Family portraits & Conversation Pieces
(prints & paintings - 2/3)
The Christening (1729)
The Christening and The Denunciation appear to be a pair of paintings. 'The Christening shows a scene which might well have been the subject of a portrait group, but in which everything is out of joint. It is a kind of reversal in mode of his almost contemporary painting, The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), where a religious ceremony of impeccable propriety is being carried out. The wit in The Christening lies in the inattention of the participants to the sacrament being performed: the parson is diverted by the girl standing next to him, so the little girl has been able to spill the holy water, an event unobserved by the dim-looking curate and the relative who is only concerned with getting the baby's mob-cap straight. The father is busy satisfying vanity and preening in front of a mirror while in the background, prefiguring the attentions of the lawyer Silvertongue in the first plate Of Marriage-a-la-Mode, another man pays court to his wife. A prudish spinster and a sleeping nurse by the fire also ignore the spiritual import of the proceedings, and it is for this reason, even though Hogarth often caricatures the clergy, that orthodox preachers like the ineffable Dr Trusler could after his death 'hold the painter forth in a moral light.'
The Denunciation (1729)
The Christening and The Denunciation, or A Woman Swearing a Child to a Grave Citizen appear to be a pair of paintings.
'To the obvious amusement of the two fashionable observers on the left, a young woman in an advanced state of pregnancy identifies the father of her child on oath before the magistrate. The old man in a muffler throws his hands up in despair at her accusation while his wife vents her fury, and the true culprit, a handsome youth, prompts the young woman's false testimony. Oblivious to this miscarriage of justice, the magistrate looks on pompously, while the child at his side parodies the action by teaching a spaniel to sit up and beg. Though it displays a rather rudimentary grasp of expression, a field in which Hogarth would later excel, The Denunciation contains in embryo many of the elements which would be developed in the modern moral subjects. Confronted by a single image, the spectator is here invited to elaborate the narrative by speculating on events preceding the episode portrayed, and imagining the consequences of the young woman's actions. It seems probable that it was from a similar starting point that the artist evolved the series of tableaux which made up the Harlot's Progress, a work which, according to Vertue, grew out of a single scene representing a prostitute's morning levée. As in this and subsequent series, Hogarth here incorporates identifiable personalities and subsidiary groups which comment on the central action. This somewhat wooden scene thus paves the way to Hogarth's most significant contribution to English narrative painting.'
Lord Hervey and his Friends (1738)
'This witty and animated conversation piece portrays John, Lord Hervey - who stands towards the centre of the composition pointing at an architectural plan - in the company of a group of friends and political allies, all of whom were supporters of Sir Robert Walpole. The scene is set at Maddington, the shooting lodge owned by Stephen and Henry Fox, who are shown socializing with the third Duke of Marlborough and Thomas Winnington. The most extraordinary motif is provided by the Reverend Wilman, who stands perched on a chair behind Stephen Fox, gazing at a distant church through a telescope, apparently oblivious to his imminent fall. As a representative of divine wisdom, apparently out of place in decidedly secular company, he is counterbalanced by the symbol of earthly wisdom, Minerva, whose statue on the right seems to follow Wilman's gaze towards the hill.
The male bonding which forms the theme of this work has led to it being read in the light of contemporary anti-Walpole satire, which frequently made veiled allusions to homosexuality in Whig circles. In his Epistle to Dr Arbutbnot of 1735, Alexander Pope presented the bisexual Hervey in the guise of 'Sporus' 'This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings' while his relationship with Walpole was described by William Pulteney as similar to 'a certain unnatural, reigning vice (Indecent and almost shocking to mention)'. In this respect, the conspicuous gateposts and walking sticks may be considered as harbouring potentially phallic overtones. Be that as it may, the overall frivolity of this genteel open-air conversation scene suggests a light-hearted contrast between the sacred and the profane, in which virtue seems precariously positioned.'
The Fountaine Family (1730)
'In what is perhaps the most Watteau-esque of his conversation pieces, Hogarth portrays the celebrated connoisseur sir Andrew Fountaine, of Narford Hall, Norfolk, inspecting a mythological landscape painting, apparently oblivious to the beauties of the parkland scene surrounding him. This conceit on the contrast between nature and artifice is further developed in the opposition between the male and female groups, respectively associated with culture and nature, and in the visual pun of the fountain portrayed in the canvas which the auctioneer Cock displays for Sir Andrew's delectation.'
The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox (1729-30)
'The marriage ceremony of Stephen Beckingham, a barrister from a landed family in Kent, to Mary Cox, the daughter of a Kidderminster attorney-at-law, took place in St Benet's church, St Paul's Wharf on 9 June 1729. Hogarth shows the parson reading from the service book and the groom taking his bride's right hand in readiness to place the ring on her finger. Above the couple, two putt] borne upon a cloud up-end a cornucopia containing fruit and flowers to celebrate the couple's future prosperity.
An early example of Hogarth's work in oil, this attractive formal group betrays a certain uneasiness with an unfamiliar medium. Stylistic details suggest that the artist may well have called upon the assistance of an architectural painter to provide the setting, which curiously resembles St Martin-in-the-Fields rather than St Benet's itself. While the putti seem to have been painted on top of the completed interior, the artist was obliged to paint out a figure in the left foreground, shown in the original composition kneeling down to arrange the hassocks. The absence of the figure has been compensated for by the brightly coloured carpet in the foreground, which again was apparently added at a late stage. The identity of the other participants is a matter for conjecture, though the figure in black observing the couple may be the bride's father Joseph Cox, while it has been suggested that the woman in blue at his side may be her late mother.
In its presentation of a fashionable group in an elaborate interior, this work represents one of Hogarth's earliest essays in the conversation piece, a speciality of the painter in the early 1730s, when the genre first came to prominence in English art.'
The House of Cards (1730)
'The House of Cards and The Children's Tea Party are companion pieces. Playing in a park, a dreamlike realm of nature tamed, these look like the same children in each painting, but are not, quite: obvious portraits (never identified) blend into types. The children's future roles are laid out like their little formal dresses. They mimic marriage and build a card house. a delicate construction, already teetering dangerously; a small boy plays soldier and a girl gazes in a mirror. Their play is fun, yet precarious - it takes only a bounding dog to set their tea table flying, in front of the stiff-faced doll. And as the girl holds up the mirror it is directed not towards her but outwards, at the adults who see themselves, the child within, in a time left for ever.'
A Children Tea Party (1730)
Neil McWilliam, David Bindman