Detail of the laughing gas demonstration depicted in the fifth image, caricaturing (right to left) Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford; Humphry Davy; Thomas Garnett or James Watt; and James Coxe Hippisley (

Detail of the laughing gas demonstration depicted in the fifth image, caricaturing (right to left) Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford; Humphry Davy; Thomas Garnett or James Watt; and James Coxe Hippisley (

James Gillray

JUNE 1, 2022

James Gillray, a British caricaturist and etcher, died June 1, 1815, at age 58.  In the opinion of many modern political cartoonists, Gillray was the father of their craft...

Scientist of the Day - James Gillray

James Gillray, a British caricaturist and etcher, died June 1, 1815, at age 58.  In the opinion of many modern political cartoonists, Gillray was the father of their craft,  outdistancing other worthy candidates such as William Hogarth and George Cruickshank by his composition, his satirical wit, and his skill at portraiture.  His primary targets were the Royal family (that of King George III), political figures, the excesses of the British peerage, and Napoleon, who crowned himself Emperor when Gillray was at the height of his powers.  We show you one of his political prints here, as Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon carve up a plum-pudding world between them (second image).  There are no less than 57 Gillray cartoons involving Napoleon in the National Portrait Gallery in London, several of them lambasting his abandonment of his army in Egypt in 1799, and many of them referring to him disparagingly as "little Boney".

Gillray did not often target scientists, but he did so enough times to merit inclusion here. Our first offering is a caricature of William Hamilton, who was a first-hand observer of the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in the 1760s (he was the British envoy to Naples) and of volcanos in general.  He was also an ardent collector of Etruscan and Roman antiquities, including the famous Portland Vase.  However, by 1801, the date of Gillray’s print, Hamilton was 70 years old, ten-years married to a woman thirty-four years younger, the professional mistress Emma Hamilton, who was now having an open affair with Admiral Lord Nelson.  Despite all the antiquities scattered about, it is the cuckoldry of Hamilton that is the subject of the print (third image, below).  On the wall at the back, in addition to a painting of Vesuvius, there are portraits labelled Antony and Cleopatra.  But Antony is clearly portrayed as Lord Nelson, and Cleopatra has been replaced by a bare-breasted Emma.  The inclusion of Emperor Claudius at back right may be a clever way of including someone else who was ill-treated by a younger wife.

More directly scientific is a caricature that Gillray did of Benjamin Douglas Perkins, an American physician who had come to England peddling his father’s "metallic tractors," two bluntly pointed instruments that purportedly would draw diseases and ailments from the patient like miniature lightning rods.  Gillray was rather merciless in his depiction of the grim and gaunt Perkins, and his astonished patient whose wig has been blown right off in the wake of the maladies fleeing his forehead (fourth image, below).

But there is no doubt that the pièce de resistance of Gillray's venturing into scientific topics is his caricature entitled: "Scientific Researches! New Discoveries in PNEUMATICKS! - or an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air," printed in 1802.   It shows a chemical demonstration before a fascinated audience at the recently founded Royal Institution in London, involving the production, ingestion, and flatulation of laughing gas (fifth image, below)Humphry Davy, who would soon become a renowned English chemist, worked for a year with Thomas Beddoes at his Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, experimenting with administering gases to patients, and one of the gases used was nitrous oxide, which has the side-effect of causing great hilarity amongst its imbibers. Davy called it laughing gas, and he brought the procedure with him when he became a lecturer at the Royal Institution in 1801.  Laughing gas was often misused by its investigators, which is the whole point of the caricature. In the scene depicted by Gillray, Davy is the one with the dark curly hair holding the bellows (see detail, first image). Standing by the door at the right, smiling approvingly, is Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, who founded the Royal Institution in 1799 and hired young Davy as lecturer in 1801.  Rumford had invented a new kind of chimney for fireplaces, so he knew about airs as well. At our post on Rumford, you can not only see this Gillray cartoon, but another one, with the Rumford fireplace as its subject.

The identity of the man administering the gas is up for grabs.  The National Portrait Gallery identifies him as Thomas Young, who had just been appointed professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, but it is probably not Young, as he was only 29 years old at the time.  Others identify him as Thomas Garnett, Young’s predecessor as professor.   But Garnet had no known particular interest in gasses, and neither did Young. A third possibility, suggested by the proprietor of a James Gillray website, is that it is James Watt, who was interested in medical gases and had designed much of the equipment used by the Pneumatic Institution.  And indeed, the caricature does look more like the aging Watt than Young or Garnett.  But you may take your own choice.

There is no question about the identity of the recipient of the laughing gas – he was John Coxe Hippisley, 1st Baronet, a trustee of the Institution and not particularly noted for anything. But he does make a fine receptacle.  Rumford was in Paris when the etching was published; Sir Joseph Banks sent him a copy, and Rumford replied that it “afforded me much amusement.” There was no comment from Lord Hippisley.

As we mentioned at the outset, one of the qualities that distinguished Gillray from other caricaturists was his skill at portraiture.  His caricatures look like the people he is lampooning, and most of the people in any one of his sketches can be identified, even when there are dozens involved.  In the detail in our first image, Count Rumford is unmistakable, and so is Davy.  In another detail showing the bottom right (sixth image, above), the bald man with the hooked nose in profile at the far right is Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Stanhope, inventor of the Stanhope press and the Stanhope lens, a likely subject for a future post. Compare Gillray’s sketch of Stanhope with his formal portrait in the NPGL.  The rotund man at bottom center with the curly hair is Henry Charles Englefield, 7th Baronet, a wealthy antiquarian who later published a book on the Isle of Wight.  Englefield does have a post in this series, with a portrait that, you will see, looks just like the caricature.

Most of Gillray’s caricatures (about 650 of an estimated 1200) were printed by Hannah Humphrey, who ran a print shop on St. James Street in London, and with whom Gillray lodged for much of his later life.  He slipped into insanity about 1811, and Mrs. Humphrey cared for him until his death.  He was buried in St. James Churchyard in Piccadilly, but his grave has been paved over and there is no monument there.  There are 882 monuments in the National Portrait Gallery in London, which has that many of his prints.  His miniature self-portrait, one of those 882 items, was executed about 1800 (seventh image).

William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to