At a time when the growing empire nevertheless remained vulnerable to invasion from Scotland in the north and France in the south, and the political infighting within the establishment was calcifying party lines, Britain was faced with the threat of imminent catastrophe. Yet the great paradox was that at one and the same time Britain was confident, rumbustious, and up for a scrap—feelings present, according to William Hogarth (1697–1764), among the common people. Hogarth’s brilliance was to capture in paintings and engravings this seeming dichotomy for his contemporaries and for posterity, and we see this in the exhibition “Hogarth’s Britons: Succession, Patriotism, and the Jacobite Rebellion” at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.1
Hogarth’s reputation came from producing large-scale series of narrative scenes and portraits. The former led to famous anecdotal pieces exposing the moral lassitude of the wealthy and the social inequalities of Britain. Such works included A Harlot’s Progress (six scenes, ca. 1731), A Rake’s Progress (eight scenes, ca. 1735) and Marriage à la Mode (six scenes, ca. 1742–44). In these we see the sins of prodigality and vice luridly exacting their price on the protagonists. Such was the works’ success among all classes that they led to the Engravers’ Copyright Act of 1735, the first time British copyright legislation extended beyond literary works. These works fit in well with the scatological and salacious vulgarity of the times and the still-shocking coarseness of political discourse and lampoonery in the age of Robinocracy, that is, the age of Prime Minister Robert Walpole.
The political context of Hogarth’s Britain is succinctly laid out by Jacqueline Riding in her catalogue. Faced with the prospect of James II’s Catholic dynasty on the throne, leading Protestants, fearful of losing their religion and—no less importantly—patronage, “invited” William of Orange, James’s nephew and son-in-law, to take the crown. He did so by invasion and the subsequent Glorious Revolution of 1688 (disingenuously known as “bloodless”), creating the constitutional monarchy we have today.
James fled the country and attempted a comeback in 1690, but he was defeated at the famous Battle of the Boyne, an event still commemorated with great joy by Protestant Orangemen in Northern Ireland. Riding rightly stresses the religious divides that formed a large part of political motivations at the time. The situation, however, was even more complex than suggested here. While Protestants then and now venerate “Good King Billy” on his white horse for defeating the forces of popery, what is little known is that the Boyne outcome was actually celebrated with a Te Deum by Pope Alexander VIII in Rome. The papacy and William of Orange were allies: due to the geopolitics of the time, both had a common enemy in the expansionist Louis XIV of France.
The scene was then set in the early eighteenth century for Stuart revanchism and the efforts to restore James’s son and grandson—the Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stewart, and the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie—to the throne. Their supporters, called Jacobites (named for the Latinized James: Jacobus), led rebellions in 1708, 1715, 1719, and, most threateningly, in 1745—“The ’45.” The greatest fear for the country at the time was not the Scots’ recourse to violence in pushing for dynastic change, but the age-old (and well-founded) worry that France would exploit the turmoil to invade England. The Whig Supremacy (as the period of Whig government from 1714 to 1760 is known), tied to the new Hanoverian monarchs, was ever on guard against the Jacobite threat, something that Hogarth captured so well in his work, as opportunities for propagandizing exploded. This preoccupation dominates much of the catalogue and exhibition.
These fears materialized in The ’45. The Scots, with French support, invaded England, reaching as far as Derby, “just 120 miles north of and only five days’ march from London,” says Riding. “For both sides, everything was at stake.” Derby became the turning point (hence the location for this exhibition). Against Prince Charlie’s wishes, the army commanders ordered a retreat back to Scotland. In April 1746 they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Culloden. In the brutal follow-up, Jacobitism was crushed. All this provided fertile ground for Hogarth to explore themes of national identity: “defining and reflecting Britishness and contemporary life was synonymous with Hogarth’s vision for an authentic, homegrown art, rooted in the European tradition but not mere imitation, with its own language, interests and priorities.” The exhibition captures this brilliantly, each of the nearly one hundred items receiving detailed, explanatory notes in the wall text and catalogue.
