It seems as though posts about prints by James Gillray are a bit like buses – You wait ages for one and three turn up in quick succession. I hadn’t planned to write another piece on Gillray this quickly but a reader was kind enough to contact me last week to share some information that I thought others would find interesting.

John Staral – an enthusiastic fellow print collector and occasional correspondent – got in touch to tell me that he’d recently acquired a copy of Gillray’s Britannia. The print came with a letter written to its former owner by the Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. This gentleman had evidently contacted the museum to enquire whether the presence of the initials “G.M.” in the border of the image implied a connection to the painter George Morland (1763 – 1804) and why a print which purported to have been published on 25th June 1791 was printed on paper with a watermark for the year 1811?

The Keeper’s  answer to the first question can probably be guessed but the response to the second was rather more interesting:

For me this print and the accompanying letter help to answer a long-standing query about the nature of the Hannah Humphrey’s printselling business, namely: How did she manage to sustain herself after Gillray’s ill-health overcame him and he was no longer able to produce caricatures? A quick look at the (frustratingly creaky) online catalogue of the British Museum’s collection indicates that Hannah produced comparatively little new material between the publication of Gillray’s final few plates in 1810 and the time of her death in 1818. 1813 seems to have been her busiest year during this time and even then it appears as though she only felt the need to publish around a dozen or so new plates (mostly political prints capitalising on the surge in demand for satires on Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow). The answer seems to be that she kept herself going by plundering her stock of Gillray’s copperplates and constantly reissuing copies of his old caricatures. This practice was continued by George Humphrey when he inherited the shop and assumed a prominent role in the business. By 1823 Humphrey was styling himself as “Printseller & Publisher of Gillray’s Satirical Prints & Being the Proprietor of his Original Works” and it’s therefore not too surprising that his business failed when Gillray eventually fell out of fashion a decade later.

They also raise an interesting question about the concept of originality in print-collecting. This print was published whilst Gillray was still alive and was coloured according in Hannah Humphrey’s “shop” standard. However, this particular copy was also printed 20 years after the first edition and the colouring is slightly different from that which appears on other (presumably earlier) copies of the same image. So is it an original? For my money the answer to this question is “yes”, as it meets the basic criteria of being published in Gillray’s lifetime, but beyond this we enter a far more subjective and difficult arena of debate. What we can say for certain is that publication lines are untrustworthy little devils and that even Gillrays with the “correct” style of colouring may have been printed and sold several years after the design first appeared in Hannah Humphrey’s shop window.