Art - James Gillray, 18th century caricaturist

The word ‘caricature’ comes from the Italian word ‘caricare’ meaning ‘to load’ (hence to exaggerate), and this satirical art form saw its roots in the Italian Renaissance masters, particularly Leonardo Da Vinci. The invention of the printing press gave caricaturists more scope, and in the late eighteenth century there was a boom in the genre in Britain. The foremost caricaturist of the era was a Scotsman called James Gillray, and there is an exhibition of his work in the Thebes Gallery for the next fortnight as part of the Tom Paine Festival. Gillray’s work is as valuable for historians as it is for art historians, as his attention to detail was phenomenal and the prints give us valuable information of the customs and dress of the era. The caricaturist has also been hugely influential on the genre as a whole: modern day satirists such as Steve Bell and Martin Rowson of the Guardian are quick to acknowledge the debt they owe to the Scotsman’s innovative style.

Gillray was a master at exposing pomposity and hypocrisy and his targets were drawn from both the political and social world. Prominent figures in his work include Pitt the Younger, Napoleon, Edmund Burke, George III and The Prince Regent (later George IV). His political influence can’t be underestimated: in 1798 Lord Bateman wrote to him ‘The (Whig) Opposition are as low as you could wish them. You have been of infinite service in lowering them, and making them ridiculous.’ The collection in the Thebes Gallery largely depicts Gillray’s contemporary Tom Paine. AL

James Gillray: Tom Paine didn’t escape his vicious satirical eye
Thebes Gallery, Church Twitten, Lewes
When? 10.30-5pm till July 14th
When? Free

Thebes Gallery
(t) 01273 484214 or 484400
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