Gillray and Blake

During the “Age of Revolution,” London was a hub of rapid technological, aesthetic, and economic change in the marketplace for political communications, foreshadowing our current experiences with digital media and propaganda.

James Gillray has been called the father of the political cartoon. As Clare Bucknell notes, he and William Blake, the visionary Romantic artist and poet, studied academic drawing and painting at the Royal Academy Schools in Somerset House around 1778. Later, Blake demonstrably borrowed from specific prints by Gillray (Marcus Wood, 1990). They were both part of the same London scene of artistic and technical experimentation, mass publishing, and political debate and censorship that Esther Chadwick, among others, explores. Their similarities and differences are interesting to trace.

The first illustration with this post offers a taste of Gillray. With the French Revolution at full tilt and a rebellion brewing in Ireland, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, called up the militia. The leader of the opposition, Charles James Fox, accused Pitt of stoking fear to confuse and oppress the people. Gillray depicts Pitt atop a coastal fort, clinging to the personification of England, John Bull, who is depicted as a yokel with symbols of both the French Revolution and the British monarchy attached to his hat.

James Gillray, John Bull bother’d:-or-the geese alarming the Capitol (1792) Copyright British Museum. Creative Commons

Watching geese through binoculars, Pitt cries, “There, John! – there! there they are! – I see them – get your Arms ready, John! – they’re Rising & coming upon us from all parts.” He claims he sees French revolutionary mobs, “the Scotch [who] have caught the Itch too; and the Wild-Irish have begun to pull off their Breeches!” He issues panicked orders to address the crisis: “down with the Book-stalls! – blow up the Gin-shops! – cut off the Printers Ears!”

John Bull answers, “Wounds, Measter, you frighten a poor honest simple Fellow out of his wits! – Gin-Shops & Printers-Ears! – & Bloody-Clubs & Lord Mayors! – and Wild-Irishmen without Breeches, & Sans-Culottes! Lord have mercy upon our Wives & Daughters! – And yet, I’ll be shot, if I can see any thing myself, but a few Geese, gabbling together – But Lord help my silly head, how should, such a Clod-pole as I, be able to see any thing Right?”

The gabbling geese might be a metaphor for the “public sphere” of political debate, treated as powerless. This is a satire of conservative nationalism and propaganda, by an artist who was equally adept at mocking radical ideas–and who accepted money to design cartoons for and against both parties at various times.

And here is an image by Blake from just about the same moment.

William Blake, Plate from Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), depicting Nebuchadnezzar, via Wikimedia Commons

The Devil has just said, “I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.” The text in the image reads, “When he had so spoken, I beheld the Angel, who stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, and he was consumed, and arose as Elijah.”

Blake appends a “Note.—This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well. I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no. One law for the lion and ox is Oppression.” The next section is entitled “A SONG OF LIBERTY” and offers numbered points, beginning:

  1. The Eternal Female groan’d; it was heard over all the earth:
  2. Albion’s coast is sick silent; the American meadows faint.
  3. Shadows of prophecy shiver along by the lakes and the rivers, and mutter across the ocean. France, rend down thy dungeon!

It’s likely that Blake really did experience a devil as his particular friend and read the Bible with him; mystical experiences influenced him as strongly as partisan cash motivated GIilray. Here Blake sings the very song that terrifies Pitt, the song of radical liberation.

Both Gillray and Blake incorporate their own handwritten text into their etchings or engravings. In both cases, the dialogue is fevered, histrionic. Neither has patience for the stuffed shirts of their day or any allegiance to “rules,” whether artistic, social, or sexual.

(Supposedly, Gillray and his business and personal partner, Hannah Humphrey, were on their way to church to be married when he remarked, “This is a foolish affair, methinks, Miss Humphrey. We live very comfortably together; we had better let well alone.” Blake and his spouse were once found stark naked in their garden, doing a dramatic reading of Paradise Lost.)

Those are similarities, but Blake was intensely earnest, whereas Gillray seems to have been a manic cynic (unless he was a canny subversive). I’d love to know what they said to each other when they were studying drawing and history-painting under Sir Joshua Reynolds.

See also: the role of communications in the French Revolution

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.