An Election Series 1753 - 1754
(prints & paintings)
'Though set in the fictional constituency of 'Guzzle-down', Hogarth's attack on the fatuousness and corruption of contemporary politics draws its inspiration from polling in Oxfordshire during the General Election of 1754. In common with many county constituencies in Hanoverian England, Oxfordshire was rarely contested during this period, since local magnates entered into private agreements to avoid the inconvenience of a sustained campaign. The Duke of Marlborough's challenge to this cosy arrangement in 1754 put the Tory incumbents on the defensive for the first time since 1710. A parody of the Last Supper, An Election Entertainment displays the carnivalesque misrule triggered by the scramble for political office. While the Blues (Tory party) protest in the street against recent legislation to emancipate the Jews, the Orange (Whig) candidates offer food, drink and discreet bribes to win over the locals. Sir Commodity Taxem, the elegant beau being embraced by an ageing supporter, and his fellow candidate, harangued by a barber and a cobbler, appear overwhelmed by the riotous assembly over which they nominally preside. A Whig attorney, registering votes, collapses on to a pile of serving dishes after being struck on the head by a brick thrown through the window; the local mayor is bled by an apothecary to recover from a surfeit of oysters; a hired bruiser has a head wound cleaned with alcohol, while a young serving boy fills up a vat to ensure that the drink continues to flow freely. A defaced portrait of William III on the back wall suggests that the Tories have already used the room for a similarly disordered entertainment. Hogarth's scene forms part of a rich tradition of caricatural representations of popular politics in the eighteenth century. Its animation and complexity makes it one of the artist's most accomplished and mordant works.'
'Corruption and disorder thrive at the two party headquarters, lodged in neighbouring inns at the edge of town. In the foreground, the Tories have taken over The Royal Oak, partially concealing the inn sign with a banner attacking ministerial bribery. In the lower section Mr Punch, possibly an allusion to the Duke of Newcastle, showers supporters with gold coins scooped from a wheelbarrow. Above, money cascades from a window in the Treasury for distribution to ministerial supporters, while in the background the royal coach finds itself wedged under a low arch in the Horse Guards building - yet another squib at the expense of Hogarth's inveterate enemy, the architect William Kent. Further down the road, the Whigs' headquarters at the Crown have been temporarily converted into an Excise Office. Irate Tories attack the building, and one of the mob attempts to saw off the signboard, foolishly oblivious to the fall he will suffer if he succeeds. The excise, a tax on wine and tobacco introduced by Walpole in 1733, was withdrawn under popular protest, though suspicions that taxation on commodities would be reintroduced lingered on. Electoral malpractice abounds. Outside the inn, a Tory agent attempts to ingratiate himself with two women, offering them favours from a tray held by a Jewish pedlar, in the hope that they will sway their husbands' votes. The innkeeper's wife counts up bribes, perching on a figurehead representing the British lion swallowing a fleur-de lis. (In a 1757 engraved version, issued following the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, Hogarth removed the lion's vicious teeth.) A parody of Hercules's choice occupies centre stage, as a yeoman accepts bribes from representatives of both parties. On the right, a cobbler and a barber reminisce over past military glories, reliving the heroic sea battle of Portobello with fragments of clay pipes.'
'The public spectacle of polling - a process which often extended over many days - left ample scope for corruption. Here, Hogarth assembles a motley group of voters to discredit the sham which passed for a free election. In the foreground, a military veteran with a wooden leg and a missing right hand excites the anger of one of the parties' lawyers who challenges the validity of his oath, since he swears by placing his hook on the Bible. Behind him, the oath is taken by an imbecile, who is prompted by a figure wearing manacles on his legs and a Tory favour in his hat. The Whigs, not to be outdone, mount the stairs to the booth with a dying man in their arms, while a blind man and a cripple wait their turn to vote. In the background, Hogarth untypically introduces an undisguised allegory in the shape of the coach. bearing the union flag in the escutcheon on its door. With its mountings broken, the coach threatens total collapse, but the footmen, absorbed in their game of cards, continue to ignore the warnings of their passenger, Britannia. Taken in conjunction with other references to national decline in the series, this vignette apparently serves as a warning that political negligence and mismanagement threaten England's future survival.'
'The victory parade of the successful candidate is shown as a bizarre parody of Le Brun's Battle of Granicus in which the victorious Alexander the Great is replaced by the obese Whig parliamentarian George Bubb Doddington. As the supporters' signs confirm, he has been converted into a Tory by Hogarth. His selection for this somewhat precarious seat is made all the more ironic since Doddington, alone amongst prominent politicians, was defeated in 1754. In a mocking allusion to the eagle of victory which hovers over Alexander, Doddington is overflown by a goose, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the politician. A blind fiddler leads the parade, and falls to notice that it has been abruptly halted by a donkey, laden down with barrels of offal which have attracted the interest of a dancing bear. The bear's owner, a one legged sailor, pays no attention to the animal's antics as he has become involved in a violent political dispute with a Tory supporter. His opponent's flail, swung over his shoulder to strike out at the sailor, hits one of the figures supporting the new member, who starts to topple from his scat. A woman is sent flying by a fleeing herd of 'Gadarene' swine and risks even greater discomfort when the parliamentarian lands upon her. This anarchic scene is observed with some amusement by the nobles feasting in the curious building on the left, one of whom - his back turned but wearing a distinctive wig - is quite probably the Duke of Newcastle. In an unglazed upper window, a lawyer draws up an indenture, suggesting that the whole contest between the parties has been a meaningless charade. The inscription on the sundail on the church wall 'Pulvis et umbra sumus' ('We are but dust and shadows') suggests world-weary contempt for such corruption.'