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William Cobbett
James Gillray

Review of the lecture given by
Dr Richard Thomas
on May 24th 2017

William Cobbett of Farnham and James Gillray of London, two larger-than-life characters whose lives bridged the transition from the 18th to the 19th century, were Dr Richard Thomas’s subjects this month and he illustrated his talk with examples of art and cartoons of the day.

Being a local personality, William Cobbett was already known to many of us largely because of his book entitled “Rural Rides”, in which Cranleigh and Ewhurst are mentioned.  This Farnham lad, born in 1763, went on to lead an extraordinary life becoming by turns a soldier, exile, reformer, journalist, prisoner, agriculturalist and politician.  At one stage of the 19th century he had more bestselling works than Charles Dickens.  His beliefs were passionately held, and close to his heart was a deep desire for a better world for the agricultural labourers and those who suffered the effects of corruption, and he sought to achieve this through parliamentary reform.  At his funeral in 1835 no fewer than 8,000 people came to pay their respects, twice the population of Farnham.

The political cartoonist, James Gillray, was born in 1756 in Chelsea, and some of us may be familiar with his work through visits to Brighton Pavilion where examples of his savage satirical cartoons depicting the Prince Regent are on display.  If William Hogarth is considered the grandfather of the political cartoon, then Gillray is undoubtedly the father.  An immensely talented artist, a real genius who produced finely-detailed and lifelike drawings, his cartoons were published by Miss Hannah Humphrey of Bond Street, whose home he shared.  She looked after him and cared for him when he fell into ill-health.  Depression at his failing eyesight led to heavy drinking which contributed to his descent into insanity, and he died at the relatively young age of 58.  His spirit lives on, however, most famously in his cartoon called “The Plumb-Pudding in Danger” in which Pitt and Napoleon are seen to be carving up the world.  This image has since been updated many times, most recently in December 2016, when The Spectator’s front cover featured Trump and Putin as the carvers.

James Gillray (1756–1815)  The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper ...

It is thought unlikely that these two well-known figures ever actually met in person, but the paths of their colourful lives crossed, even collided, in a major way when Gillray was commissioned to produce a series of cartoons mocking Cobbett, who had come to be a major thorn in the side of the government because of his opposition to so many of their policies.  They regarded him as a danger and so something had to be done about him.  Before locking him up they thought they would try subjecting him to ridicule and mockery, and Gillray seemed to be the ideal man for the job.  A series of eight cartoons was published, and in these Cobbett is portrayed as looking faintly ridiculous but Gillray does not exercise the savage satire that he had so often used in his previous work, and one wonders if perhaps he was not as unsympathetic to Cobbett’s views as the government had hoped.

Alison Morton

Related Link (opens in new windows):

James Gillray: 'The life of William Cobbett - written by himself' (National Portrait Gallery)