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April 04, 2008

Gillray's Heirs: Christie Davies revels in the cartoons and caricatures of Gillray and his contemporary descendants but despairs of the society that has revived him

Posted by Christie Davies

Christie Davies is a great admirer of James Gillray's cartoons - but is less than overjoyed that his cartoons have once again become relevant to contemporary society.

Gillray was one of the most talented and lacerating of the late 18th and early 19th century cartoonists, a master of pugnacious political caricature and of savage social satire. Gillray attacked and ridiculed politicians of all parties, King George III, Queen Charlotte and the Prince of Wales, the bestial French revolutionary mob and the tyrant Napoleon alike. He was particularly skilled in exaggerating the physical defects and ugliness of his subjects and using these to convey an inner weakness of character and personality.

Gillray's work could be obscene and scatological. His prints were popular abroad in countries that lacked British liberty and were seen as a symbol of that liberty. His influence was international as we can see from Goya's Hasta la muerta.

Gillray's work was the product of a licentious and rumbustious society that liked its humour rough and was prepared to pay Gillray good money for his prints. Yet even in the later years of Gillray's life (he died in 1815 and stopped working some time before), some thought his work was in bad taste and the growth of respectable Britain meant that it went out of fashion. He remained well known to historians and indeed to practising cartoonists but he was forgotten by the public. It tells us a great deal about the late 20th and early 21st centuries that we have seen not only a revived interest in Gillray but many imitators of him among cartoonists, who are proud to write "after Gillray" on their work.

Gillray's famous A Voluptuary under the horrors of digestion, 1792, a portrait of the profligate Prince of Wales, his buttons popping after a heavy meal, whose debris still lies on the table, became in the Sunday Times of 12th March 1989, Richard Cole's ( A Voluptuary under the horrors of money supply.

The Prince of Wales had become Nigel "Fatty" Lawson seated next to a table covered in bank notes and coin, while his chancellor's budget box lay discarded on the floor. Inflation and obesity are much the same thing; if you feed too much in, it has to go somewhere. Neither Nigel Lawson nor his zaftig daughter, a cook, seem to have realised this.

Another generously proportioned ex-Chancellor, Ken Clarke is as harshly treated as Lawson in Andy Davey's ( re-run of Gillray's A Sphere projected against a plane, 1792.

Clarke replaces Albinia, Countess of Buckinghamshire, as the sphere with Iain Duncan-Something standing in for Pitt as the plane. The bald Duncan-Something is in a red soldier's uniform with a drawn sword and the pint and cigar-clutching Clarke is wearing a suit with broad stripes, just the thing to emphasize his spherical shape. They represent the two images that make a politician unelectable - the bald and the fat.

Steve Rushin in his article in Time, The Bald Truth, has taken my thesis that for would-be British Prime Ministers baldness means failure and applied it to American Presidential candidates and it holds good there too. Baldy Giuliani is out already, and Baldy McCain is going to lose in the final.

In the age of television baldness is death for a political aspirant, but so is fatness. Gordon Brown will soon disappear into fat air, as Nigel Lawson, Ken Clarke and John Prescott already have done. Cameron, despite his lack of intellect, principles, the common touch and common sense, will succeed because he is both haired and has a lean and hungry look. Cameron thinks too little, such men are dangerous.

Fat politicians, like Gillray's Prince of Wales, are seen as indolent and lacking in self-control. You can be a "recovering" alcoholic like Charles Kennedy and get away with it but not a recovering fatty. I still have not met a thin politician who tells me compulsively every twenty minutes, "I ate my last sticky bun on April 18th 1993 and I have not touched one since and I go to tubbies anonymous three times a week". I can give you a long list of successful politicians who drink too much, but how many contemporary political leaders outside Germany can you think of who are fat?

That is why there is a moral panic in Britain about the "obesity epidemic" but nothing is done about binge drinking unless the binger is under 17. Politicians and journalists drink too much and eat but little. The ideal political candidate in the 21st century is going to look like a mop, a combination of Mahatma Gandhi's physique and Boris Johnson's hair. Time to wring them out.

The rise of the European Union has once again made France into Britain's main European enemy as it was in Gillray's day, and has led to the revival of Gillray's French themes in cartoons.

Gillray's splendidly offensive caricature of 1793 is called A New Map of England and France. The French invasion - or John Bull bombarding the bumboats.
The map of England is George III’s body with Northumberland as his nightcap and Kent and Cornwall as his feet and Portsmouth occupies a very important position indeed. From his south coast orifice George III shits patriotically onto the shores of France scattering their puny navy of little bumboats.

Dave Brown's cartoon The French Invasion of 6th April 2004 in The Independent is exactly the opposite. The map of Britain becomes Mr Blair, a poodle with an American collar crapping in the eye of Jacques Chirac. The Queen, in Paris for the anniversary of the wretched entente cordiale, which caused World War I, rushes to wipe Chirac's eye. Chirac, with his greasy, blue-black, tadpole-black, ranunculine hair is the coast of France. His nose is Brittany and his mouth the river above Bordeaux, the city where the French decided to surrender in 1940. Veni, Vidi, Vichy. I came, I saw, I concurred. Afterwards Mussolini had a submarine base there, somewhere halfway down Chirac's throat.

My favourite, though, is Nicholas Garland's re-run of Gillray's Fighting for the Dunghill - or Jack Tar settling Buonaparte. In the original of 1798 a burly British sailor sits on top of the globe and knocks a spindly Napoleon off it with his fist, which is pretty much what happened. The ruffians of a free society defeated the military dictator of a highly centralised and ordered one.

However, two hundred years later it was to become the cover of The Spectator on 24th January 1998 drawn by Nicholas Garland. Jack Tar has become a British football hooligan with massive fists, shaven head and bovver boots and is fighting it out with a member of the French riot control police, les Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, the CRS, Car rempli de singes in their visors and shields. The cartoon still expresses an important truth, for after The Strange Death of Moral Britain, we as a people have reverted to the brutality and disorder of the 18th century, yet as before combined it with political stability.

France is, as always, a centralised society held together by force and fear of the mob. Only the brutality of the CRS prevented the overthrow by radical student nutters of the French government led by de Gaulle in May 1968. Nothing like a whiff of grapeshot. Plus ça change.

Gillray's best-known cartoon, The Plumb-Pudding in Danger, which shows Pitt and Nap carving up the globe between them has had many imitators in which the globe becomes a head, with such excellent ones as Nicholas Garland's Mrs Thatcher and David Steel carving up Denis Healey's head, and Richard Cole's 1996 version where Kohl and Blair carve up that of John Major.

Dave Brown's 2005 The Scotch Pudding in Nae Danger with Blair serving up Gordon Brown, trussed up like a haggis, to a nauseated Bush and Chirac is the best, but seriously weird. It has to be said that many of the other imitators of Gillray’s pudding race failed.

You can't beat Gillray but his successors have had a very good try indeed.

Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction, 2002.

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