November 16, 2022   6 mins

Notoriously asexual, the Prime Minister seems finally to have achieved an erection — even though it took execution by hanging to do it. Outside the Crown & Anchor pub on the Strand, he swings from a rope against the (similarly suspended) bare-breasted Queen’s genitals. Despite the circumstances, she looks quite happy to see him. In the foreground, opposition politicians manhandle the King prior to his imminent execution. His wheelbarrow pose, as a revolutionary agitator hoists the regal legs while his head is forced down onto the scaffold, suggests that the anointed monarch is being shafted in every possible way.

When it comes to their media image, things could be worse for the House of Windsor. Last week, the fifth Netflix season of The Crown began after an overture of outrage deploring the drama’s distortion or fabrication of various episodes in royal history during the Nineties. While former premiers (John Major and Tony Blair) rail against the “malicious nonsense” and “complete rubbish” in the scripts, few champions of the “Firm” have paused to reflect that, even now, the royals enjoy a smoother ride than many of their ancestors.

James Gillray’s 1791 print “Hopes of the Party Prior to July 14”, described above, added one more acid drop to the flood of satirical engravings that lampooned the Hanoverian monarchy — along with other pillars of the ruling class — between 1780 and 1820. In this “golden age of caricature”, with Gillray, George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson as its lords of misrule, palace misconduct and political intrigue unleashed a level of obscene ridicule that makes the snide smears of The Crown’s lead writer Peter Morgan feel like the softest of touches.

Yet a glib contrast between Georgian ferocity and 21st-century gentility will only take us so far. The stance of the shape-shifting Gillray, in particular, is famously hard to pin down. Tim Clayton’s definitive new study of the artist, James Gillray: a Revolution in Satire, notes that his “ambiguous, enigmatic” pen means that “it is rare in mature Gillray for either side to be entirely right or wrong”. Is “Hopes of the Party” an awful warning against the sanguinary horrors of French Revolutionary radicalism (Gillray engraved it two years after the Bastille fell, but before the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette)? Or could it be interpreted as a parody of reactionary scare-mongering, a jibe at whipped-up alarms about the rotund Whig leader Charles James Fox — who features as George’s III’s executioner, while his gaunt Tory foe William Pitt dangles from that rope — and his reformist comrades? Proper satire slices both ways: different strokes for different folks.

Yes, Gillray and his colleagues could be brutal. In “A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion”, the bloated, gluttonous Prince of Wales recovers from his vices with an overflowing chamber-pot and bottles of pox-pills behind him. Chamber pots, in fact, became something of a running gag with Gillray. In “Lubber’s Hole — Or — the Crack’d Jordan” (“jordan” was slang for a chamber-pot), the future William IV, then Duke of Clarence, dives through a suggestive gash into a giant receptacle that represents his long-term mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan. Even when he opted for an epic style, Gillray might be gross. In “Sin, Death and the Devil”, which alludes in his richly inter-textual way to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the wrinkled-breasted, Gorgon-haired Queen Charlotte intercedes in a fight between the naked Pitt and Thurlow (a rival minister), with her hand clasped over Pitt’s genitals. Although that particular scene did apparently give offence to King and Queen, the rudeness — and crudeness — of the “Prince of Caricatura” and his epoch can never be mapped neatly onto anti-Hanoverian attitudes.

Indeed, Gillray’s portrayals of George III and his consort as cheese-paring peasant bumpkins — as in “Frying Sprats, Toasting Muffins” — edged into outright affection. Gillray’s heyday coincided not with a fall but a rise in the royal household’s popularity after the débâcle of the American Revolution. When the widely-welcomed revolt against elite injustices in France turned regicidal and expansionist after 1792, the cross-Channel threat rallied sceptics to the House of Hanover. In “Anti-Saccharrites”, the frugal King is urging sugar-less tea on his daughters not simply to cut costs but as a blow against the West Indian slave trade. What “a Noble Example of Oeconomy”! And in Gillray’s master-stroke of loyalist toilet humour, “The French Invasion — Or — John Bull Bombarding the Bum-boats”, sturdy patriotism and poo gags reach a joint apotheosis. George III has morphed into the map of Britain itself (although he still wears a dunce’s cap in the shape of Northumberland) as he craps majestically — from somewhere around Lyme Regis — all over the hapless French fleet. As Tim Clayton puts it: “The daubs of the caricaturist produced no contempt for ‘Farmer George and his wife.’”

