One of St John’s treasures from the eighteenth-century is an album of 77 of William Hogarth’s prints, a seemingly unique contemporary collation including a broad range of his works.
William Hogarth (1697-1764)
A painter and printmaker who used his art to make satirical commentary on eighteenth-century social issues, Hogarth was an innovator in the field. His ubiquity gave rise to the term Hogarthian as a particularly high accolade of comparison in relation to satirical illustration and sequential art.
Early in life, Hogarth trained as an engraver’s apprentice, engraving coats of arms, bookplates and shop bills. As his career developed, Hogarth was able to make a living as a portrait artist initially, and later by making engravings to produce the prints he is most well-known for today.
Hogarth is often considered an early pioneer in the western development of sequential art. In many of Hogarth’s notable works, he produces a number of prints which, in sequential order, represent a moral lesson. For example, in A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth uses eight different prints to tell the story of the misdeeds and eventual descent of Tom Rakewell (representing a ‘rakehell’, a man of immoral character, usually licentious and recklessly wasteful).
The progression over the sequence of plates takes the Rake from a life of pleasure, with the company of musicians all in expensive clothing, to incarceration in the Fleet debtors’ prison.
The sequential nature of these collections of prints has led critics to understand Hogarth’s work to be an early relation of comic strips or storyboards. Indeed, one film critic sees the technique of ‘cross-cutting’ – alternating one sequence with another when editing film – to be present in Marriage A-la-mode in which Hogarth alternates between representing the married couple together, and seeing the husband or the wife alone.
Hogarth’s alternative title for Marriage a-la-mode was a Variety of Modern Occurrences in High Life which suggests that it is the general lifestyle of his characters which is his target in the social criticism, rather than specific instances within it. This may be seen in his representation of the Viscount and his bride, who initially appear to be victims of their parents’ greed in setting up the marriage, but ultimately receive no sympathy from Hogarth in their eventual separation and demise.
In ‘The Marriage Settlement’, Hogarth introduces his characters, with the married couple sat on opposite ends of the room: the Viscount lounging in a chair on the right-hand side, and the future Countess on the left, neither looking at the other. As one critic writes, they have ‘little in common and no say in the matter’.
Yet as the sequence continues, the bride and groom become perpetrators in their own downfall. In ‘The Inspection’, above, the Viscount is shown visiting a doctor with a black mark on his neck which, as in Gin Lane with the central female figure, signifies that the character has syphilis. Elsewhere we see the bride on her own path, with the final frame showing her suicide.
Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751)
Together, these two engravings represent Hogarth’s satire of the so-called Gin Craze, and apparently his support of the subsequent Gin Act. Inhabitants of Beer Street are happy and relaxed whereas those of Gin Lane are frantic, starving, and neglectful.
Gin Lane is set in St Giles, in London, as a slum. In the detail of the print beyond the woman letting a baby fall from her arms, Hogarth criticises the gin trade in variously observed criticism, such as his representations of starvation with a skeletal man sitting in the foreground and a man sharing a bone with a dog to the left of the central woman.
Some versions include a poem printed below the print, which reads, alongside a translation into French,
Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
Makes human Race a Prey.
It enters by a deadly Draught
And steals our Life away.
Virtue and Truth, driv’n to Despair
Its Rage compells to fly,
But cherishes with hellish Care
Theft, Murder, Perjury.
Damned Cup! that on the Vitals preys
That liquid Fire contains,
Which Madness to the heart conveys,
And rolls it thro’ the Veins.
The Gin Craze recently featured on In Our Time on BBC Radio 4, and the episode is available on iPlayer here:
Although not evident in the album held at St John’s, Hogarth was also known as a portrait artist, painting members of the aristocracy and public figures.
For example, this is Hogarth’s portrait of David Garrick, the actor, and his wife Eva Marie Viegel:
At St John’s
This album of seventy-seven plates has no bibliographical notes at all and comprises only print after print. This album includes some of Hogarth’s most famous works, but also his latest works, in an individual compilation as a collation of loose sheets, possibly put together by Hogarth’s widow. The individual nature of the physical copy makes it particularly noteworthy, as does the breadth of its content.
The copy’s binding seems to be the 18th– century original. Interestingly, there are golden fleur-de-lis decorations on the spine which are traditionally used to represent French royalty.
Lacassin, Francix, ‘The Comic Strip and Film Language’, Film Quarterly, 26/1 (Autumn, 1972), 11-23
Kenyon, Ghislaine, ‘A Hogarth puzzle’, Early Music, 26/1 (February, 1998), 66-68