one in the background, called Justice, has abundant green foliage; its two main branches, labeled Laws and Religion, bear healthy fruit called Happiness, Freedom, and Security. The tree in the foreground, called Opposition, is dead and without foliage, as if blasted by lightning; its two main branches are Rights of Man and Profligacy. From its lesser branches hang rotten, reddish-golden apples, each with a bite taken out of it, labeled with such temptations as Democracy, Conspiracy, and Revolution. Down the tree slithers a green snake ending in the jowly head, with its Nixonian stubble, of the radical Whig leader, Charles James Fox, holding out to the figure of John Bull an apple labeled Reform. “Nice apple, Johnny—nice apple!” says Fox. But the real meaning of the temptation is evident from the red revolutionary bonnet of liberty, from which the Fox-serpent’s tail emerges, and from the difference in the roots of the two trees: those of the Tree of Justice being the Commons, King, and Lords of the established British constitution, those of the Tree of Opposition being Envy, Ambition, and Disappointment, the discreditable emotions that are, by implication, the true motives behind French revolutionary radicalism, rather than supposed love of the beautiful abstractions with which the rotten fruit of the Tree of Opposition is marked.

John Bull is a fat and slow-witted country bumpkin, with a certain shrewdness nonetheless: he is wise enough to resist the siren song of beautiful abstractions. “Very nice N’apple indeeed!” he replies to Fox, in the kind of rural dialect that is still to be heard in Norfolk and Gloucestershire. “But my Pokes [pockets] are all full of Pippins from off t’other Tree: and besides, I hates Medlars, they’re so damn’d rotten that I’se afraid they’ll gee me Guts-ach for all their vine looks!” The flashy intellectual brilliance of Fox is no match for the wisdom of ages, the common sense of the freeborn Englishman. I was reminded of an encounter I had with a Salvadoran peasant during the guerrilla insurgency there in the 1980s. He acknowledged that, man for man, the insurgents were probably better people than their opponents on the government side: but still he did not want them to win, for he saw in their abstractions not promises, but threats. His house and farm might have been poor things, but they were his own.

No message could be more Burkean than that in Gillray’s “The Tree of Liberty”: yet Edmund Burke, like John Bull, never appears in Gillray in a flattering light. On the contrary, Gillray portrayed him a lean and hungry Jesuit (or jesuitical) dissembler, a dangerous man with a hidden agenda—actuated by malice, for example, when attacking Warren Hastings, the governor-general of British India, whom he attempted for seven years to impeach for corruption. Burke appears in one print absurdly caparisoned in a suit of armor and wearing a biretta, brandishing a ridiculous blunderbuss, ambushing Warren Hastings on an elephant. In another, Burke is seen—while he was still a Whig—as a rank political incompetent, driving the coach and horses of the opposition party arrogantly through the Slough of Despond of unelectability. After his resignation from the government in 1782, he is portrayed ironically as “Cincinnatus in Retirement” (the dictator who retired to rural life after saving Rome), dressed in a Jesuit’s robe and sitting down to a chamber pot full of potatoes, one of which he lugubriously peels, in an Irish hovel (page 111).

In yet another print, he grovels avariciously for a pittance at the feet of Prime Minister Pitt as the latter grinds John Bull through a mincing machine to produce gold coins. Most famously, he appears simply as a sharp, elongated nose, a pair of spectacles, and a pair of hands holding aloft the British crown and a priest’s crucifix, all emerging as an apparition from a cloud, to frighten Dr. Richard Price, a radical dissenting clergyman who preached in approval of the French Revolution and sent a congratulatory message to the National Assembly. The title of this print—“Smelling out a Rat—or—The Atheistical-Revolutionist disturbed in his Midnight Calculations”—suggests that the anti-ideological Burke has himself become an ideologue and is in danger of becoming a Grand Inquisitor (opposite).

Burke, brilliant but humorless, was one of the very few of Gillray’s celebrated targets who did not laugh at himself. Even Benjamin Perkins is said to have laughed at the print that destroyed his reputation as a healer. One of the most truly admirable qualities of the society from which Gillray emerged, and which he depicted with such verve, was its ability to laugh at itself. Even the king, a man who took himself sufficiently seriously, laughed heartily at Gillray’s lampoons of him; the prince regent, whom Gillray never depicts as other than the fat, unscrupulous voluptuary that he was (above), bought Gillray prints by the dozen and was one of Mrs. Humphreys’s best customers. Rising politicians wanted to be caricatured by Gillray, though he was certain to cast them in an unflattering light and expose them to ridicule: for to be caricatured by him was a public certificate of importance. George Canning, later foreign secretary and briefly prime minister, went to considerable trouble to get himself into a Gillray print and was very pleased when he made his first appearance in one, albeit as one of the politicians hanged in the “Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion—or—Forcible Reasons for Negotiating a Regicide Peace.”

Gillray’s contemporaries—not only in Britain—recognized him as a great artist. That recognition faded even before his death, and the exhibition at the Tate has now restored it. But Gillray’s greatness was more than artistic: he proved by example that public opinion could be mobilized for the betterment of society, and that social criticism could be fierce and uncompromising yet good-natured, measured, and loyal. He proved that the popular could be subtle, learned, and philosophically intelligent. He proved what many have doubted: that having a moral standpoint does not entail solemnity and joylessness.

In a Blairite age, one feels like exclaiming:

Gillray, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

England hath need of thee.


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