Interlude: A Perspective into Art History via Hogarth

This is a post about a brief presentation I did for the core class of my programme, 18th Century Cultural History: Historiography and Archival Methods. I was to interrogate a portrait from the 18th Century as an Art Historian. I chose a satirical portrait of the poet Charles Churchill; an etching by William Hogarth entitled The Bruiser, created in 1763. The historian part of the task was easy for me, the art historian part was trickier.

 

The Bruiser, 1763

The Bruiser is the culmination of several years of what my flatmate referred to as a “historic bitch-fight” between the satirist and artist William Hogarth, the politician John Wilkes, and Wilkes’ friend, the poet Charles Churchill. It all began the year before, in 1762, when Wilkes began publishing a radical weekly circulation titled The North Briton, itself a reaction to a pro-government propaganda paper in circulation titled The BritonThe North Briton‘s tone and rhetoric were a blatant, often satirical attack on George III and his main advisor, Lord Bute, over policy, particularly regarding putting an end to the Seven Years War. Wilkes, a colourful character, thought that the war was beneficial to Britain and necessary. Hogarth did not approve of the war-mongering rhetoric, prompting Wilkes to attack Hogarth on numerous occasions in The North Briton. In response, Hogarth published a series of two engravings titled The Times (plates 1 and 2), which are heavy in anti-war imagry, thus supporting the king and the attempt at peace, and infuriating Wilkes. Oh, and Hogarth depicts Wilkes being punished in the pillory in plate 2, adding fodder to the fire, literally and figuratively, as Hogarth uses fire to represent war.

The Times, plate 1, 1762

The Times, plate 2, 1762

Wilkes continued publishing The North Briton, with its anti-king, anti-advisor, pro-war, and anti-Hogarth content. In 1763 Wilkes was arrested for libel, referring to content of The North Briton, and tried in the King’s Court. He was released on a precedent-setting technicality regarding the use of general warrants.  Hogarth was present at Wilkes’ trial and  created this satirical portrait of the trial where Wilkes is a demonic radical intent on pursuing his view of liberty at any cost:

 

John Wilkes Esquire, 1763

Wilkes’ friend and co-conspirator Charles Chirchill, a well known satirical poet and regular contributer to The North Briton, replied to Hogarth in kind with the lengthy poem An Epistle to William Hogarth (here’s a link, if you’re interested: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004801927.0001.000/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext), which accuses Hogarth of vanity and envy, among other things. Hogarth, ever the wittier adversary, promptly created The Bruiser in response to the Epistle. It was the crowning achievement in the battle of wits that had been going on for over a year.

This portrait did not exist in a vacuum, and the engravings and writings leading up to it’s creation illustrate the intertextuality of all dialogue, whether the medium is language or art. To reveal these connections I followed a methodology laid out in J-G Chen’s article “William Lothian and the Belles-Lettres Society of Edinburgh: Learning to be a Luminary in Scotland” from the Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies. While the content of the article is not relevant to my inquiry, the means of research and investigation are. In the article Chen examines the literary and intellectual world in which Lothian existed, and I found this to be a useful method for understanding the environment that led to the creation of The Bruiser.

 Now we come to the trickier part of the interrogation, what does it mean?

The engraving was done using an old, and for contemporaries instantly recognizable plate from a younger Hogarth’s self portrait. This portrait was the cover of his Folios for a time, until he created a later version with himself as an older man. The use of this old plate signifies that it wasn’t even worth Hogarth’s time to create a new plate upon which to ridicule Churchill, as Churchill was so far below him intellectually and socially. It was almost as if it were an afterthought to Hogarth to poke fun at Churchill. Here’s the original:

 

Gulielmus Hogarth, 1748-1749

 Here’s The Bruiser again, for comparison:

 

