James Gillray, A sun setting in a fog, 3 June 1783 – A Commentary

Image: James Gillray, A sun setting in a fog; with the old Hanover Hack descending (John Williams: London, 1783) – BMSat 6239

Charles James Fox sits proudly upon the white horse of Hannover. Behind Fox, resting on the horse’s hindquarters, is the severed head of the King impaled on a pike. In the background, the sun – projecting the figure of Britannia – slowly sets, becoming engulfed by heavy dark clouds. The horse is exhausted, its reins broken, as Fox guides Britain off the side of a cliff.

A Sun setting in a fog is a work of famed satirical artist-engraver James Gillray. A pioneer of British caricature, Gillray produced close to one-thousand prints in a career spanning thirty-years. Politically savvy, wonderfully witty, and undeniably entertaining, Gillray etched some of the greatest and most recognisable caricatures in history. The Cartoon Museum possesses an original copper-plate etching of A sun setting in a fog, and proudly encourages visitors to view this rare piece of print history.

James Gillray, A sun setting in a fog; with the old Hanover Hack descending, 1783. Copper-plate. The Cartoon Museum

Typical of James Gillray’s satirical prints, A sun setting in a fog is full of symbolism and nuance. Fox’s boots are made from ‘Spanish Leather.’ Hanging from Fox’s waistcoat is a fleur-de-lys. Another can be seen on the chest of the cockerel upon George III’s severed head. Inside the basket, labelled ‘Hopes and Expectations,’ is the Royal Crown pierced with a sword, alongside a sign that appears to read ‘Magna Carta.’ Fox’s saddlebags contain ‘lowis [sic] d’or’ (French money) and ‘Spanish Anuity.’ And finally, if the purpose of the print was not yet clear, Fox exclaims “Aut Cromwell aut Nihil” – either Cromwell or nothing.

Fox is depicted by Gillray as a pro-French, pro-Spanish, anti-monarchist. The print, produced in June 3 1783, was sold during the short-lived Fox-North coalition. An unlikely pairing, the Fox-North coalition was born from political crisis. The previous Shelburne-Rockingham Whig administration was similarly short-lived, with foreign secretary Fox accusing the King of placing Edward Thurlow in the cabinet to act as his Royal spy. With Rockingham dead, and mounting pressure from Fox and Lord North over his dealings with America, Shelburne’s demise was cemented.

From this single conjunction, the Fox-North coalition was born to the dismay of the King. Tensions came to a head when George III was given no role in determining the government positions under the Fox-North coalition. Fox feared another Thurlow situation and believed that the King had shown his intent in subverting parliamentary institutions. Never before had this maxim of monarchy been so openly challenged. Fox and North’s motivations were questioned, and the pair were accused of usurping power, with Fox even receiving comparisons to Oliver Cromwell.

Such is the context in which Gillray produced A sun setting in a fog. The pro-France and pro-Spain nuances denote Fox’s acquiescence towards the American Revolution. Fox saw American independence a lesser evil to a drawn-out war where America would receive the support of France and Spain. The reference to Cromwell is a depiction of the deep unease felt in parliament towards Fox’s quarrels with George III. The battered signpost, fitted with expressive hands characteristic of Gillray, warns of the impending doom if Fox is left unchecked. Gillray was not the only caricaturist to make such a comparison.

James Sayers, The mirror of patriotism (James Bretherton: London, 1784) – NPG D9749
James Gillray, A new administration or the state quacks administring (William Humphrey: London, 1783) – BMSat 6201

Through a satirical lens, Gillray portrays a representation of political crises at breaking point. The Fox-North coalition was in office from March-December 1783. George III nominated twenty-four-year-old William Pitt who comprehensibly defeated Fox and North in the 1784 election. Prior to the print in question, Gillray produced another titled A New Adminstration. Here, Gillray depicts Fox and North as a pair of quack doctors attempting to administer help to Britannia. In the background lies a mountain range representing the steep climb facing the new administration. In A sun setting in a fog we see Fox heading for the edge of that that very mountain, toward the valley of annihilation.

By Daniel Jinks

Sources

George, M. Dorothy, ‘Description’, British Museum Online Collection – https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1851-0901-143

Mitchell, Leslie, ‘Fox, Charles James’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2007) – https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-10024?rskey=oKBmgm&result=3

Sherry, James, ‘Commentary: A new administration’, james-gillray.org – https://www.james-gillray.org/pop/state-quacks.html

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