An album of 40 suppressed cartoons by leading British caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815) has recently come to light in the Criminal Law Policy Unit of the Ministry of Justice. It features material judged socially unacceptable in the 19th century - including explicitly sexual, scatological and politically outrageous subject matter. The album was probably seized by police more than a century ago as pornographic material and handed to Government officials. This slim volume of Curiosa has now been transferred to the print collections of the V&A
In the 1840s Gillrays plates were acquired by an enterprising publisher, Henry Bohn, who re-issued the caricatures both as single sheets and in large bound volumes. In the narrow moral climate of early Victorian London, Bohn could not publish all the Gillray plates and so printed those considered offensive in much smaller numbers and made them available from his establishment clandestinely.
It is one of these clandestine volumes which has now been rediscovered. Initially preserved by the department then dealing with vice and pornography at the Home Office, it recently came to light in the Ministry of Justice. The folio joins one held by the V&A since 1869, containing around 500 caricatures. Both folios can be seen in the V&As Prints and Drawings Study Room.
Bridget Prentice MP, Justice Minister, said: The Ministry of Justice is delighted to be able to pass this historic find to the V&A where it can be properly preserved and made available to the public and academics. Societys views on what is considered obscene have changed a lot over the century and a half since this would probably have been seized by the authorities but even so I think these pictures better suit the Museum than hanging in a Ministerial office!
David Pearson, an official in the MoJs Criminal Law Policy Unit, found the folio during an office move. He said: The folio was carefully wrapped up alongside a collection of seized material that had been handed to the old obscene publications unit over the years. That material is fairly tame by todays standards, but when I uncovered the folio it was clear that it was something a little out of the ordinary. Even so, after some research, I was amazed to discover it had such historic value and am pleased to now see the prints kept safe in a suitable home.
Stephen Calloway, Curator of Prints in the Word and Image Dept at the V&A, said: "We are delighted to receive this extraordinary volume of works by Gillray to complement our existing folio, acquired 140 years ago. This is a significant and exciting find and we're pleased that the public will now have the opportunity to view both together in our Prints and Drawings Study Room."
James Gillray is generally considered the greatest genius of caricature in Britain working in the late 18th-century. Born in Chelsea, Gillray had a bleak childhood under the influence of a stern father. Aged only five he was sent to be educated at a boarding school run by the Moravian Brotherhood a strict, extreme Protestant sect which held that the life of mankind was worthless and depraved, and death a release from the wickedness of the world. This upbringing doubtless encouraged a sardonic temperament and the intense cynicism that made Gillray one of the most feared caricaturists of the day.
Apprenticed to a specialist in the lettering of copper-plates, he learned the necessary skills to become a journeyman engraver, copying the work of others. Though he aspired to become an artist, by the 1780s he had been drawn to caricature, working for several of the leading print publishers of the day, creating political and social satires with exceptional bite. Moving into the house of the Widow Humphreys, an astute operator in the London publishing world, he thereafter worked for her exclusively, making over 600 plates, which she carefully preserved.
Gillray attacked both the Whig and Tory figures of British politics as well as members of the royal family. William Pitt attempted to gag him with the offer of a pension of £200 per annum, whilst agents working for George, Prince of Wales (later George IV) also attempted to suppress Gillrays more scurrilous caricatures. In the 1790s many of his most vicious attacks were directed against the French revolutionary leaders and their supporters in England such as Charles James Fox.