James Gillray was a famously prolific artist who produced well over a thousand engraved satires in his lifetime. In later years, when his mental and physical health were visibly deteriorating, George Cruikshank would regard the speed and ferocity with which Gillray worked with something approaching a sense of horror: “Sometimes he would at once etch a subject on the prepared copper plate… unable even to submit to the process of drawing it upon paper… he worked furiously, without stopping to remove the burr thrown up by the [engraving tool]; consequently his fingers often bled from being cut by it”. When not actively engaged in the business of making caricatures, Gillray would draw and paint constantly, his body becoming so accustomed to the habit that even when he was at rest his hand would “pulsate electrically… moving as if in the act of painting”. To observers like the young Cruikshank, it must have seemed as though the manic creativity that had propelled Gillray to fame and fortune was as much as curse as it was a gift.
Gillray produced hundreds of sketches, drawings and watercolours in his lifetime but many of these have been lost or destroyed in the two hundred years since his death. One of the few surviving sources of original artworks by Gillray was a set of sketchbooks that the artist had given to his friend the Reverend John Sneyd. These books remained with the Sneyd family until 1927 when they were broken up and sold at Sotheby’s. The three pictures shown here probably came from this set and were offered up for auction in London back in 2012. They didn’t do particularly well at the time – the sketch of young children scraped its bottom estimate of £2,000 but the study of a man’s leg only managed £400 and the portrait of the beggar remained unsold. A rather odd result when one considers that Gillray collectors are often prepared to pay a couple of thousand pounds for a print which has no physical connection with the artist whatsoever.
What I particularly like about these drawings is the way in which they appear to offer us little glimpses into the mundane details of Gillray’s life. One can well imagine him encountering the pockmarked butcher’s boy somewhere on the streets of London, or coming across the roadside beggar as he traversed a country lane between the city and his parents home in Chelsea. They also reveal a much softer side to Gillray’s art, one in which the acerbic sting of his satirical wit is entirely absent. The caricatured portrait of the beggar for example, is far more intimate and sympathetic in its portrayal of poverty than anything which appears in his printed works. The sketches of the young children also has a warmth about it. It’s a nice reminder that there was more to James Gillray the man than the dark and slightly cold humour of his caricatures would have us believe.