William Hogarth was born and raised in London’s East End, a poor and rough part of London. His father was a failed Latin school master and writer who also failed at his other pursuits and spent four years in Fleet Prison for debtors. Hogarth and his mother had to hold the family together. At sixteen Hogarth was apprenticed to a goldsmith and was able to engrave images on coats of arm and booksellers plates. His drawing and engraving skills developed quickly. He was able to transition to making prints, and in 1720 he set up his own print shop. Hogarth’s knowledge of art came from his extensive study of European prints. He began attending drawing classes in 1724 at St. Martin’s Lane school in the home of Sir James Thornhill. Five years later he eloped with Thornhill’s daughter Jane. Theirs was a happy marriage, but they had no children.
Outgoing and personable, Hogarth enjoyed the social and intellectual life of London. His good friends included writers, musicians, liberal intellectuals, and actors. Among them was David Garrick, the famous actor, playwright, and theater manger of the Drury Lane Theatre. However, Hogarth’s childhood experiences and the struggles of the poor never left him. He walked the London streets observing and remembering everything. He told of his unique skill of “retaining in my mind’s eye without drawing on the spot whatever I wanted to imitate.” Hogarth knew the low life and the high society of London. His art, whether painting or prints, was satirical, comical, and critical of the morals of his time.
Hogarth not only was a portrait painter and printmaker but also was an extremely creative writer. He had much in common with English writers such as Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, and Jonathon Swift; and he was a precursor to Charles Dickens. He is famous for his paintings that tell moral stories which he wrote. In “A Harlot’s Progress” (1730) (six paintings), Moll/Mary Hackabout, an innocent young country girl, comes to London looking for honest work and eventually ends up as a prostitute. “The Rakes Progress” (1731)(8 paintings) , tells of Tom Rakekwell, the handsome and lazy son of a rich merchant, who eventually looses all his money through gambling and other pursuits of pleasure and ends up in Bedlam, the insane asylum. As a result of the popularity of these paintings, Hogarth engraved them, thereby increasing their popularity by making them cheaper and readily available for sale.
Hogarth’s “Humours of an Election” (1754-55) (40’’ x 50”) (4 paintings), was inspired by a local election in 1754 for a seat in Parliament in Oxfordshire. The race was between the conservative Tory and the liberal Whig parties, and was a popular topic of discussion in London newspapers, broadsheets, coffee houses, and bars. With the exception of a few historical references, Hogarth does not satirize specific people and events from the Oxfordshire election. Instead he sets the scenes in the imaginary town of Guzzledown, and he creates a host of both comic and satirical characters to illustrate vices such as bribery, intimidation, and mayhem, all widely associated with corruption in British elections.
“An Election Entertainment” (plate 1) depicts Whig party candidates on the left of a large table stretching horizontally across the room. The Mayor of Guzzledown is on the right. The horizontal table was intended to remind the viewer of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and to make an obvious comparison and contrast. The Whig candidates, on the left, are putting up with unwanted attention from their constituents. The younger Whig candidate, blue coated and wearing the white wig, is tolerating the kiss of a large, ugly and possibly pregnant woman named Doll Tearsheet. A small child holds onto his hand and is stealing his ring, while a man standing behind him is trying to light his wig on fire. Seated next to him at the table, the other candidate in the grey wig and dark green coat is being hugged and breathed on by two old and probably drunken men.
An orange Tory campaign banner behind the Whig candidates declares “Liberty and Loyalty.” It has been stolen from the protestors outside. Various and sundry characters crowd the room talking, eating, and drinking. It is Hogarth at his best, and may remind the viewer of the bar scene in “Star Wars.” A small group of musicians in the center behind the table provide the entertainment. On the wall above them a painting of a royal has been slashed.
Outside the back window, and unfortunately hard for the viewer to see, an anti-Semitic Tory mob is carrying the effigy of a bearded Jew, labeled No Jews. The Whig government had recently passed a law allowing greater freedom for Jews that was unpopular with the Tories. The mob also carries bricks and staves which they throw through the window at the Whigs inside, and a few men inside throw furniture out the window at them. They carry two banners: “Liberty” and “Give us our Eleven Days.” This second banner refers to the adoption in 1752 of the Gregorian calendar which resulted on September 3, 1752, becoming officially September 14, 1752. They lost eleven days of their lives.
