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The Great Factotum Amusing Himself. Happy Birthday to Loose Cannon James Gillray.

August 13, 2017


William Pitt’s right leg is supported by uncrowned King of Scotland Henry Dundas and his toe is being avidly kissed as though Pitt were Pope.  His left leg crushes James Fox and his few supporters.  Pitt doesn’t even bother to glance down at his parliamentary colleagues. The world is a sort of yo-yo to him.

But this is not a man who knows how to have fun.  His (potentially) obscene stride with legs bizarrely far apart, only accentuates the fact that he has the Royal Coat of Arms, the symbol of state authority – where his genitals should be.  This is a man who cannot even masturbate in his spare time, and he “amuses himself” therefore with the fate of nations instead.  He has no private land, no “hinterland” (as Denis Healey) used to call it, and behind his public, political persona there is nothing.  There is no “behind”.

William Pitt is not a man you’d want to have a drink with.  Although he did drink.

James Gillray is perhaps better known for his anti-Jacobin and anti-Napoleonic cartoons. He is one of the main sources for the general perception that Napoleon was a little man. (The available evidence suggests that Napoleon was only slightly under average height and that his stature was the least interesting thing about him – not like the massive eyebrows of Charles James Fox and Denis Healey.)  But perhaps Gillray was making a more interesting point – that the pursuit of power for its own sake is itself a symptom of more significant kind of “littleness”.

The more famous cartoon showing Napoleon and Pitt carving slices out of the world (Napoleon takes the land, Pitt the sea), is an image which depicts the earth and its people as playthings of a handful of power-brokers, but diminishes those power-brokers at the same time.  If power-politics is merely an “amusement”, then what on earth is to be taken seriously?  Ever?  The world is governed by gamers, whether fleshly epicures like Fox or ascetic obsessives like Pitt, or nobodies with something to prove like Napoleon.

The Pitt cartoon illustrates how Gillray was unwilling to be appropriated by William Pitt or anyone else, and was fully capable of biting any hand that offered to feed him.  He demonstrated the pictorial application of the first principles of Mock Heroic – amplify and diminish at one and the same time.  Pitt ludicrously tall and ludicrously thin at the same time.  He crushes, yet is weightless, dominant yet empty.



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