William Hogarth. 1697 – 1764. Marriage a la Mode.



William Hogarth was born in Smithfield London in 1697, his father was originally a Latin teacher but he ventured into a coffee house business which made him bankrupt. Young Hogarth went to drawing classes where he copied from casts and drew from live models. He soon became an apprentice in a silver workshop where he was to reach the level of Master engraver, he opened a print shop which is where he met Sir James Thornhill and became one of his students in his drawing academy, he married Thornhil’s daughter Jane in 1729, it was a happy marriage, with no children. He was fond of going to the theatre and enjoyed satirical plays and also cartoons which made fun of the royal family and politicians.

Hogarth was a painter, print maker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist, he has been credited with pioneering ‘sequential art’, which is similar to a sophisticated comic strip. He created a series of morality paintings called a ‘Rake’s Progress’ in 1734 using his art to make a social comment on the times and on politics, Hogarth regretted the urbanisation of London and its accompanying crime. Between the years 1743 and 1745 he painted six works which were then engraved called ‘Marriage a la Mode’ now held in the National Gallery London. These works demonstrated how the lives of the wealthy were not without vice, they were a criticism of 18th.century life. It is the first engraving of this series that will be discussed. In 1747 he worked on a series called ‘Industry and Idleness’  in the following year he went to France and returned with an unfavourable impression of the people. Four years later in 1751 he produced ‘Gin Lane’ in which he railed against the Protestant work ethic, the view was that if the people did not find work they deserved to be poor, no matter for what reason, he was critical of the alcoholism, gin was cheap to buy and was called mother’s ruin.  In 1762 he painted ‘The Times’ which greatly upset certain politicians.

Paintings were copied to make prints, an engraver would use a tool called a graver to make incisions or scratches onto a metal plate, that in turn was covered in ink and pressed in a printing press onto paper. Hogarth would make limited editions but because prints were so popular many fraudulent copies were also made.

In the first of the series of six works for Marriage a la Mode we see the main characters, composed in two groups , this series is considered to be one of Hogarth’s best works. On the right we see Earl Squander who is planning to marry his son, the viscount to a wealthy merchant’s daughter, the earl is very miserly and wants more funds to carry on building his new home, which we can glimpse through a window, an architect is looking through this window with plans in his hand, the merchant on the other hand is wealthy and wants to climb the social ladder, hence his wish to marry his daughter to a member of the aristocracy.  The old earl is seen with one leg raised on a cushion, to ease his gout, he holds a scroll on which is drawn his family tree, the merchant holds the marriage contract while on the left of the scene we see the Earl’s son, the Viscount, admiring himself in a mirror, a solicitor called Silvertongue bends over the daughter, probably giving encouragement to her about the benefits of this marriage. Two dogs are seen chained together, a metaphor for this alliance? The room is grand,  we see a classical interior, on one wall there is a portrait in the  French manner, on another an image of Medusa, denoting horror.  In the second of the series we see that the couple have little interest in each other, the marriage is breaking down, a dog pulls out a cap from the young husband’s pocket, a hint that he has been unfaithful to his wife, there is a broken sword, he has been in a fight. The third picture depicts a quack’s consulting room, the husband has syphillis and the young prostitute with him rubs a scab on her lips. The viscount wants the money returned which he spent on the medicine which has not cured him. In the next engraving the old earl dies, the young couple take over the home,  when they entertain guests the wife turns her back on her visitors. In the next piece the husband discovers that his wife has been unfaithfull with the solicitor Silvertongue, who is escaping throught a window, the wife implores her husband to forgive her, the injured husband dies, the wife commits suicide and the solicitor is hung in Tyburn for the murder.

What an unhappy tale. It is hard to discover a middle way in this series of engravings, it shows extremely poor behaviour on each character’s part, it is a comedy of errors, a satire, which entertains the public and perhaps makes them feel somewhat happier about there own lives, perhaps the grass is not greener in the next pasture. It may provide a timely warning also that such behaviour produces unwanted results and it is far more important to tread a middle way.

Society was not stable at the time, the unpopular George 2 ruled, although he spent much of his life back in his much loved home in Hanover, Germany, his son George was at loggerheads with his parents and they had no time for him, the family was dysfunctional and did nothing to calm the unsettled conditions in the country.

Hogarth followed rules when he worked, he produced images that he knew the public would understand and like, he used variety to keep onlookers interested, he made sure that the images he produced were in sync with the main themes in each work, not using too many images which could confuse, he worked in the Rococo style, using loose free lines to create the beauty in the work, his brushstrokes were also free, we see this on the ruffle and frills on the clothing, his colours were warm and rich, restrained by light and dark browns. Hogarth died in 1764.



6 thoughts on “William Hogarth. 1697 – 1764. Marriage a la Mode.

  1. Thanks, Norma. When I was a child I remember looking at some old Hogarth prints my parents had, and feeling a mixture of fascination and repulsion – which is pretty much my response now, too. The fascination, I guess, is in working out what everything means, and fitting the pictures into a wider narrative. The repulsion comes from the harshness of his satirical world. As you say, it’s hard to find a Middle Way here, unless it is in a reminder of the extremes.

    I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s quote about irony. He’s talking about the modern US, but I think it could apply just as well to eighteenth century English satire: “One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As [Lewis] Hyde. . .puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.”

    1. Hi Robert,
      I agree with your comment although I admit I do like satire although it provides no positive outcome in most cases. I wonder if Hogarth hoped for an improvement in behaviour by those who viewed his work. I do not know if he campaigned politically for any social causes that may have influenced and changed minds, perhaps there existed a general apathy to act among members of the government. I think he was making a clear statement, he felt he could not let the situation he found in society go by without some criticism and comment. And of course he had found a goldmine of subjects to paint which must have been rich with images of the time and in that sense the work has a historical background and throws light on the state of affairs at the time.

  2. Hi Robert
    Do I take it that you’re not a fan of ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Have I got New for You’ then?

    1. Hi Barry,
      I didn’t say that I didn’t like satire. I just find it rather limited, at least when it’s as moralistic as Hogarth’s. Hogarth’s satire doesn’t strike me as at all humorous – which is probably why I find it harsh, but I do enjoy satire as a brand of humour. I wouldn’t go so far as to subscribe to ‘Private Eye’, but I might well pick it up in a dentist’s waiting room!

  3. Hi Robert
    That’s good to know! Do you consider that there might be some exceptions though. For example, I’m thinking of a film that has often been depicted as satirical, namely “The life of Brian”, which while remaining respectful to the figure of Jesus (and spiritual practice), superbly lampooned the dogmatic and delusional baggage associated with that story and those times. I think that film played a part in helping people feel more comfortable in questioning rigid views and seeing the absurdity in them. If I’m asked by a foreigner is there anything that stands out that I am proud of about being a UK citizen, the fact that this film has been consistently voted the funniest of all time by its inhabitants is definitely in there with a shout.

    1. I agree with you about the wonderful Life of Brian, along with a lot of other Monty Python classics such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the scene where Death visits a middle-class dinner party. But the satire here is funny, which puts it into an ambiguous zone where we can break down prior assumptions. But Hogarth seems to have a completely different tone to this.

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