Acclaimed Coulter cartoonist remembered

James Gillray cartoon for use April 8 2015
James Gillray cartoon for use April 8 2015
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IN the run-up to the May election, one of our regular correspondents Margaret Young from Biggar contacted us to raise awareness of someone who has almost been forgotten here.

“This year is the 200th anniversary of the death of, if not the greatest, certainly the earliest publicly acclaimed cartoonist,” she said.

She is speaking about James Gillray.

“To find the father of political cartoonists there is no need to go further than Coulter Kirkyard,” she said. “There lie the Gillray family with a memorial entry on the stone to their son James Gillray, the first famous political cartoonist.”

Margaret found out about him a few years ago when she was carrying out research for Biggar Trail booklets, and she was amazed at his work and his fame in his own time.

“He really was exceptional,” she said.

“There were a couple of cartoonists before him, but they were not of the standard he was.

“I was flabbergasted when I came across him.

“His cartoons were fantastic and he deserves recognition.”

James Gillray was born in Chelsea in 1756. His father was a Chelsea Pensioner, having served as a soldier and having lost an arm at the Battle of Fontenoy.

After a varied youthful spell, James Gillray became a student in the Royal Academy in London and from the 1770s was building a career as a satirical cartoonist.

“His was a propaganda war against the French, in particular against the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte but leaving no one unscathed, during the Anglo French wars of the early 19th century,” said Margaret.

“Perhaps the greatest ever political cartoon, the ‘Plumb Pudding in Danger’ 1805, is his depiction of Prime Minister Pitt and Napoleon carving up between them the globe, represented by a giant plum pudding.”

That shows Bonaparte slicing off the part containing Europe with his sword, while across the dining table Pitt is taking a large portion of the rest of the world. It had an alternative title of “State epicures taking un petit souper” with the subtitle: “The great Globe itself and all which it inherit is too small to satisfy such insatiable appetites”.

The theme has been re-used by other satirists since.

During the French Revolution, Gillray issued many caricatures ridiculing the French and Napoleon and glorifying John Bull, and at home his cartoons mocked people on all sides of the political debate as well as George III, or Farmer George, and the notoriously extravagant Prince Regent, later to be George IV. Given what was happening to the monarchy in France, the idea that someone could issue such cartoons of the monarchy in Britain was seen as a testament to freedom of expression here!

His prints were eagerly awaited. They were published and sold in her shop by Miss Hannah Humphrey. Gillray lived with her for much of his life.

He achieved great fame at the time, and his cartoons are seen now as important sources for information on British history, bringing the personalities and the issues of the times to life so vividly.

“They make history so real,” said Margaret.

Her own degree included history, and she added that cartoons brought history much more alive than mere dates and facts.

Gillray died on June 1, 1815, and as the anniversary approaches Margaret wonders:

“What would he make of today’s party leaders: beer swilling Nigel, David lumbered with his Scottish cleft stick, Labour’s political fratricidal leader and, of course, Nicola ‘The Lady in Red?

“Mind boggling!”