James Gillray was the son of James Gillray, a soldier from Lanark in Scotland, who had lost his right arm at the Battle of Fontenoy. James Gillray was sent for treatment to the Chelsea Royal Hospital in London. James Gillray married Jane Coleman, and James was born in Chelsea on 13th August, 1757. James was the only one of their five children who survived childhood. Between the ages of five and eight, James was sent away to be educated at the Moravian Academy at Bedford.
James Gillray was apprenticed to a letter engraver, Harry Ashby, who had a shop at the bottom of Holban Hill in London. The earliest engraving by Gillray that has survived was produced by him when he was twelve years old. Gillray found the work boring and he deserted his master to join a company of strolling players. He arrived back in London in 1775 and soon began selling his engravings to London print shops.
In 1778 Gillray became a student at the Royal Academy where he studied under Francesco Bartolozzi (1728-1815). James Gillray set himself up as a portrait painter in Little Newport Street but did not obtain many commissions. Therefore Gillray was forced to continue producing engravings for print shops. Gillray's first prints were chiefly devoted to social subjects but by 1782 he began to concentrate on political caricatures. His work was mainly sold by William Humphrey of Gerrard Street and S. W. Fores of Piccadilly.
In November, 1789, Richard Price preached a sermon praising the French Revolution. Price argued that British people, like the French, had the right to remove a bad king from the throne. He told his congregation that he could "depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation." Edmund Burke, was appalled by this sermon and wrote a reply called Reflections on the Revolution in France, where he argued in favour of the inherited rights of the monarchy.
James Gillray joined in the debate by producing a print, Smelling out a Rat (1790). It shows Richard Price seated in an armchair at a small writing-desk. Burke is represented by an enormous spectacled nose which rests on the back of Price's chair and by two gigantic hands, one holding a crown, the other a cross, both of which are surrounded by star-shaped haloes. The spectacles support (between the crown and the cross): "Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in certain Societies in London, by the Rt honble Edmund Burke." Price's pen drops from his hand; the paper before him is headed "On the Benifits of Anarchy Regicide Atheism". The table is lit by a lamp with a naked flame and reflector. Against his chair leans an open book: "Treatise on the ill effects of Order & Government in Society, and on the absurdity of serving God, & honoring the King". On the wall above Price's head is a picture: "Death of Charles Ist or, the Glory of Great Britain". It shows the execution of Charles I.
Gillray was a strong opponent of radicals like Tom Paine . After 1791 Gillray worked exclusively for Hannah Humphrey, the younger sister of William Humphrey of Gerrard Street. Gillray's engravings helped Humphrey become London's leading print-seller. In 1793 Gillray starting living in a room above Hannah Humphrey's shop in Old Bond Street. He also accompanied her when she moved to new premises in 1794 (New Bond Street) and 1797 (St James's Street).
James Gillray appears to have held liberal views in his youth but after 1793 he became a supporter of William Pitt and the Tories. When a friend asked Gillray why his prints were so critical of the Whigs he replied: "they are poor, they do not buy my prints and I must draw on the purses of the larger parties." Gillray's cartoon were especially critical of Radicals such as Charles Fox, Tom Paine and Sir Francis Burdett. Gillray also attacked Nonconformist religious leaders such as Joseph Priestley and Richard Price.
In 1795 Gillray met George Canning, a close friend of William Pitt, Britain's prime minister. Gillray began contributing to Canning's Tory magazine, The Anti-Jacobin. In 1797 Canning arranged for Gillray to receive regular payments from the government as a reward for his attacks on the Whigs. The Radical journalist, William Cobbett, claimed that Gillray had been granted a pension of £200 a year.
George Cruikshank watched Gillray at work: "His natural temperament was excitable. 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. When etching he worked furiously, without stopping to remove the burr thrown up by the etching needle; consequently his fingers often bled from being cut by it."
Gillray's eyesight began to fail in 1806. He began wearing spectacles but they were unsatisfactory. Unable to work to his previous high standards, James Gillray became depressed and started drinking heavily. He produced his last print in September 1809.
In July 1811 Gillray attempted to kill himself by throwing himself out of attic window above Humphrey's shop in St James's Street. According to the The Examiner: "On Wednesday afternoon Mr. Gillray the caricaturist who resides at Mrs Humphrey's, the caricature shop in St. James's Street, attempted to throw himself out of the attic story. There being iron bars his head got jammed and being perceived by one of the chairmen who attends at White's the unfortunate man was extricated."
James Gillray lapsed into insanity and was looked after by Hannah Humphrey's until his death on 1st June, 1815.
His appearance, manner and conversation are so ordinary and unassuming that nobody would see the great artist in this thin, dry, bespectacled man.
His natural temperament was excitable. 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. When etching he worked furiously, without stopping to remove the burr thrown up by the etching needle; consequently his fingers often bled from being cut by it.
On Wednesday afternoon Mr. Gillray the caricaturist who resides at Mrs Humphrey's, the caricature shop in St. James's Street, attempted to throw himself out of the attic story. There being iron bars his head got jammed and being perceived by one of the chairmen who attends at White's the unfortunate man was extricated.