The Caricatures of Gillray; with Historical and Political Illustrations, and Compendious Biographical Anecdotes and Notices was a nine volume history of James Gillray’s works, published by John Miller of London and William Blackwood of Edinburgh between 1824 and 1827. It was one of four major posthumous editions of Gillray’s prints to have been published during the first half of the nineteenth-century, although it was the only one to have been produced using copied engravings rather than Gillray’s original copperplates.
Prints from the series were sold either individually or in bound volumes, with
customers being able to choose from a range of binding and colouring options. The variations in colouring are particularly interesting, with the differences in the illustrations shown here (taken from two separate bound editions) indicating that customers could choose between a basic colour-wash, or finer hand-colouring that more closely aped Humphrey’s ‘shop’ colour. Nine volumes were published in all, each containing around 80 engraved plates accompanied by a short explanatory article. A tenth volume appears to have been in the making when the project was brought to an abrupt halt, forcing the publishers to sell the latest batch of engravings seperately. The reasons for this are not known, but given that large publishing projects such as this were usually funded on the basis of pre-sale subscriptions, it seems likely that Miller & Blackwood were unable to raise sufficient capital to cover the cost of publication or justify the risk of further investment.
The series was almost certainly conceived as an attempt to provide customers at the lower end of the market with an affordable alternative to Gillray’s expensive originals. The printseller S.W. Fores had tried something similar in the early 1800s, paying the jobbing caricaturist Charles Williams to engrave a number of copies of popular Gillray designs which were then sold at less than the cost of the original. Miller & Blackwood simply took the scale of this piracy a step further, copying whole swathes of Gillray’s back-catalogue and selling them in cheaply bound and coloured volumes. Their methods may have been crude but they were undoubtedly successful, as the relative longevity of the series and large quantity of surviving prints indicates. The secret of their success is obvious – a customer walking into George Humphrey’s printshop in 1824 would have been expected to pay between 2 and 5 shillings for a coloured copy of one of Gillray’s famous caricatures. Miller & Blackwood on the other hand, could offer the same customer a bound edition of 80 coloured images for 10s 6d. It is a comparison which neatly illustrates the changing nature of the market for printed satire in this period and explains why so many of the older West End printshops began to diversify or disappear from 1820 onward.
Surviving examples of prints from the series are still relatively common, and although individual plates carry very little financial value, bound volumes and complete editions can be worth several hundred or even a few thousand pounds depending on their condition.