Review of Love Bites: Caricatures by James Gillray

James Gillray: 'The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper'

James Gillray: 'The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper' - Credit: Archant

Sandra Smith visited a celebration of James Gillray’s caricatures at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Here’s what she thought...

In celebrating one of our greatest caricaturists, James Gillray, who died 200 years ago this year, the Ashmolean’s Love Bites exhibition reinforces the public’s love of satire, its propensity to lower the tone providing an opportunity to laugh at public figures who, we believe, need reminding that they are no better than anyone else in society.

The initial rise of the genre coincided with an expanding freedom of the press. Trained at the Royal Academy, Gillray was amongst the first generation of artists to stake his professional career on caricature. His ridiculing of royalty and parliamentary figures, while cruel, was nevertheless keenly received. Indeed, the wonderfully unprincipled artist made a living by selling his work, often to those he encapsulated in print.

This exhibition features 60 works from the collection of New College, Oxford and focuses on Gillray’s portrayal of marriages and alliances. Kisses, both private and political, are colourfully portrayed and bitingly delivered. Whether the Prince of Wales, Bonaparte or The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, each transaction is a crucial element in the intricate detail of a complex image and representative of the deeply political, and sometimes shaky, nature of alliances.

About two thirds of those illustrations on show have never before been seen in public. This juxtaposition of familiar and less well known images provides a fresh opportunity to explore the artist’s work and his place in art history.

Also making its debut is a commissioned cartoon by the Guardian’s Martin Rowson who, in creating a contemporary version of Gillray’s Doublûres of Characters, proves the eternal popularity of satire and the timelessness of its appeal.


Love Bites: Caricatures by James Gillray runs until 21 June at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford: 01865 278002;

For more from Sandra, visit: