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The Arena of Ridicule
English Caricatures 1780–1830

5 July – 1 November 2009

Gallery of Master Drawings

The period between 1780 and 1830 is considered the “golden era” of English caricature. During this time the genre first became recognised as an art form, which against the backdrop of the struggle for freedom of the press bore a strong influence on social and political opinion in Great Britain. Artists unsparingly parodied developments in day-to-day politics and social issues, wielding their innovative, trenchant means of expression to create an “arena of ridicule”.

In contrast to earlier satirical scenes or caricature portraits, English caricaturists of this period saw their work as a socially relevant genre of high artistic worth. The complexity and appeal of their prints is manifested particularly in their combination of motifs from art history and popular culture. This thematic blend paved the way for new means of artistic expression: a vivid and often drastic pictorial language emerged, which was further heightened through hand-colouring of the prints. The lampooned victims and prevailing conditions were pitilessly unmasked and denounced to a scornful audience. The aesthetic and historical significance of English caricature lies in its scathing manner of depiction and public exposure of its subjects.

In their humorously satirical yet mordantly aggressive visual style, the caricaturists addressed a broad audience in prints, which were made available to all levels of society through displays in print shops. The exhibition shows precisely how much the development of caricature in England was influenced by the new sense of identity of an increasingly politicised public. Artists commented on changing social conditions in the era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, generating new images for the people and its representatives. Special attention was focused on modern forms of public selfpresentation adopted by politicians and private individuals.

Altogether eight artists will be shown in the exhibition. It will include numerous works by James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, the first major exponents of English caricature, by George Cruikshank, their foremost successor, and by the artists Isaac Cruikshank and Richard Newton. Most of the exhibits are in the possession of the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

An exhibition catalogue has been made possible by the “Freunde der Kunsthalle” and will be available in the Museum Shop or online from

Curated by Dr Dorothee Gerkens










James Gillray (1756-1815)
The King of Brobdingnag, and
, 1803

James Gillray (1756-1815)
Very Slippy- Weather, 1808

George Cruikshank (1792-1878)
The Umbrella, 1820

Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
Six Stages of Mending a Face, 1792

© Hamburger Kunsthalle/bpk
Photography: Christoph Irrgang