The various portraits of royalty by Hogarth, Nicholas de Largillère, and the studio of Antonio David have a historic interest, if perhaps less of an artistic one. Artifacts such as Jacobite fans, rings, beer jugs, stamped silk ribbons, and garters hold the attention more, but it is the detailed depictions of ordinary Britons in a riotous state of assembly that will really entertain readers and viewers. Even these social settings are replete with political symbols. The Four Times of Day: Night (etching and engraving, 1738) is not merely a rowdy street scene with a chamber pot emptying onto the head of a poor unfortunate; there are hints of a profile of James II or his son James Francis Edward, and above him is a tavern sign of a drinking glass—perhaps an allusion to “the King over the Water” (in France). An “erect pole, springing forth from the fuzz of oak leaves,” as Riding explains, “might also allude to the notoriously randy ‘Merry Monarch’ Charles II.”
There are plenty of robust expressions of nationhood in Hogarth’s works that depict British superiority over foreigners. In O the Roast Beef of Old England (The Gates of Calais) (etching and engraving, 1749), the lean French (apart from a fat friar) sip on their gruel and watch enviously as a “plump haunch, symbolic of abundance and liberty” is carried to an English guesthouse. In the Invasion etchings and engravings of 1756, the uncontrolled papist French troops prepare instruments of inquisitorial torture and cook frogs, while the English are all discipline and joviality.
One of the two great centerpieces of the exhibition is the squalid Marriage à-la-Mode sequence, revealing all the grubbiness of money and infidelity among shallow, insincere, upper-class people. The second in the series, The Tête à Tête, shows a young couple already engaged in adulterous affairs: a footman yawns in the background while a dog sniffs the unfamiliar scarf of the husband’s mistress. All is sexual dissoluteness. Syphilitic spots abound in the third, The Inspection, and the sixth, The Lady’s Death, in which the dying mother has her infant daughter picked up to kiss her farewell, the child already blighted by the disease. Here and elsewhere, we see Hogarth’s theatrical influences: “I have endeavored,” he proclaimed, “to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer: my picture is my stage. And men and women my players.”
The other centerpiece is the large-scale oil painting The March of the Guards to Finchley (1749–50). As usual with Hogarth, the colorful scene is busy with narrative and symbolism. Taking place on an unrecognizable Tottenham Court Road, the army is seen moving northwards to defend the capital from the invading Jacobite army at Derby. Soldiers are drunk on gin; prostitutes call them from a brothel. One soldier gropes a young maiden in the crowd, while the commanding Grenadier officer, representing Britain, is caught between two women: one, a pro-Hanoverian ballad seller; the other, a Jacobite pummeling him with a pro-Stuart newspaper. The Adam and Eve Tavern perhaps represents a paradise that could be lost in this state of what amounts to civil war. Hogarth, ever the sharpest of observers, was present at the scene in 1745.
“Hogarth’s Britons: Succession, Patriotism, and the Jacobite Rebellion” is an important and absorbing exhibition. Sadly, despite many impressive attributes, there are some issues of display. The lighting too often casts the viewer’s shadow onto the pictures, the rooms are too dark, and the small print of the accompanying wall texts is inscrutable. Worst of all, the pictures are hung way too low, requiring constant bending of the knee and back. Presumably this was done to accommodate children—an odd decision given the lack of suitability for kiddies (“Mummy, why does that nice lady have a huge black spot on her face?”).
Riding’s catalogue is excellent, a model of how these things should be done. Paul Holberton Publishing is to be congratulated on generating clear reproductions of the many exhibits. This is all the more commendable given the lamentable but very pricey catalogues of major recent Cézanne exhibitions in London and Chicago, and the current Vermeer one in Amsterdam, where the reproductions are truly appalling, badly misrepresenting important shows. There is no fear of that here.