Never mistake vulgarity for venom. Partisans both of the Windsors and the digital dukes of Netflix (a new elite if ever there was one) should reflect that mere rudeness about royals, however scurrilous or scatological, might not weaken monarchy itself. Critique, mockery and caricature — dim, cheapskate kings, randy, farting princes, blowsy mistresses and all — could leave the institution intact if the idea behind it remained robust. The flawed royal person (in Gillray’s time, that meant above all George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, then Prince Regent and, at long last, George IV) might guzzle, booze, schmooze, fornicate and plunder at will. But if the core faith in monarchy held, an artist’s vitriol-tipped burin would not in itself corrode the crown.

For much of the audience could still separate frail individual from sacred office. The medieval doctrine of the king’s two bodies — one fallible and mortal, the other an impersonal “body politic” — just about survived in many minds. In his terrific book on London in the great age of satire, City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell argues that star caricaturists “didn’t aim to influence the common people, still less to subvert the monarchical principle”. Besides, mockery usually shadows flattery. Dr Johnson dreaded the time when his name would cease to provoke “calumny or ridicule… for then I would be neglected and forgotten”.

Once the firm hold of an ideal starts to slip, however, and the public no longer accepts a necessary gap between person and principle, then even mild and oblique sniping, Netflix-style, may take a toll. In a disenchanted time, private life and public role have to align. Of course, the player in the royal show who best grasped — and acted on — that insight was the late Elizabeth II. Whereas the politician who has most shamelessly tried to revive in his favour an ancient distinction between the errant human being and the august office-holder who “got all the big calls right” was none other than Boris Johnson. Now there’s a target for some Gillray Redux.

Gillray, Cruikshank and co. assaulted the royal family but not the royal function. In the age of Tom Paine, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, real revolutionaries certainly did the latter. The circles of the graphic satirists seldom overlapped with theirs, although in the 1810s the Cruikshank brothers would forge stronger radical links. However, even the implacable George Cruikshank fell prudently silent on royal matters after a paltry-sounding royal bribe in 1820.

In 1797, Gillray himself had taken a £200 pension from the Tories while remaining a “deniable” loose cannon. For many years he lived and worked in St James’s Street, in the belly of the Establishment beast. He would have spotted his victims en route to club, town-house or palace. Some called in to buy the sort of prints that depicted them as grotesque bags of piss, pus and wind. Fox himself — the engraver’s beloved bugbear over many years — dropped by to purchase a portrayal of himself as a swarthy, sinister Jacobin insurrectionist (“A Meeting of Unfortunate Citoyens”). He left Hannah Humphrey (Gillray’s landlady, publisher and chaste life-partner) with a cheery “Good morning to you”. The Prince of Wales himself made sure that lackeys came in to buy successive caricatures of his flabby royal personage. There were many of those. Between 1803 and 1810, the Prince’s establishment at Carlton House spent £57 (a lot) on Gillray prints of their master as a preposterous balloon of lust and greed. Sometimes, he just wanted them taken off the market. But vanity loves even a distorting mirror.

You might say that the surface cruelty of Gillray’s time masked an underlying kindness, or at least solidarity. The royal satirists wanted to rock the boat but not to sink the ship. Whereas The Crown lavishes an unctuous, pseudo-respectful concern on its characters (Morgan has called the series a “love-letter” to the late Queen) while not caring too much if it does its bit to send the yacht of monarchy beneath the waves. You may think that a desirable outcome. If so, then the comic hyperbole of Gillray and Cruikshank would offer a more honest mode for hostile royal soap-opera than Netflix’s gear-crashing blend of fancily-written tittle-tattle with boring slabs of po-faced court reportage for “balance”.

At the high noon of caricature, ribaldry and reverence could rub along together. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s slide from liberator to despot (brilliantly chronicled by Gillray himself) handily blocked the path in many British minds that might have led from burlesque to the barricades. In any case, chortles tend to limit theoretical critique. As Clayton says of prints such as Gillray’s “Presentation of the Mahometan Credentials”, with the Turkish ambassador pointing a long phallic scroll at the royal couple as Pitt the pet monkey cowers at their feet, “they induce laughter, not hatred”. Even (especially?) at their rudest, Georgian and Regency graphic satires have a strong flavour of Carry on up the Throne-room.

Their artists’ slaps and digs bruised Hanoverian flesh but broke no vital bones. Once the tide turned in the direction of reform and respectability in the 1820s and 1830s, memories of the debauched Prince Regent and his idle clan did nothing to stop the emergence of Victoria and Albert as discreet, bourgeois monarchs for an increasingly discreet, bourgeois nation. Today, in contrast, the simpering faux compassion of The Crown has neither the candour of a principled aversion to royalty nor the coherence of a principled defence. Gillray and the satire squad’s tough love did not kill the monarchy; arguably, they made it stronger. In contrast, the unaccountable plutocracy at Netflix want to stifle it in a long, slow, sickly kiss of death.

Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.