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James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire

James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire

A lavishly illustrated biography of James Gillray, inventor of the art of political caricature

James Gillray (1756-1815) was late Georgian Britain’s funniest, most inventive and most celebrated graphic satirist and continues to influence cartoonists today. His brilliant drawing, matched by his flair for clever dialogue and amusing titles, won him unprecedented fame as a political satirist; his sophisticated designs parodied artists of the day such as William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, while he borrowed and wittily redeployed celebrated passages from William Shakespeare and John Milton to send up politicians in an age – as now – where society was fast changing, anxieties abounded, truth was sometimes scarce, and public opinion mattered.

Tim Clayton’s definitive biography explores Gillray’s life and work through his friends, publishers – the most important being women – and collaborators. Clayton’s compelling narrative reveals the tensions between artistic independence, financial necessity and the conflicting demands of patrons and self-appointed censors in a time of political and social turmoil, also recreating the networks that invented satirical prints and the emerging markets for them.
Gillray’s first satires addressed the American War of Independence; during the libertine 1780s he was involved in the creation of previously unknown erotic prints as well as daring attacks on the royal family; later his prints reflected the anxious state of Britain as revolutionary France abolished both monarchy and church. During the long wars against Napoleon, Gillray was recruited to work for various politicians, and this book traces their growing recognition of the importance of public opinion and the role of propaganda in war.
Including previously unseen work, James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire reveals how the artist cast a sardonic eye over the rich ironies of the age of revolution, creating prints that continue to be celebrated for their technical brilliance and daring wit, and that remain hilarious to this day.

'Tim Clayton's book is a magisterial study of a popular artist: a full-scale interpretation of James Gillray's output of satirical prints, and a biography that warrants comparison with the best ever done on an 18th-century artist. It has been furnished with gorgeous reproductions, along with close-ups that illuminate Gillray's care for visual detail and his uninhibited verbal wit. This account removes once and for all the question of why Gillray should have poured his enormous talent into a "minor art"''

David Bromwich, The London Review of Books

'The caricatures of James Gillray (1756-1815) give visual form to the political culture of the Georgian age and today's politicians should count themselves lucky to have escaped his unsparing but highly sophisticated satires.'

Michael Prodger, The Times and Sunday Times 10 best art books of 2022

‘How Clayton builds up an alternative portrait of his subject, given the paucity of direct information, is little short of miraculous. Comprehensively and meticulously recreating the world that shaped Gillray, he fits it round him so tightly that the subject takes palpable form. . . . It’s a nuanced and convincing portrait, and the level of detail in this massive and masterly book is breathtaking.’

Martin Rowson, The Guardian

'This is a fascinating, well-rounded life of Gillray . . . Clayton has done an impressive, thorough job examining the artist's working methods and relationships, and provides a fine commentary on the prints . . . James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire is a beautifully designed book, in large format, big enough for the details of each print to be seen clearly.'

Peter Brookes, The Times

'Georgian satirists and printsellers operated in market conditions that rarely sponsored free, imaginative expression: draftsmen tended to work anonymously, accepting, as they had to, commissions or “hints” from patrons on both sides of the political aisle; most would have conceived of themselves as talented artists-for-hire rather than fearless, independent commentators. Tim Clayton’s new biography, the product of meticulous attention to the milieu printmakers worked in, suggests that in Gillray’s case circumstance and exceptional skill went hand in hand.'

Clare Bucknell, New York Review

'Mr. Clayton's well-researched and lavishly-illustrated study makes a strong case for Gillray as the creator of a genre of graphic art and as a forceful commentator . The artist's caricatures shaped how the public saw politicians and royal figures, not to mention socialites and literary celebrities. . . . Mr. Clayton's selection takes readers on a journey through Georgian politics and society with a guide who spared no one. . . . Mr. Clayton, while highlighting the skill it takes "to invest a single print, inspired by some passing episode, with such depth and resonance" - a skill which Gillray possessed in abundance - concedes that it is difficult for us now to appreciate the humor of an earlier age. But his thoughtful study of Gillray's work admirably overcomes that challenge - and reminds us just how potent satire can be.'

William Anthony Hay, Wall Street Journal

'wonderful . . . thoroughly researched and lavishly illustrated . . . His works are at once intricate, preposterous, gross and technically dazzling. They are also extraordinary in the ways in which they combine images with texts. . . Clayton guides us through every aspect - technical, practical, commercial and collaborative - of platemaking and printmaking in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and explains the markets at home and abroad to whose demanding tastes Gillray had to cater.'

Freya Johnston, The Literary Review

'This book is a triumphant culmination of Tim Clayton's multi-layered expertise. . . . Tis refreshingly jargon-free tome should be poured over, chapter by chapter, print by print, a suitable companion as a winter of discontent draws on.'

Jacqueline Riding, Country Life

'Tim Clayton's new, sumptuously illustrated monograph does full justice to both the man and the artist. The portrait is especially detailed because the author is alert not just to Gillray himself, but to the wider contexts in which he worked: the acquaintances and business connections that he maintained and the circumstances that surrounded the genesis of particular prints. The result is an intricate case study of the business of satire.'

Grant Lewis, British Museum Magazine

'A substantial biographical study . . . the works of Gillray are as important as contemporary Georgian portraits or "history" paintings and much more entertaining.'

Martin Gayford, The Spectator

'Exploring the tensions between patrons and censors, artistic independence and financial necessity, this lavishly illustrated biography lights up a life and an anxious fast-changing society.'

World of Interiors

‘It is no exaggeration to describe James Gillray (1756-1815) as one of the greatest draughtsmen in the history of British art . . . Tim Clayton’s biography is a monumental achievement, gathering an extraordinary wealth of detailed information into a spirited and superbly written narrative. The book is handsomely produced and generously illustrated . . . an indispensable guide’

Roger Malbert, The Art Newspaper

'This is a complete and, indeed, beautifully produced account of the work of a man who, although by no means forgotten, deserves his time in the spotlight once more.'


'This is a fine book, beautifully and pithily written, scholarly, well-observed, and superbly illustrated . . . What is perhaps the most important aspect of the book is to reveal Gillray's significance as a propagandist in time of war, for the images he produced concerning the excesses of what had occurred in France helped to stiffen national resolve to resist the revolutionaries . . . What he would have made of the present gang of British politicians must remain agreeable speculation.'

James Stevens Curl, The Critic

‘Tim Clayton’s monumental new study…represents the most comprehensive effort yet to harness all the available historical documentation and wider scholarship, insightfully guiding the reader through many of Gillray’s most notable prints. . . . Meticulous in its research and methodical in its peeling back of the layers of printing and satire [it is] indispensable for anyone who wants to gain a fuller understanding of both Gillray’s prints and the turbulent era to which he is so singular a witness’

Nicholas Babbington, Apollo


22nd September 2022


Art History, History