William Hogarth’s The Humours of an Election, 3: The Polling (1754-55) (Sir John Soane’s Museum London)

Exhibitions

A journey through William Hogarth’s ‘moral geography’ of London and beyond

As an exhibition opens at the Sir John Soane's Museum, the curator David Bindman takes us from Covent Garden and Grosvenor Square to “Guzzledown”

Has life really changed that much since the 18th-century depicted by William Hogarth? The artist’s paintings of carousing and canoodling in Covent Garden, peccadillos in Piccadilly and hard polling in the provinces all seem rather contemporary. These scenes, and many more can be seen in a new exhibition opening in London this week that reunites all of Hogarth’s painting series for the first time. The Sir John Soane’s Museum already owns the complete sets of A Rake’s Progress and An Election, which are displayed in its distinctive Picture Room with its moving ‘picture plane’ walls. The museum’s two series will be joined by Marriage A-la-Mode, Four Times of Day and the three existing paintings from the unresolved The Happy Marriage series. Although the series have been shown together before, at Tate’s 2007 and 1971 exhibitions of the artist. this is the first time all the paintings will be exhibited together—previously some of the works were represented by etchings.

The moral narrative series are “are constructed like plays”, says the exhibition’s curator David Bindman, “with each painting representing a dramatic scene, most of which show flawed individuals’ moral progress towards death, expressed in journeys through London, whose streets and monuments signify their moral and social position.” New research ahead of the exhibition has also highlighted the importance of the 18th-century settings of the works. “This moral geography is based on the contrast between the City of London, the commercial hub inhabited by merchants; the courtly and aristocratic West End; and the raffish area in between, filled with brothels and places of entertainment”, Bindman says.

Bindman has picked out five key works from each of the series, telling us the stories behind them and revealing the locations that inspired the scenes.

Hogarth: Place and Progress, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, 9 October-5 January 2020

A Rake’s Progress, scene 4 The Rake Arrested, going to Court, 1734/35— “The Rake, who aspires to the aristocratic life using money inherited from his miserly merchant father, is in the West End of London. He is on the point of being presented at the court of St James, when he is arrested for debt. The place of his arrest is on the corner of Piccadilly and St James, and the palace can be seen in the background much as it appears today. It is also almost opposite the Earl of Burlington’s grand house, now the Royal Academy. Though the Rake is rescued from his debt by the loyal girlfriend he has abandoned, from this point of nemesis onwards his situation deteriorates through the remaining four scenes until he becomes insane, then dies in Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital), surrounded by picturesque lunatics.”
William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, 4: The Arrest (1734) (© The Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum)

A Rake’s Progress (1734-35). The Arrest: “The Rake, who aspires to the aristocratic life using money inherited from his miserly merchant father, is in the West End of London. He is on the point of being presented at the court of St James, when he is arrested for debt. The place of his arrest is on the corner of Piccadilly and St James, and the palace can be seen in the background much as it appears today. It is also almost opposite the Earl of Burlington’s grand house, now the Royal Academy of Arts. Though the Rake is rescued from his debt by the loyal girlfriend he has abandoned, from this point of nemesis onwards his situation deteriorates through the remaining four scenes until he becomes insane, then dies in Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital), surrounded by picturesque lunatics.”

The Four Times of Day (1936-37). Morning: “The Four Times of Day are unified not by the fate of an individual but the life of London on a single day, following in a popular literary tradition. The setting of Morning is recognisable today as Covent Garden piazza with St Paul’s Church on the left. Covent Garden, neither in the City nor the West End, is shown as the meeting point of different kinds of people, in this case of opposing temperaments. The central figure, assumed to be a spinster on her way to church, accompanied by a freezing attendant carrying her bible, encounters with disapproval a group of slumming young gentlemen carousing with market girls, in front of the notorious Tom King’s Coffee House.”
William Hogarth’s The Four Times of Day: Morning (1736-37) (© National Trust Collections, Upton House; The Bearsted Collection)

The Four Times of Day (1936-37). Morning: “The Four Times of Day are unified not by the fate of an individual but the life of London on a single day, following in a popular literary tradition. The setting of Morning is recognisable today as Covent Garden piazza with St Paul’s Church on the left. Covent Garden, neither in the City nor the West End, is shown as the meeting point of different kinds of people, in this case of opposing temperaments. The central figure, assumed to be a spinster on her way to church, accompanied by a freezing attendant carrying her bible, encounters with disapproval a group of slumming young gentlemen carousing with market girls, in front of the notorious Tom King’s Coffee House.”

