James Gillray (13 August 1756 or 1757 – 1 June 1815), was a British caricaturist and printmaker famous for his etched political and social satires, mainly published between 1792 and 1810. He was born in Chelsea. His father, a native of Lanark, had served as a soldier, losing an arm at the Battle of Fontenoy, and was admitted, first as an inmate, and afterwards as an outdoor pensioner, at Chelsea Hospital. Gillray commenced life by learning letter-engraving, at which he soon became adept. This employment, however, proved irksome to James, so he wandered about for a time with a company of strolling players.
A number of his most trenchant satires are directed against George III, who, after examining some of Gillray’s sketches, said “I don’t understand these caricatures.” Gillray revenged himself for this utterance by his splendid caricature entitled, A Connoisseur Examining a Cooper, which he is doing by means of a candle on a “save-all”; so that the sketch satirises at once the king’s pretensions to knowledge of art and his miserly habits.
Gillray’s caricatures are generally divided into two classes, the political series and the social, though it is important not to attribute to the term “series” any concept of continuity or completeness. The political caricatures comprise an important and invaluable component of the history extant of the latter part of the reign of George III. They were circulated not only in Britain but also throughout Europe, and exerted a powerful influence both in Britain and abroad.
A selection of Gillray’s works appeared in James Gillray The Caricatures printed between 1818 and the mid 1820s published by John Miller, Bridge Street and W. Blackwood, Edinburgh. Nine parts were released, the next edition was Thomas McLean’s, which was published with a key, in 1830. A somewhat bitter attack, not only on Gillray’s character, but even on his genius, appeared in the Athenaeum for 1 October 1831, which was successfully refuted by John Landseer in the Athenaeum a fortnight later.
Gillray’s eyesight began to fail in 1806. He began wearing spectacles but they were unsatisfactory. Unable to work to his previous high standards, James Gillray became depressed and started drinking heavily. He produced his last print in September 1809. As a result of his heavy drinking Gillray suffered from gout throughout his later life.
In July 1811 Gillray attempted to kill himself by throwing himself out of an attic window above Humphrey’s shop in St James’s Street. Gillray lapsed into insanity and was looked after by Hannah Humphrey until his death on 1 June 1815.