At the far right of the table, the town Major has become sick from over indulging in oysters. He is being bled as a cure. In the lower right hand corner, one of the bricks thrown from outside has hit the election agent attired in dark red, in the head; he has dropped his registry book and turned over a wine bottle. At front center another injured man is being treated by someone poring gin over his wound. In front a young boy makes punch in a barrel. There is always much left to discover in Hogarth’s works. This piece is the most discussed from the “The Election” series.
Set outside of the Royal Oak Inn, which serves as Tory headquarters, “Canvassing for the Vote” (plate2) depicts both Whigs and Tories engaging in bribing, coercing and otherwise doing whatever it takes to get votes. Centered in the composition is the skeptical inn keeper being plied with money from both Whig and Tory. His hands are out of sight as he accepts money from each. Above his head is the inn’s sign, a gold framed sign depicting a Royal Oak and mostly covered by a temporary sign making fun of the Whigs. Punch, a character from the commedia dell’arte, pushes a wheelbarrow full of coins that he tosses to a crowd, one member of which looks like a witch. Next to them a Tory looks up and flirts with two young ladies on a balcony. Is he interested in votes or something else? Outside the door of the Inn, a large carved British lion eats a French fleur-de-lis. A soldier looks out the door. The military does not take sides in elections. To the two men at the right side of the painting are identified as sailors. They are smoking and playing a game with tiles. The distant scene on the right has been described as an anti-Semitic crowd.
In “The Polling” (plate 3) voters are lining up to cast their vote. On a porch the Whig party sits behind an orange flag and the Tories behind a blue flag. One must go up the steps to the porch to vote. On the right side, a peg legged Whig voter is trying to vote by putting has hook on the book as he swears to his identity. His right to vote is being challenged; as the law says he must put his hand on the book to swear the oath, the metal hook is being questioned. Next to him, the Tories are bringing a mentally disturbed man to vote. Next in line, the Whig’s are bringing a dead man in his shroud to vote. In the background a carriage with the seal of Britannia on the door has broken down. The lady inside is furious. Oblivious to everything, the coach drivers are playing cards. This image has been interpreted as “emphasizing the message that political negligence and mismanagement have imperiled the nation.”
The Tories have won and they are pursuing the British tradition of “Chairing the Member” (plate 4). A parade of supporters follows behind the chair and others are feasting and celebrating in the building at the left. Unfortunately the new member is about to fall from the chair as the group encounters a pitched battle between a Tory supporter in the white shirt fighting with a Whig supporter with an orange cockade on his hat. The Whig is holding a chain attached to a black bear ridden by a monkey. Also blocking the path to the gate is a donkey laden with barrels. On top of the wall leading to the gate of the church, two chimney sweeps urinate on the monkey and the bear. The decorative sculpture usually found on top of a gate post is a skull and crossbones. Leading this strange group is a blind fiddler. The blind leading the blind is the obvious reference.
At the bottom left of this unique group, a sow and three piglets race across a brick bridge. This image has been recognized as referencing the miracle of the Gadarene swine from Matthew 8:28. Jesus and his disciples encounter half naked men who were possessed by demons. Jesus exorcises the demons, turning the men into swine at their request and they “ran violently down a steep place into the sea where they perished in the water.” Gadarene is defined as involving or engaging in a headlong or potentially disastrous rush to something. To complete the chaotic scene a goose flies directly over head of the new member. Is the goose cackling? In each scene in the series much is going on and there are clearly many references to circumstances of the times. The viewer does not need to understand Hogarth’s references to enjoy and appreciate his overall message. Hogarth’s works have been called modern moral subjects.
Often the center of controversy for obvious reasons, Hogarth pointed out problems and issues many would have preferred hidden. Hogarth also was a compassionate and concerned citizen. He brought to Parliament the issue of copyright. His prints were so popular they were being duplicated without his permission. The copyright law, called the Hogarth Act was passed in 1735. Yes, it protected his earnings but also benefited all artists. He followed in the footsteps of his first art teacher and established the St. Martin’s Lane Academy. It was one of the precursors to the Royal Academy.
Hogarth’s portrait of “Captain Coram” (1740) was celebrated in London as Coram was a noted philanthropist and founder of the Foundling Hospital in London. Hogarth was active in contributing to and promoting the hospital. When the building was completed in 1745, he persuaded a group of fellow artists to contribute paintings with uplifting subjects to decorate the building. This collection of paintings was the first public exhibition of contemporary art in London and proved to be a major step toward the founding of London’s Royal Academy of Art in 1768.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.