James Gillray, Love in a Coffin, 30th December 1784

James Gillray was born in Chelsea on 13th August 1756. He was the second child of Scottish immigrant family. His father, also named James, was a former soldier who had fought with the British army in the War of Austrian Succession and lost an arm at the Battle of Fontenoy. Gillray senior settled in Chelsea, then a small village on the outskirts of London after having been awarded a military pension of 9d a day from the Royal Chelsea Hospital. He met and married Gillray’s mother Jane and went on to father three children – John (1754), James (1756) and Hannah (1797), although only James would live to see adulthood.

The family were strict adherents to the Moravian faith, a severe brand of Protestantism which abjured earthly amusements and encouraged believers to keenly anticipate the redemption that awaited them in death. Gillray’s father joined the small Moravian community at Chelsea and by the mid-1750s had been appointed to act as sexton of their burial ground. The Gillrays Moravian faith meant that the children also had the opportunity to attend the Moravian Academy in the distant town of Bedford. This was something of a mixed blessing as, although they would receive a standard of education far beyond that which the children of a crippled ex-soldier would normally expect, it was delivered in a painfully strict and austere environment in which toys were banned and any practices beyond learning and pray were frowned upon.

John Gillray was the first to go, being sent up to the Academy in the summer of 1760. James would follow him two years later in 1762. John however would never come home. Sometime during his first year at the school he contracted a fever, after wasting away for several months he was gripped by one final bout of illness and passed away suddenly in September 1761. The death must have left its mark on young James, who was five years old at the time, as it appears as though he sought out an account of his brother’s passing from someone connected with the school. An anonymous note containing this account was found among Gillray’s papers after his death in 1815. It had obviously been preserved as a quiet memento of a long-lost elder brother whom the caricaturist must have barely remembered. It casts some light on the devoutly conservative nature of Gillray’s own upbringing and perhaps goes some way towards explaining why he cut such an odd figure in later life. It also serves to remind us that, while there are many similarities between our lives and those our ancestors, they inhabitant a radically different world to the one we live in today.

It is reproduced in full here for the first time:

Johnny Gillray was born 10th December 1754 in Chelsea and brought to the Boys Academy in Bedford in the summer [of] 1760. He was in a pretty way & we could often perceive in him a desire after Our Saviour. In the latter and last year he was attacked with a violent fever which was followed by a hectic one. From the beginning he fixed his mind upon going to Our Saviour, this he positively affirmed to his father who visited him on Feb 7th and 21st. [He Re]peated it to his dear mother who also came in July to visit him & added that he would rather go to Our Saviour than go home with her if he was ever sure he should thereby recover his heath. In this lingering sickness he never complain’d & always said that he was pretty well.

At the latter end of July his weakness increased so much that he could get up only for some hours in the day, & his pleasure was to have some of his little companions who came sometimes to visit him, to sing verses by him. In August his father came again to see him, so wasted that he expected every day to see him go to Our Saviour, but his time was not yet come. He bore his sickness with uncommon patience & after said “Ah how pretty would it be if Our Saviour would soon fetch me.” Being one night very weary the Sick Waiter ask’d him if he thought of going soon home, he answer’d “No! I think not yet; our saviour does not come, what can I do, he makes it long” & expressed his longing to by tears. He told the Brother if he had time he would give him notice when he was going that he might sing him some verses. When his father took leave of him, he blessed him in the most tender manner & gave him up to the Redeemer of his Soul.

He passed the remainder of his days in great stillness & seldom spoke but when spoken to. As his companions came to see him, he once said that he often in the night prayed [to] Our Saviour to take him home. He desired on 9th September to be brought into one of the children’s rooms, with which he was very much pleased & the next day, he desired to be carried into the Garden & said that it would be the last time that he should enjoy the fine weather. Several times he rejoiced at the visits of his room children & was rejoiced at their singing him verses.

[On] The 10th September in the afternoon,  although he was so exceeding[ly] weak he desired to be dressed & set up by the fire & drink tea with another sick child & the Sick Waiter & took cheerful leave of them, we never saw him look more pleasant & he had an extraordinarily good nights rest. In the morning he began to complain of a violent pain in his belly, but being reminded by Brother Brandt that the time of his being redeemed was very near, he was more satisfied & testified his lingering desire to go soon home, thereupon he laid himself down again & was very easy. All of the children surrounding his bed kept him a liturgy. Soon after they were gone, he several times very ardently desired to go to Our Saviour & since he thought nothing was wanting to his desolation but a coffin, he begged his coffin might be brought, & soon after this said “Pray don’t keep me! O let me go, I must go!” which were his last words, for having heard that we would not detain him he was still & soon received the last kiss during the blessing of Brother Brandt. & the Brethren had a very happy feeling of the nearness of Our Saviour during his last hours & his corpse retained such a pleasant look as rejoiced all who saw him.