Saturday 28th-Sunday 29th March 2015, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England
‘Gillray’s French jokes: the ‘sick-list’ casualties of the 1790s’
For artists like James Gillray, churning out satirical images of the French in the 1790s was a necessary duty, and even more so for someone who, from 1798, was a salaried illustrator for the Anti-Jacobite Review. According to scholars, these were the years of some resolute ‘inventions’, notably of the ‘sans-culotte’ (Jouve, 1978; Bindman, 1989; Godfrey, 2001) but also, and more generally of ‘the main categories of satiric imagery dealing with the Revolution’ (Donald,1996). This clean-cut interpretation fails to recognise the in- jokes and the complexities, as well as the failures ie those non-communicating and abandoned images. If we look beyond the pressing commercial servitudes there were aesthetic ones too, for we find an artist moving tactically back and forth within a well-defined territory of satiric print culture that was possessed by strong, iterative functions. National satire operated through stable textual forms that trapped and controlled its users: in order to remain recognisable stereotypes had to reiterate in order to enforce the association of certain visual traits with national types. Yet the events of the French Revolution, and the perceived character traits of the new revolutionaries required that the modality of inscription change, and that the fixed forms of identity be inserted into an alternative network of effects. My paper would explore Gillray’s French satires as trap, game and joke using examples that date from the late 1790s. The images discussed will be shown to derive from well-established but nationally specific symbolic repertories. The aim of the analysis, however, is to highlight the creative interplay between recognition and transformation in the renewal of forms and images already encountered.