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To mark 200 years since satirist James Gillray’s death, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is currently holding an exhibition in his honour. During his lifetime he created over 1000 prints, and here on display is a group of 60 examples ostensibly held together by heartstrings – they explore the artist’s often scathing view of love, sex. marriage, friendship and political allegiance in Georgian England, as well as his talent for lampooning his contemporaries.

It offers a refreshing look at Gillray from a perspective coloured more by human intimacy and alliance than the usual political division and grotesquery – we are even treated to William Pitt the Younger as a Poldark-style shirtless Adonis (alright, probably Apollo, technically). Swoon.

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William Pitt the hunk (& a few obligatory Frenchmen with no pants on in the background), from Light Expelling Darkness (1795)

Instead of drooling, eyeball-devouring French revolutionaries, or George III defecating on France, or Napoleon merrily wallowing in a stream of ‘horse-turds’ – Gillray didn’t sit on the fence when it came to our Gallic neighbours – we are presented with politicians enjoying an ale together, oddly mismatched but apparently content courting couples, a picture of domestic harmony in peacetime, and one or two women getting frisky with goats.

One recurring theme – wildly popular at the time for its shades of celebrity scandal and royal misdemeanour – is that of royal mistresses. Without giving too much away about the content of the exhibition (it really is VERY GOOD and you should go if you can), I just wanted to bring a couple of these characters to the fore and consider how Gillray saw fit to treat and/or trounce them.

Love Bites runs until 15 June 2015. For more information see the Ashmolean website.

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Dorothy (or Dora) Jordan (1761–1816)

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Popular comic actress, serial illegitimate mother (she had at least 14 children out of wedlock, by three men), and reputedly owner of the best legs the London stage had ever seen.

She was for twenty years the devoted mistress of William, Duke of Clarence (second son of George III), and lived with him at Clarence Lodge, Roehampton. The couple had ten children before she was rather rudely ditched in 1811 when her beau realised he would be better placed to support his lavish lifestyle with a wealthy wife. Her sons were taken into the care of their father and Dora went back to the stage in an attempt to eke out a living. She died alone in Paris five years later, with just over £10 to her name (around £300–400 today).

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LUBBER’S-HOLE, alias The Crack’d Jordan by James Gillray, 1791

Gillray produced this print in the first year of the love affair between Dora and the Duke of Clarence, and certainly doesn’t shy away from poking fun at their most intimate moments. Although neither face is shown, their identities are obvious – the prince shouts ‘Yeo!  Yee! Yeo!’ as his customary naval attire is cast aside in his haste to literally get inside the woman of his affections (there’s nothing delicate about this). Dora is, in a gleeful pun on her assumed surname, depicted as a chamberpot (also known as a ‘jordan’ in contemporary slang).

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Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1753–1821)

NPG D3174; Frances Villiers (nÈe Twysden), Countess of Jersey by Thomas Watson, after  Daniel Gardner

Courtier, socialite and friend of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her family could hardly boast spotless virtue – her bankrupt father was allegedly shot dead while attempting to rob a stagecoach. She nevertheless managed to secure an advantageous marriage and was propelled to the heart of polished society.

She caught the eye of the Prince of Wales – elder brother of the Duke of Clarence – in 1782, but she (somewhat uncharactistically) withheld her favours. Eleven years later, and by now a forty-year-old grandmother, she seems to have changed her mind and was installed as the prince’s senior mistress and self-proclaimed ‘real wife’. George’s affection inevitably waned, and when he ended their relationship in 1799 she vowed to ‘plague’ him. She continued in her amorous conquests, and in 1816 declared that ‘it were better to go to Hell at once than live to be old and ugly’. She died five years later, aged 68.

Fashionable Jockey-ship by James Gillray, 1796

Although described as ‘still very beautiful’ in her forties she was ruthlessly depicted as a grinning crone in many caricatures, including this one by Gillray. She has slithered into her bed and tried to look alluring for her fat royal lover, who is carried in by her bony husband Lord Jersey. Apparently embracing and even relishing his humiliating status of cuckold, he responds to the question ‘How many Horns do I hold up?’ with ‘as many as you please!” (the wearing of horns was the symbol for husbands with unfaithful wives – they can also be seen sprouting from the Earl’s coronets along the top pelmet of his bed). The prince has also marked his territory by     placing his own feathered coronet on the Jerseys’ bedside table. In a picture behind them, a fat old sow dances to the tune of Cupid – not a particularly edifying or aesthetically pleasing romantic scene for anyone involved.

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Love Bites runs until 15 June 2015. For more information see the Ashmolean website.

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11 thoughts on “Exhibition: Love Bites – Caricatures by James Gillray

  1. I love your blog, Emily, and this one couldn’t have been more timely for me. Having just finished a novel based on the dramatic life of Mary Eleanor Bowes (for which my agent is currently seeking a publisher) I’m thinking about doing one based on the lives of the other women in the Bowes story, notably Sarah Hussey Delaval. I was intrigued to understand how her father and her husband, Lord Tyrconnel, could apparently approve of and actively encourage her relationship with the Duke of York, but your anecdote about Lord Jersey indicates that it was, if not acceptable behaviour, at least not unusual! If there are any accounts of other eminent men who encouraged their wives to cuckold them with members of the royal family, please could you let me know where to find them? My website is: http://www.valscully.co.uk. I will of course credit you when the time comes!
    Thanks again, you’re an endless source of entertainment and fascination!

  2. I’m curious, how could Dora Jordan-the actress-have been the ‘devoted mistress’ of the Duke of Clarence if she had affairs with, at least two other men, resulting in 4 other illegitimate children?

    • The other 4 children were born to lovers prior to her relationship with the Duke of Clarence. Her first child was by Richard Daly manager of the Theatre Royal, Cork where she worked. The other three were the children of Sir Richard Ford

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