Three men in white wigs with shawls over their heads gaze contemplatively at the moon from a bank of dark clouds. The moon is made up of two faces: the light side is smiling, while the dark side is sleeping. More dark clouds make up the background.
Copyright, 2009, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
James Gillray (1756-57) created this image while in a partnership with the publisher Hannah Humphrey.
This image was first displayed in the window of Mrs. Humphrey’s print shop for the entertainment and education of passers-by.
The Tate Museum in London displayed this image twice: in 2001 as part of “James Gillray: The Art of Caricature” and in 2006 as part of “Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake, and the Romantic Imagination” ("James Gillray").
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Over the top of the image, in script: “To H. Fuzelli Esq. this attempt in the Caricatura-Sublime, is respectfully dedicated.”
On the bottom, in block letters: “WIERD-SISTERS; MINISTERS of DARKNESS; MINIONS of the MOON.”
Underneath this, also script: “They should be Women! and yet their beards forbid us to interpret that they are so.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the image, script: “Pub. Dec 23, 1791 by H. Humphrey, No. 18 Old Bond Street”
Due to George III's recurrent bouts of mental illness, Parliament (guided by William Pitt the Younger) attempted to pass the Regency Bill, intended to replace the king with a "regent." The bill was dropped when George regained his health. In August of the same year, Henry Dundas succeeded Lord Grenville in the cabinet as Home Secretary (George, entry 7937).
Gillray entered into a partnership with the printer Hannah Humphrey. Weird Sisters is one of the many images she published.
James Gillray was one of the Romantic era’s best-known caricaturists, prolifically producing satires from the late 1770’s until his eyesight began to fail around 1800 (Matthew 300).
Mrs. Hannah Humphrey
Mrs. Humphrey was Gillray’s printer and landlady from 1791 until his death in 1815 (Wright, Evans, and Gillray xi).
Fuseli was a Romantic artist famous for his unsettling images and for his illustrations of Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton. Gillray’s Weird Sisters is a parody of Fuseli’s painting of the three witches in Macbeth.
Pitt, Thurlow, Dundas, and the Monarchy
The “weird sisters” in Gillray's image are caricatures of William Pitt the Younger (First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister), Edward Thurlow (Lord Chancellor), and Henry Dundas (Secretary of State for Home Affairs). The moon is made up of a smiling Queen Charlotte on its bright side and a sleeping King George III on its dark side (Wright, Evans, and Gillray 39). George was not a very strong ruler, as he had suffered from porphyria since childhood, a condition that destroyed his grasp on reality and weakened his power (Thomas viii).
Gillray lived and worked in London.
Shakespeare's Macbeth (first published in 1623)
Henry Fuseli's The Three Witches, or Weird Sisters (c.1783)
This satirical commentary on the Regency Crisis and the madness of George III portrays the leading government officials of the time—Pitt the Younger, Edward Thurlow, and Henry Dundas—as the the three witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth, parodying Fuseli's own depiction of the "weird sisters."
Parody. Politics. Caricature.
Caricature and propaganda were an important part of the political climate of the time, and opportunities for satire were abundant in a nation whose ruler was going mad. Caricatures attempted to illustrate for the public the unhealthy state of the English nobility—perhaps trying to garner support for the French Revolution and the overthrow, or at least the reorganization, of the ruling class (Donald 142). The effects of this satirical imagery, however, were difficult to control, and caricatures often sparked visceral, passionate responses that were unregulated by text. Both the grotesque images of Fuseli and the satires of Gillray are examples of caricatures that were able to incite such reactions in viewers. Weird Sisters in particular shows the influence that the Romantic fascination with the supernatural had on the genre of caricature, and demonstrates how such influence, by combining the strong emotions invoked by the unknown with those invoked by political outrage, could be especially effective.
Donald, Diana. Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996. Print. The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
Fuseli, Henry. The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli. Ed. John Knowles. Vol. 1. London, 1831. Internet Archive. Web. 21 Mar. 2009.
George, Mary Dorothy. Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires. 11 vols. London: British Museum, 1948.
"James Gillray: The Art of Caricature." Tate Britain. Tate, 2001. Web. 01 Apr. 2009.
Matthew, Henry Colin Gray, and Brian Howard Harrison. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Illustrated ed. Vol. 22. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
Thomas, Peter G. D. George III: King and Politicians 1760-1770. Illustrated ed. New York: Manchester UP, 2003. Print.
Turner, Michael J. Pitt the Younger: a Life. London: Hambledon and London, 2003. Print.
Wright, Thomas, Robert Harding Evans, and James Gillray. Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray. London, 1851. Print.
Weird Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon (Thurlow, Pitt, and Dundas)
James Gillray, 1757-1815, 1791, Etching and aquatint, hand-colored, 21.9 x 32.7 cm (8 5/8 x 12 7/8 in.), Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.853