Love Bites: Caricatures by James Gillray

An exhibition of Georgian satirical prints is a timely study of the medium’s enduring power, finds Alexander Massouras

March 26, 2015

Love Bites: Caricatures by James Gillray

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until 21 June 2015

Great British Drawings

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until 31 August 2015

The recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the imminent general election and George Osborne’s Budget last week all lend an exhibition of satirical prints by James Gillray (1756-1815) intriguing contemporary resonances. In some ways these inflections encapsulate the exhibition’s thesis: the enduring potency of Gillray’s prints in our own time suggests that to consider them purely historically or socially is to miss a trick.

Images are ambiguous. To be reminded of this by Gillray is a surprise; he was frequently, and in the most literal sense, a very literal artist: the figures in his prints are labelled, their deeds annotated and described in the plates and their extensive titles. But for all of these interpretative aids, there is more often than not a lingering mystery about what Gillray thought. His heroes and villains are somehow equally monstrous or absurd. His marks flourish on depravity; his delight in the vulgar makes Gillray complicit, and perhaps by extension make his viewers vulgarians too. Reading autobiography into every artist’s work is clichéd, but it is hard to resist seeing the devil eating the foot in The Gout as Gillray’s spiritual self-portrait. And it is a typically off-key devil too, its diminutive scale and large ears undermining the menace of a creature that is biting a foot while flames shoot from its flared nostrils.

Beyond its salience for 2015, the exhibition is also well timed as a successor to the Ashmolean’s winter exhibition, William Blake: Apprentice and Master. Gillray and Blake are often placed at opposite poles of English imaginative art – Blake’s imagery coming from an unfettered, cosmic, imaginative realm; Gillray’s inventions more visceral and grounded in the material world. Tellingly, Blake despised Rubens and Gillray admired him deeply; indeed Gillray, his sanity dwindling, famously told fellow caricaturist George Cruikshank that he was Rubens (Gillray, not Blake, was the mad one).

The exhibition focuses on a metatheme drawn from the vast body of Gillray’s prints: pairing. We are shown many examples of his depiction of binaries – whether they be Tories and Whigs, war and peace, Napoleon and John Bull, or figures pairing up, for instance in marriage. Above them is the binary inherent in printmaking, where images reverse, and negative becomes positive. Love Bites, the exhibition’s title, is part printmaking pun too; biting is the process by which acid eats copper to make an etching’s plate (the joke works less well for engravings, which are scored not bitten, but they are far fewer).

Considering Gillray through these various types of union is a useful route into a more theoretical interpretation of his use of difference to understand and structure the world. This seems to be the emergent 21st-century take on 18th-century satire, following in the footsteps of recent scholarship especially on William Hogarth (see, for instance, the 2001 collection of essays, edited by Bernadette Fort and Angela Rosenthal, The Other Hogarth: Aesthetics of Difference). A survey of Gillray’s prints is a good case study and vindicates the trend by keeping the argument and the artwork close. Gillray’s work is a great unifier – although whether it truly assimilates “the other” or does the opposite, rendering everything equally strange, is debatable.

The questions posed by the exhibition also move us away from troubling doubts about satire in an environment where it seems to have been so tolerated: did the freedom to make these frequently scathing images betray their ultimate toothlessness? A number of Hogarth’s printing plates were melted down in the First World War for the making of copper bomb fuses: was that satire’s most effective moment?

Gillray’s doubts and anxieties abound in this exhibition. There is the strange etching titled Doublûres of Characters; —or— Striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy, with the subtitle “if you would know Mens Hearts, look in their Faces”, which places various head “types” in almost identical pairs, undermining any sense that each denotes specific traits (a troubling thought for a caricaturist). And then there are two fascinating commentaries Gillray made in 1797 on the suspension of the pound’s backing by gold reserves and the printing of the first £1 and £2 paper notes. Midas, Transmuting all, into Gold Paper shows a corpulent Midas spewing and defecating bank notes. Political Ravishment, — or — The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger shows prime minister William Pitt the Younger reaching into the pockets of the Old Lady, who wears a dress made from paper money, and picking out the gold. Gillray himself transformed paper into gold as an artist who made his living from prints, which perhaps lends a certain irony or self-doubt to his scepticism about the value of paper money.

Love Bites poses serious and relevant questions but is also a frivolous exhibition in all the right ways. Gillray’s work is presented on walls in a range of pastel shades that transform the space into something between a crèche and a boudoir, an environment amplified by the gratuitous appearance of some velvety curtains. The humour is often dark and despairing, but it is still very funny – a striking effect for an exhibition that marks 200 years since Gillray’s death. Martin Rowson, the contemporary Guardian cartoonist and satirist, has asserted that “cartoonists today are still in his debt on a daily basis”. The vitality of Gillray’s legacy, which could be extended to the likes of Yes Minister or The Thick of It, is encouraging and much needed in 2015.

In the galleries next door, Gillray is given a context both proximate (with examples of work by William Blake and Thomas Rowlandson) and teleological (Ronald Searle and Gerald Scarfe) in a separate exhibition of Great British Drawings. This is an impressively heterogeneous survey of mostly figurative work that will appeal to the aesthetic omnivore: the spectrum of artists exhibited spans the whole period from Peter Lely (1618-80) to David Hockney. The roll call of names is a reminder of the treasures that the Ashmolean holds, but there are some welcome surprises too. Colin Self is an under-exhibited artist whose Four Studies for Victims of Hiroshima are a revelation. And if Great British Drawings is generally a more serious and sober affair, it still embraces illustrators, satirists and cartoonists alongside artists, a collapsing of hierarchy of which Gillray would surely have approved.

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