James Gillray was the son of James Gillray, a soldier from Lanark in Scotland, who had lost his right arm at the Battle of Fontenoy. James Gillray was sent for treatment to the Chelsea Royal Hospital in London. James Gillray married Jane Coleman, and James was born in Chelsea on 13th August, 1757. James was the only one of their five children who survived childhood. Between the ages of five and eight, James was sent away to be educated at the Moravian Academy at Bedford.
James Gillray was apprenticed to a letter engraver, Harry Ashby, who had a shop at the bottom of Holban Hill in London. The earliest engraving by Gillray that has survived was produced by him when he was twelve years old. Gillray found the work boring and he deserted his master to join a company of strolling players. He arrived back in London in 1775 and soon began selling his engravings to London print shops.
In 1778 Gillray became a student at the Royal Academy where he studied under Francesco Bartolozzi (1728-1815). James Gillray set himself up as a portrait painter in Little Newport Street but did not obtain many commissions. Therefore Gillray was forced to continue producing engravings for print shops. Gillray's first prints were chiefly devoted to social subjects but by 1782 he began to concentrate on political caricatures. His work was mainly sold by William Humphrey of Gerrard Street and S. W. Fores of Piccadilly.
After 1791 Gillray worked exclusively for Hannah Humphrey, the younger sister of William Humphrey of Gerrard Street. Gillray's engravings helped Humphrey become London's leading print-seller. In 1793 Gillray starting living in a room above Hannah Humphrey's shop in Old Bond Street. He also accompanied her when she moved to new premises in 1794 (New Bond Street) and 1797 (St James's Street).
James Gillray appears to have held liberal views in his youth but after 1793 he became a supporter of William Pitt and the Tories. When a friend asked Gillray why his prints were so critical of the Whigs he replied: "they are poor, they do not buy my prints and I must draw on the purses of the larger parties." Gillray's cartoon were especially critical of Radicals such as Charles Fox, Tom Paine and Sir Francis Burdett. Gillray also attacked Nonconformist religious leaders such as Joseph Priestley and Richard Price.
In 1795 Gillray met George Canning, a close friend of William Pitt, Britain's prime minister. Gillray began contributing to Canning's Tory magazine, The Anti-Jacobin. In 1797 Canning arranged for Gillray to receive regular payments from the government as a reward for his attacks on the Whigs. The Radical journalist, William Cobbett, claimed that Gillray had been granted a pension of £200 a year.
Gillray's eyesight began to fail in 1806. He began wearing spectacles but they were unsatisfactory. Unable to work to his previous high standards, James Gillray became depressed and started drinking heavily. He produced his last print in September 1809.
In July 1811 Gillray attempted to kill himself by throwing himself out of attic window above Humphrey's shop in St James's Street. Gillray lapsed into insanity and was looked after by Hannah Humphrey's until his death on 1st June, 1815.