According to Douglas Fordham, Gillray included all the objects with deliberate symbolic intent to show the delegation as inept, pompous and condescending, trying to cloak their imperialist motives of “aggressive commercial expansion” as cultural exchange. For example, a string emerging from Macartney’s mouth and leading to a floating balloon shows that he’s full of hot air, the magpie in a cage being held up by a merchant is a folk symbol of frivolity or acquisitiveness. Gillray’s portrayal proved prescient — the voyage was a failure: “Not only did the Macartney expedition fail to wrest trade concessions from the Chinese, but the embassy’s lavish gifts fell comically short of expectations.” Some of the optical, mechanical and mathematical instruments “were found to fail in the operations and powers attributed to them,” while others failed to generate the excitement and admiration the delegation had anticipated.
James Gillray was a prolific British satirical artist, etcher and engraver, credited by the Grove Dictionary of Art with having “invented, almost single-handed, the genre of British political caricature.” Others call him the father of the political cartoon, whose work is exemplary for its combination of expressive and nuanced draftsmanship, fine etching technique, and the considerable wit and creativity with which he pointedly critiqued the politics and social conventions of his day. Gillray was trained as a letter engraver in London but left that profession to study at the Royal Academy, where he was deeply influenced by the work of William Hogarth, who had died two decades earlier. It was there he gained proficiency in all types of etching and engraving. Most of his best-known works were made in collaboration with the publisher Hannah Humphrey with whom he worked from 1791 on; he also lived in an apartment above her shop. Political and social cartoons were then most commonly sold as separately issued prints. He produced about 1,500 prints and his work sold well not only in England, but throughout Europe. Gillray suffered from depression and possibly alcoholism, particularly after 1806 when his eyesight began to fail; his last dated work was four years before he died in 1815 and Humphrey cared for him during the last years of his life. His work gives us insight into 18th-century British life, yet also remains an inspiration to politically engaged artists to this day. It is widely collected by major museums in Britain, the U.S. and Canada, and has been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions, including ones at the Tate Britain in 2001 and at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, in 2015.
Hannah Humphrey (c. 1745-1830) was a publisher and printseller based in London. She was the younger sister of the printseller William Humphrey and possibly learned the trade from him. Unusually independent for her time, she opened her own print shop in London. She never married, but had a close relationship with the political cartoonist James Gillray, publishing most of his prints and housing him in an apartment above her shop from 1791 on. She was among the most successful printsellers in the city, in part because Gillray’s work was tremendously popular.
Full publication information: Pub’d. Sep’tr. 14th. 1792. by H. Humphrey. No. 18. Old Bond Street.
Condition: Generally very good with the usual overall light toning, wear, handling. Original color possibly enhanced at a later date.
Fordham, Douglas. “On Bended Knee: James Gillray’s Global View of Courtly Encounter.” in Porterfield, Todd. The Efflorescence of Caricature. 19 August 2010. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010. pp. 61-78. Online at: https://www.academia.edu/528740/On_Bended_Knee_James_Gillrays_Global_View_of_Courtly_Encounter (26 June 2015).
“James Gillray: The Art of Caricature.” Tate Britain. 5 June 2001. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/james-gillray-art-caricature (26 June 2015).
McGuirk, Caitlin. “Women’s History Month: Hannah Humphrey, fl. 1745-1818.” Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, Ohio State University Libraries. 20 March 2012. http://library.osu.edu/blogs/cartoons/2012/03/20/womens-history-month-hannah-humphrey-fl-1745-1818/ (27 June 2015).
Rowson, Martin. “Satire, sewers and statesmen: why James Gillray was king of the cartoon.” The Guardian. 21 March 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/21/satire-sewers-and-statesmen-james-gillray-king-of-cartoon (26 June 2015).
Williamson, George C., ed. Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. London: G. Bell and Sons: 1930. Vol. 2, pp. 241-243.