Marriage A-la-Mode (1743-45). The Marriage Settlement: “The Marriage A-la-Mode series is painted in a consciously elegant style to contrast with the generally sordid settings of the Harlot’s and Rake’s Progresses. It tells the story of an arranged marriage between the son of an Earl and the daughter of a London merchant, both of whom are stereotyped and satirised in the first scene. The setting is a grand house in a relatively new square in the West End, like Grosvenor or Berkeley Squares, of the kind built by aristocrats to be near to both the court and the entertainments of London. The earl is showing off his ancient pedigree while the merchant is concerned with the fine print of the marriage agreement. The unhappy couple ignore each other, the earl’s son preening himself before a mirror, while the merchant’s daughter in distress is being comforted by the wicked lawyer Silvertongue, who eventually becomes her lover. The walls are hung largely with Italian paintings, a sign to Hogarth of poor aristocratic taste, which contrast with the Dutch paintings that hang in the miserly merchant’s house by London Bridge, in the last painting of the series.”
William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode, 1: The Marriage Settlement (1743-45) (© The National Gallery, London)

Marriage A-la-Mode (1743-45). The Marriage Settlement: “The Marriage A-la-Mode series is painted in a consciously elegant style to contrast with the generally sordid settings of the Harlot’s and Rake’s Progresses. It tells the story of an arranged marriage between the son of an Earl and the daughter of a London merchant, both of whom are stereotyped and satirised in the first scene. The setting is a grand house in a relatively new square in the West End, like Grosvenor or Berkeley Squares, of the kind built by aristocrats to be near to both the court and the entertainments of London. The earl is showing off his ancient pedigree while the merchant is concerned with the fine print of the marriage agreement. The unhappy couple ignore each other, the earl’s son preening himself before a mirror, while the merchant’s daughter in distress is being comforted by the wicked lawyer Silvertongue, who eventually becomes her lover. The walls are hung largely with Italian paintings, a sign to Hogarth of poor aristocratic taste, which contrast with the Dutch paintings that hang in the miserly merchant’s house by London Bridge, in the last painting of the series.”

The Happy Marriage, 5: The Dance (after 1745): “The Happy Marriage series was never finished, and it survives in three oil sketches and engravings after lost paintings from the series. Significantly, it is set in the country, supposedly living by simpler and more honest values than the corrupt city. In this unfinished painting Hogarth has bound together the mostly clumsy dancers with a consummate elegance that looks forward to his celebrated theory of the ‘Line of Beauty’ in his book The Analysis of Beauty (1753). In the background there is an unforgettable image of a bald man wiping his forehead by the light of the moon.”
William Hogarth’s The Happy Marriage, 5: The Dance (after 1745) (© Tate)

The Happy Marriage. The Dance (after 1745): “The Happy Marriage series was never finished, and it survives in three oil sketches and engravings after lost paintings from the series. Significantly, it is set in the country, supposedly living by simpler and more honest values than the corrupt city. In this unfinished painting Hogarth has bound together the mostly clumsy dancers with a consummate elegance that looks forward to his celebrated theory of the ‘Line of Beauty’ in his book The Analysis of Beauty (1753). In the background there is an unforgettable image of a bald man wiping his forehead by the light of the moon.”

The Humours of an Election. The Polling (1754-55): “The Election series is also set in the country, in the fictional town of Guzzledown in Oxfordshire. The series’ combination of gorgeous sensual painting worthy of the best French painting of the period, coarse humour and deep cultural pessimism are fully expressed in this scene. The procession across the bridge and the landscape beyond is almost Claudian in its luminous elegance, while the scenes of the sick and deformed casting their votes with much difficulty are hilarious and cruel, yet beautifully painted. The pessimism at the state of the nation of Hogarth’s last years is evident in a broken coach containing a figure of Britannia vainly trying to catch the attention of the drivers who are absorbed in cheating each other at cards.”
William Hogarth’s The Humours of an Election, 3: The Polling (1754-55) (Sir John Soane’s Museum London)

The Humours of an Election. The Polling (1754-55): “The Election series is also set in the country, in the fictional town of ‘Guzzledown’ in Oxfordshire. The series’ combination of gorgeous sensual painting worthy of the best French painting of the period, coarse humour and deep cultural pessimism are fully expressed in this scene. The procession across the bridge and the landscape beyond is almost Claudian in its luminous elegance, while the scenes of the sick and deformed casting their votes with much difficulty are hilarious and cruel, yet beautifully painted. The pessimism at the state of the nation of Hogarth’s last years is evident in a broken coach containing a figure of Britannia vainly trying to catch the attention of the drivers who are absorbed in cheating each other at cards.”