Lakeside Arts
Part of University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts

Detail of an engraving by William Hogarth showing an 18th century social gathering


Whilst working from my kitchen table, with the Djanogly Gallery closed for the foreseeable future, I thought what better time to bring to light some of the art works in the University’s collection. Normally, these can be difficult for the general public to see because of where they’re displayed or because they are kept in store for their protection. Each week we’ll fetch one of those works ‘out of store’. – Neil Walker, Head of Visual Arts Programming


By William Hogarth (1697-1764) 

The university holds a substantial collection of engravings by the eighteenth-century political satirist and moralist William Hogarth. It includes his famous A Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress and also my favourite – the series from which this scene is taken – Marriage a la Mode.

A cautionary tale in six parts, rather like the acts of a play, Marriage a la Mode tells the story of the disintegration and tragic end of a loveless marriage arranged between the daughter of a wealthy but miserly merchant (new money) and the son of a bankrupt aristocrat, the wonderfully titled Earl Squanderfield. Hogarth always intended the series to be engraved for wide distribution but the designs were originally executed around 1743 as six oil paintings, now in the National Gallery, London. The engravings reverse the compositions of the paintings like a mirror image.

I've chosen Plate IV of the engraved series to look at in closer detail but it’s worth recapping on what has already taken place in the preceding three. In the first scene – The Marriage Contract – we have been introduced to the hapless couple. Totally uninterested in each other they sit back-to-back whilst their father’s thrash out the details of the settlement with lawyers. In scene 2 – a ‘morning after the night before’ - the marriage is already in trouble. She’s obviously enjoyed a good night with company: the room is in a mess with chairs upturned and gaming cards strewn on the floor. Her husband, the Viscount, is hung-over and slumped in a chair; a dog sniffs at a woman’s cap stuffed in his pocket. In the following scene we discover more about his night-time capers as he makes a visit to a quack doctor to seek a remedy for the syphilis he’s apparently passed on to the young woman by his side.

Full image of William Hogarth's engraving depicting a social gathering of a wife

Click on the picture to open up a bigger view.

In this – The Toilette (scene 4) – we get a glimpse into his wife’s morning levee, a social gathering that takes place in her private quarters as she’s dressed and coiffed for the day. 

The focus of the picture appears to be an informal music party but as with all of Hogarth’s sly exposures of vice and folly the devil is in the detail.

Seated before her mirror and attended by her hairdresser, the wife pays no attention to the music makers but instead gazes intently at her lawyer (Silvertongue) who is clearly making himself very comfortable on a sofa next to her. To make plain the nature of their relationship the paintings above their heads portray scenes of seduction whilst the little page boy in the bottom left corner points to the antlered head of a statuette, a sign of the cuckolded or cheated absent husband.

Meanwhile, on the right-hand side of the picture, a singer accompanied by a flautist provides the musical entertainment. It’s been suggested that the corpulent vocalist is one of the fashionable Italian castrati, then taking London by storm. Next to them sits a precious looking man drinking chocolate with his hair in rag curlers. Another painted scene of seduction forms their backdrop – this time the rape of Ganymede by Zeus - hinting at the sexual inclinations of this trio. 

Given the moral climate of the time this less than flattering image of sexual difference is undoubtedly intended to reflect poorly on the Countess’ lifestyle and the company she keeps.

To find out how the story ends and to learn more about Hogarth’s ‘Marriage a la Mode’ series visit the National Gallery's website.