Two very different exhibitions are currently on at Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, Suffolk. Caricaturist James Gillray (1756–1815) and British abstract artist and President of the Royal Academy of Arts Rebecca Salter.
James Gillray, the caricaturist, was a contemporary of Thomas Gainsborough and seemed to hold the same feelings of contempt for some of his subjects as Gainsborough did.
Gainsborough famously hated being a portraitist and called it “that cursed face business”, but whereas Gainsborough’s job was to flatter and cajole his subjects, as he cursed them behind their backs, Gillray’s job was to pull them apart and ridicule them, to their face. Where Gainsborough painted a flattering portrait of George IV, Gillray showed no mercy in portraying him as a corpulent, ridiculous philanderer.
James Gillray caricatured the rich and the famous and was one of the greatest caricaturists of the 18th century. Before Gillray, caricatures were popular light-hearted pokes at society, but he was one of the first artists to incorporate caricatures into more complex, more cutting political satirical prints. He was hugely popular, and his work was copied as soon as it was published. He produced nearly 1000 caricature prints of British political and social life in the age of Napoleon.
Not everyone was unhappy about appearing in a Gillray print. Society hostesses like Lady Cecilia Johnston and Lady Sarah Archer, who you could say were famous for being famous, made huge efforts to keep themselves prominent in social news, and being caricatured by Gillray was a sure way to maintain fame.
During the 1780s, Gillray became a celebrity artist, preying on celebrities and making celebrities of his subjects, thanks to publishers like Hanna Humphrey, who employed Gillray to make satirical prints (many on show here) aimed at female customers keeping up on the latest society gossip. The window of her print shop, we are told in the exhibition, was the Hello magazine of its day, showing the latest goings-on of royalty, aristocrats, and self-made celebrities.
There is a wonderful section here on Napoleon where we learn that Gillray played his part in the public misconceptions that persist to this day.
Gillray invented the character “Little Boney”, a parody of Bonaparte that has him as a bad-tempered diminutive brat. His image of the tiny French leader was so influential that it is mainly responsible for the enduring image the British have of the emperor as a tiny megalomaniac. He was of average height.
The Plumb-pudding in Danger, from 1805, is on display here, Gillray’s most famous political print, which has been described by current political cartoonist Martin Rowson as “probably the most famous political cartoon of all time … stolen over and over and over again by cartoonists ever since”.
It shows the two “superpowers” of the time, William Pitt the Younger representing Britain and the newly-crowned Emperor of France, Napoleon (tiny of course), both wearing military uniforms and carving up a terrestrial globe. It has never been bettered as an allegory for the vanity of global geopolitics.
Hugely influential, few political cartoonists working today do not owe some debt to Gillray’s work.
Unlike Gillray’s maximalism, however, Salter’s work is quiet and contemplative and encourages us to slow down and immerse ourselves in its calm abstraction. It is a respite from the modern world and a time to just “be”.
This is Salter’s first solo institutional show in the UK and runs across two spaces in the Gainsborough: In the Sudbury Gallery, she is showing her large-scale painting, and in the main house, her work is on display with twelve works from the museum’s collection.
Salter lived in Japan from 1979-85, and her work reflects so clearly the philosophy we see in Japanese mark-making and materials.
She limits herself by using a largely monochrome palette, and by working within those tonal limitations, leads to a body of work that is aesthetically consistent – giving the sensation of an installation. Up close, you can see the amount of time that has been put into them. Thousands of tiny repetitive dots on layers of linen are laboriously applied by hand to create a large meditative field. Her work can take weeks to create, using layers of textures and paint, wiped off and reapplied.
The work in the main house has Salter paired with historical works and finding connections within them. An early Gainsborough landscape drawing is placed next to a beautiful Salter abstraction, and we are invited to think about how both artists represent space to pull the viewer into their work.
Surface is obviously something Salter is concerned with, as was Gainsborough, for whom the right paper for his prints was paramount. He often worked against the grain of the paper, disrupting the surface, as Salter does in many of the works on display here.
A gorgeous Gainsborough study of a tree becomes about ‘energy’ and mark-making when placed next to Salter’s drawing. It takes on an abstract quality we might not have seen on its own. Placing her work with these great masterworks gives us a new way of experiencing works we might not have studied so closely.
Cedric Morris’ Café scene, Algiers from 1921, is paired here with a stunning ghostly image by Salter, showing only faint outlines of marks she wiped off while the paint was still wet. And Rembrandt’s deep dark etching of the Flight into Egypt (1651) is shown next to an equally dark Salter image, achieved by dying the back of the paper with pure sumi ink that shows through to the surface. Both are images where colour and light are deliberately blocked by the artist, giving you new insights into both artist’s techniques.
Both are great but very different shows. I recommend seeing the Gillray first, having a tea break, and then finishing with some calming Salter before heading out to the bustle of Sudbury.
James Gillray: Characters in Caricature, 11 November 2023 – 10 March 2024
In View: Rebecca Salter at Gainsborough’s House, 11 November 2023 – 10 March 2023
Gainsborough’s House, 46 Gainsborough Street, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 2EU
About the artists:
James Gillray (1756–1815), a luminary of British caricature and satirical art, left an indelible mark on the artistic landscape of the late 18th century. Born in Chelsea, London, Gillray’s creative journey unfolded against a nation undergoing profound political and social transformations.
Gillray’s early artistic inclinations found expression as an apprentice to a letter engraver. However, his true calling emerged when he transitioned into political satire. In the tumultuous political climate of late 18th-century Britain, Gillray’s keen observations and biting wit found a perfect canvas.
His masterful use of caricature and satire, often laced with a generous dose of humour, turned Gillray into a prolific commentator on his time’s political and social happenings. His works graced the pages of popular publications, becoming a potent medium for political commentary in an era where free expression faced various challenges.
Born in 1955, Rebecca Salter is a distinguished British artist celebrated for her contributions to printmaking and painting. Her practice is an intricate tapestry woven with threads of tradition, cultural exploration, and an unwavering commitment to innovation.
A unique cultural backdrop shaped Salter’s early years as she spent her formative period in Japan. Immersed in the rich aesthetics of the East, she studied at the Kyoto City University of Arts, delving into the meticulous art of Japanese woodblock printing. This cultural fusion became the cornerstone of her artistic identity.
Upon returning to the United Kingdom, Salter’s career blossomed as she seamlessly merged the influences of Japanese printmaking with a distinct Western sensibility. Her early works in printmaking showcased meticulous craftsmanship and a profound understanding of colour, establishing her as a notable figure in the contemporary art scene.
As her artistic voice matured, Salter transitioned to painting, expanding her exploration of form and texture on canvas. Her paintings became a captivating dance of shapes and colours, reflecting her deep reservoir of experiences and cultural encounters. This evolution marked a new chapter in her artistic odyssey.
In 2017, Salter achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first female President of the Royal Academy of Arts.