To mark the 200th anniversary of the death of British caricaturist James Gillray (1757– 1815), the Ashmolean presents more than 60 of Gillray’s finest caricatures from the outstanding collection of New College, Oxford.
James Gillray trained as a professional copyist at the Royal Academy and then staked his professional life on caricature, amongst the first generation of artists to do so. He produced more than a thousand prints, some the fruit of months of reflection, others banged out at lightning speed, responding to but also creating instant controversies on the very day of the event. His prints were divisive and partisan: in 1798 a Tory Lord would congratulate him for having “been of infinite service in lowering them [the Whigs] and making them look ridiculous,” while the exiled Napoleon, well aware of Gillray’s anti-French propaganda, was reported to have said that the British engraver did more than all the armies of Europe to bring him down.
Although known for his derisive satires of political life, this exhibition shows the artist in another light, exploring themes of love and harmony, friendships and alliances, through a variety of amorous encounters set against the backdrop of the tumultuous Georgian era. Even as Gillray made his remarkable contribution to the early tradition of visual injure, he also avidly collected Rubens prints; indeed, the Baroque master of harmony and coalescing flesh was hard-wired into his brain. Gillray was an artist with the most divergent and biting views on the subject of love. He shows how varied and tricky a kiss can be in sealing political deals and selling votes; he reveals that then, as now, royal and aristocratic figures were judged according to the beds and bed-mates that they share; and he depicts sometimes painful, sometimes frightening and sometimes elegant embraces that have gone further than the usual kiss.
This surprising aspect of Gillray’s work uncovers a new facet in the vitality of his prints, demonstrating that the acerbic and robust Gillray was not only the leading caricaturist of his time, but also a hallmark figure of modernity. Beyond his own lifetime, Love Bites seeks to consider Gillray amongst a pantheon of artists of love that includes Rubens, Boucher, Renoir, Brancusi, and Schiele. The exhibition will contain both well-known and little-known prints by the artist, but juxtaposed in such a way as to throw new light on their subjects. Unusually for Gillray’s prints, many of the works in the New College collection have never before been exhibited and as such they retain their original vivid and intense hand-colouring.
Professor Todd Porterfield, exhibition curator, says: ‘We are accustomed to seeing caricatures that divide the world along political and personal lines. In this exhibition I hope to emphasise a previously under-explored theme in James Gillray’s work: love, friendship and alliances; and by doing so to provoke fresh insights into his work and to show that Gillray was a substantial figure of his time and an enduringly great artist.’