The Bruiser,1763

The Bruiser is rich in satirical imagery. The full title is The Bruiser Charles Churchill (once the Reverend) in the Character of a Russian Hercules, Regaling himself after having Killed the Monster Caricatura that so Sorely Gall’d his Virtuous Friend the Heaven Born Wilkes – but he had a Club this Dragon on to Drub, or he had ne’er don’t I warrant ye. Churchill is represented as a bear. The bear represents, to me, the uncouthness and lack of subtlety that Churchill displayed by throwing himself into the fight between Hogarth and Wilkes. Churchill is a clumsy, drunken bear, holding a Hurculean club. The bear is too drunk to wield the club, and in an inversion of power is being supported by it. The club represents The North Briton and bares inscriptions signifying moments of “fallacy” and “lye” portrayed in The North Briton. I interpret this as a play on Churchill’s use of prose as a blunt tool, too weighty for him even to lift. Churchill the bear holds a huge tankard of beer and is drooling, donning torn clerical garb… the meaning of the clerical garb is unclear to me as Churchill was never a churchman… I suppose it is possible that it’s a play on the name Churchill…

Anyway, the pug represents Hogarth; it was Hogarth’s mascot, representing his stubborn and pugnacious character. The pug is peeing on a copy of Churchill’s An Epistle to William Hogarth. Talk about not being subtle! Also not so subtle, Hogart’s trademark “line of beauty,” visible in the self portrait Gulielmus Hogarth on the artist pallate at lower right – a feature in all of the portraits Hogarth painted, representing his ideas about taste and beauty – has been covered by another engraving in the portrait The Bruiser; Churchill the bear wasn’t fit to be graced with such a mark.

The books propping up the picture of The Bruiser within the portrait all have their spines turned away, which I am not sure of the significance of but suspect has something to do with being unlettered (a “man of letters” being a learned, cultured, refined man, thus to be “unlettered” was to be none of those things). Inscribed on the facing page ends of the books are “Great George Street, A List of the Subscribers to the North Briton,” and “A New Way To Pay Old Debts, A Comedy by Massinger.” The first is a direct reference to The North Briton. I think it is a remark about the narrow mindedness of the publication: Wilkes lived on Great George Street at the time and Hogarth was implying that the readership wouldn’t extend beyond his direct acquaintances and neighbors. The second is a reference to a hugely popular 17th Century play which remained popular into the 19th Century, in which the villain, also the main character, eventually gets what is due to him by morally superior characters within the play. I suspect that’s another jab at Wilkes. The final (and my personal favourite) bit of satire is the play on the sport of bear baiting, in which a dog and a bear were set upon one another in a cage. The bear, starved and weak, usually lost to the dog, regardless of it’s comparative size. Eighteenth Century people thought this was terribly funny.

Hogarth’s wit and skill with satire assured that people understood the message, and ironically, it is much easier to find reference today to Hogarth’s satirical portrait of Churchill than it is to find a serious portrait of him. Thus Hogarth the dog bested Churchill the bear in a “bitch-fight” that had been going on for over a year, and today, two-and-a-half centuries later we still chuckle about Churchill, Hogarth’s bear.

Sources:

Bindman, David. “Hogarth, William (1697-1767), painter and engraver”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (2009) Accessed 16/10/2012 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/13464?docPos=1

Chen, J-G. “William Lothian and the Belles-Lettres Society of Edinburgh: Learning to be a Luninary in Scotland.” Journal for eighteenth Century Studies 247 (2004): 173-187

Churchill, Charles. “An Epistle to William Hogarth”. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Accessed 16/10/2012 http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004801927.0001.000/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

Detroit Institute of Art. “The Bruiser” Detroit Institute of Art, Search the Collection. (2012) Accessed 16/10/2012 http://www.dia.org/object-info/34d30b09-5272-4759-a774-cb1044137969.aspx?position=1

Lynch, Jack. “Wilkes, Liberty, and Number 45”. Colonial Williamsburg, That the Future May Learn from the Past (2003) Accessed 16/10/2012. http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/summer03/wilkes.cfm

Paulson, Ronald. Hogarth: Art and Politics. (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1993) Pp. 362-440.

Sambrook, James. “Churchill, Charles (1732-1764), poet” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2006) Accessed 16/10/2012 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5397?docPos=2

Thomas, Peter D. G. “Wilkes, John (1725-1797), politician”. Oxford Dictionalry of National Biography (2008) Accessed 16/10/2012 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29410?docPos=1

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