If you like your social commentary subversive and secretive, I bet you are bonkers about Banksy, plenty of people are! He sells at Sothebys, has reached cult status and there’s even a guide book to his street art! But long before the birth of Banksy, in 18th century England social and political issues were being thrust in our face…. by caricaturists!
They used their satirical prints as a force in urban culture, and many still have the power to engage, shock and enrage even today. The genre had two giants Thomas Rowlandson (1756 - 1827) and James Gillray (1757 - 1815) as firm friends they caroused the pubs of London. At work they were wittier, better draughtsmen, and also arguably more inventive…. than any prankster with a spray can!
Such caricatures could respond to topical events quite rapidly, thanks to the technique of copper plate etching, a fluid and fast medium that saw small print runs produced within days. Rowlandsons watercolours mostly took inspiration from the public at large, but it is the vicious political satire of Gillray that I’m mad for! It continues to influence satirical cartoonists to this day.
James Gillray’s Uncorking Old Sherry (1805) is a particularly memorable image. This political satire was published just days after a debate between Prime Minister William Pitt and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. It shows William Pitt the Younger standing before the Commons (comprising opposition heads in bottles) and one with Richard Sheridan's head inside it, Richard Brinsley Sheridan is caricatured as a bottle of Sherry that William Pitt has just uncorked. Instead of producing a lovely bottle of wine, out spews a collection of “Old Puns”, “Lame Puns”, and “Fibs, Fibs, Fibs”.
Now more than two centuries after these prints were made their appeal is huge on both side of the Atlantic. Auctioneers no longer offer albums or job lots but properly catalogued single items the best now make well in excess of four figures. Infact originally prints were offered plain, or with hand colouring for twice the price, so seek out prints with their original colour preserved. Avoid prints with modern colour at all costs, and with trimmed margins if you possible.
Caricatures are also best presented in contemporary 18th century frames with antique glass as above, the effect is both subtle and dizzying. The market for Gillray prints is again on the rise, no more so than with the urban sophisticates who may well resemble his original clientele! These afluent, intelligent and fun loving people understand that our culture is always rich picking for satire. Trouble in parliament, the recent sleaze and avarice of politicians as well as royal events all remain part of the British national character, and isn’t it fun…to make asses of the ruling classes!
by Nick Cox..