Satire and Scandal!Dive into the salacious and disreputable world of Georgian prints! This display was guest-curated by acclaimed historian Alice Loxton, inspired by her best-selling book 'UPROAR!: Satire, Scandal and Printmakers in Georgian London'.
Only one thing truly electrified London as the nineteenth century dawned. It attracted vast crowds of pushing, screaming people. Their enthusiasm was “indescribable”. Toes were trodden on, bonnets went awry and buckles snapped. It was “veritable madness”. Visitors reported: “You have to make your way in through the crowd with your fists.” This was the Beatlemania of the day.
What were these crowds so desperate to glimpse? The latest satires hanging in print-shop windows, by caricaturists such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank. These prints were political and social critiques of all levels of British society. From king to pauper, no one was safe. With razor-sharp wit, bold creative vision and superb artistic skill, prime ministers were reduced to toadstools, emperors to tantrum-ridden toddlers and high-society pretensions ridiculed. Napoleon, it is said, considered a Gillray print more effective than a dozen British generals.
These prints shaped public opinion, built careers and shredded reputations. Once more, they were formative in the development of British humour. Everyone from Jane Austen to George III to Lord Byron lived in a world where conversation was liberally peppered with witticisms from the etching burins of Piccadilly. This Gillrayic humour has trickled through the ages, too, raising its head via Gilbert and Sullivan and the ‘Carry On’ films. The creators of Spitting Image conceded that they owed Gillray a royalty payment and newspaper cartoonists today are constantly paying heed to their predecessors.
In this mini exhibition, I have selected ten of my favourite prints by Gillray. This hardly scratches the surface of his work, for he created thousands over his lifetime (1756-1815). They were created and sold in central London, mostly in a print shop owned by the notorious businesswoman, Hannah Humphrey.
These prints allow us to peek through the keyhole and glance at the belly of the beast: to see Georgian Britain as it really was. Artists such as Reynolds or Turner may have given us lofty ideas of religion or the classical world. But it was satirists like Gillray who were able to capture the essence of human nature, to pin down the unchanging foibles and follies that made us who we were then, and still make us who we are now.
Once more, these prints did the most powerful of things: they made people laugh. They provoked everything from sniggers, to snorts, to cheerful chuckles, to raucous hysterics. To understand a Gillray print is to climb inside the mind of the Georgians. To then laugh at that image is to laugh with our ancestors and pinpoint our common humanity.
Alice Loxton, October 2023