Kate Chisholm

The savage power of 18th-century caricature

The politics of late Georgian England provided Gillray, Cruickshank and Rowlandson with perfect fodder for robust, merciless satire

‘The Giant Factotum amusing himself’ – James Gillray’s caricature of William Pitt, 1797. [Bridgeman Images]

Thanks to the work of the caricaturists of the late 18th century, the mistresses of the future George IV – Mrs Fitzherbert, Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson and Lady Jersey among them – are better known to us than his eventual wife, Caroline of Brunswick. The Prince of Wales’s decadent, spendthrift lifestyle (we see him emerging in 1788 from a lavish four-poster from which Mrs Fitzherbert arises en déshabillé), combined with his florid face and corpulent physique, were perfect fodder for this new genre of artistry, which used caricature (or visual exaggeration) to make political points. James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank were its chief proponents. Their high point was the 1790s, when their ingenuity was fuelled by the cost of the wars with France and the vulnerability of the monarchy created by George III’s illness and the perceived unsuitability of his son to take over as regent.

The Prince Regent’s spendthrift lifestyle and corpulent physique were perfect fodder for caricaturists

Alice Loxton’s UPROAR! celebrates these early satirists and printmakers in a book that seeks to evoke the explosive, gossipy atmosphere of that period, when print culture became affordable and the potential of mass communication was first understood. In his ‘A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion’ (1792), Gillray created a memorable image of the prince’s sulky, infantile arrogance and over-stuffed greed from which the royal family has never quite managed to escape. (Prince Harry’s discomfort with the media has deep roots.)

Gillray was equally robust in his attacks on William Pitt, the prime minister. ‘The Giant Factotum amusing himself’ of 1797 depicts Pitt as a monstrously tall figure astride the chair of the Speaker of the House of Commons and the royal coat of arms, crushing the opposition members of parliament, with his pockets bulging with guineas and lists of the ‘volunteers’ deployed in the war against France.

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