15 minutes of fame | Hannah Greig chooses Hannah Humphrey
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, historian Hannah Greig explains why she chose Hannah Humphrey
Who was Hannah Humphrey?
Hannah Humphrey was a late 18th-century and early 19th-century entrepreneur, and the woman behind the signature ‘H. Humphrey’ on James Gillray’s caricature work. She was, Hannah Greig explains, “his business partner, his printer, his publisher, and the brains behind the whole operation they ran”.
Hannah Humphrey’s life
Humphrey was born into a creative family, and her father’s warehouse in Covent Garden placed them at the commercial end of shell collecting in the 1760s. During her teens, Humphrey and her sister offered shell work lessons to “fashionable ladies”.
Later, Humphrey set up a business with her brother, William. She is often confused with him, Greig explains, as he sold some of Gillray’s earlier work. Together, the siblings made fashion plates, maps, caricatures, and oversaw the production of a variety of prints.
In the late 1780s, Humphrey spotted a gap in the market and set up an independent business. She had noticed a “new and emerging” form of caricature art was capturing public appeal and, as part of her business strategy, employed James Gillray.
Humphrey and Gillray arranged an exclusive business alliance in which he created art, and she printed, published, and sold it. Humphrey opened a print shop in St James’s, in the West End of London, which became the only destination where Gillray’s art could be bought.
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Gillray’s caricatures, Greig says, “encapsulate the satirical culture of the late 18th-century” and made him a “forerunner and innovator” who still inspires artists today.
Despite our knowledge of Humphrey as an entrepreneur, Greig explains, we don’t know much about her as a woman. She did not leave many records behind, and there are no images of Humphrey apart from her suspected inclusion in one of Gillray’s caricatures.
Also, we might not know much about Humphrey because her story lacks scandal. She and Gillray were not married, and their relationship seems to have been purely platonic. In essence, Greig says, “she’s an unmarried woman who’s just really good at her job, and those are the kind of women who disappear from historical records”.
However, the platonic nature of Humphrey and Gillray’s relationship did not prevent it from being profound. Later in his life, Gillray began to lose his sight, and Humphrey cared for him until his death. He also left his entire estate to her in his will.
When Humphrey died, she was a very wealthy woman. This is made more impressive, Greig notes, when we compare her trajectory with that of her siblings; they all had little financial success and one of her brothers became bankrupt. Humphrey, on the other hand, had enough funds to give a few hundred pounds to her domestic staff, and had several tenanted properties around London. She left her business to her nephew.
Why does Hannah Humphrey deserve her 15 minutes of fame?
“It’s frustrating that in the history of commerce and particularly of art and caricature, her name is not really mentioned,” Greig says. “So that is why I’m always trying to pick up on Humphrey for her hall of fame recognition.”
“She’s remarkable and fascinating and powerful in her own circle,” she adds, “but perhaps not in the ways that we often ascribe to women in history. She is not a mistress of a king, she is not a leading politician, she is not an activist, or someone whose name is written in books or poems. She sits quietly somehow within the pages of history.”
“We should reconfigure the values that we’re looking for in the past and find women like Hannah Humphrey, because they tell us a lot about women's history.”
Dr Hannah Greig is a historian of 18th-century Britain, her research including gender, material culture, and the cultural histories of politics and state craft. She has also been a history consultant for film, theatre and television. She was talking to Elinor Evans. Listen to the full interview and find more episodes in our 15 minutes of fame podcast series
Lauren Good is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra, She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy