The Story in Paintings: Hogarth’s marriage and the progress of time

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Four Times of the Day: Evening (1736), oil on canvas, 74.9 x 62.2 cm, the Ancaster Collection at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, England. Wikipedia.

In the last article, I examined Hogarth’s first two series, A Harlot’s Progress (c 1731), and its compliment, A Rake’s Progress (1732-5). This article looks at his most famous Marriage A-la-Mode (c 1743), and the more unusual Four Times of the Day (1736).

Marriage A-la-Mode (c 1743)

A summary of the plot covered by the six paintings in this series might run:

A marriage is arranged between the son of the Earl of Squander, Viscount Squanderfield, and the daughter of an Alderman. The Earl of Squander has title and nobility but is near-bankrupt; the Alderman has wealth but no title or nobility. Despite their marriage, both pursue their own lives, she in an affair with Silvertongue, the Alderman’s lawyer, and he in brothels and other places of ill-repute. He contracts syphilis from prostitutes. She rises in society, attending masquerade balls and engaging in liaisons there.

After a masquerade, she takes Silvertongue to a rooming house to sleep with him, but is discovered there by her husband. Silvertongue kills her husband in the ensuing swordfight, and makes his escape through the window, but is arrested later. He is tried for the Viscount’s murder, and hanged. She returns to her father, the Alderman, where she drinks poison and dies, her infant child (who was born with congenital syphilis) reaching out for its mother.

Hogarth employed French engravers to make the plates for printing, and the resulting prints benefited from that. However his original canvases are beautifully painted, and make great use of colour and facture. They are well worth seeing as works of art, not just as a narrative series.

I acknowledge the excellent text and DVD accounts of Egerton (1997) as my sources for the readings of this series.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 1, The Marriage Settlement (c 1743), oil on canvas, 69.9 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG113.

The Marriage Settlement. Hogarth opens the series in the Earl of Squander’s bedroom, in his town house, where the Earl and the Alderman, and their lawyers, are agreeing a contract of marriage and settlement for the Earl’s son, Viscount Squanderfield, to marry the Alderman’s daughter.

The Earl brandishes his nobility at every opportunity. At his left hand is a family pedigree tracing his ancestry back to William the Conqueror, which is almost certainly spurious. Coronets decorate many items in the room, even his crutches. He is finely dressed in a slightly old-fashioned court style, but his right foot suffers from gout. Outside, the builders of his new, more grandiose, house are idle as he has run out of money to pay them.

The Alderman is something of a social misfit, wearing plain rather than elegant clothes. He clutches the centrepiece of the painting, the document of marriage settlement, whilst he and the Earl continue to haggle over it. However his money, in the form of bags of gold coins, is already spread in front of the Earl.

At the left, backs towards one another, are the groom and the bride. The Viscount is dressed in the latest fashion, but is clearly a foolish fop. On the left side of his neck, he already bears the black poxmark of syphilis. His bride is in intimate discussion with her father’s young lawyer, Silvertongue. She wears her wedding dress in anticipation of the settlement, but is sullen and not engaged in the matter.

In front of the couple, a dog and bitch are chained together, as the bride and groom soon will be. Behind them all, the paintings are ‘dark old masters’, including the ominous Medusa, martyrdoms of Saints Lawrence and Agnes, Cain Slaying Abel, and Judith with the Head of Holofernes. They culminate, by the window, in a huge portrait of the Earl himself. Hogarth uses paintings within his paintings very extensively in this series, to add meaning from their content.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête (c 1743), oil on canvas, 69.9 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG114.

The Tête à Tête. Some months after the wedding, the Viscount has returned from a night in gaming houses and brothels. A dog sniffs at a scented cap from one of the prostitutes, which is in his jacket pocket, and another is wrapped around his sword, which lies broken inside its scabbard on the floor in front of him. He is the worse for wear, and his poxmark plainly visible on his neck.

She is not bothered by the Viscount’s condition, but has a knowing smile which could indicate her early pregnancy (suggested by her posture), or her continuing affair with Silvertongue. Behind her are the loose cards from a whist party. In front of the couple two violins in cases are positioned to suggest the act of copulation. A further cue from the open music has so far resisted identification. The rest of the room exudes bad taste.

In the background, a slovenly footman is loafing idly. On the left, the steward has abandoned any attempt to get the Viscount to settle a thick sheaf of bills.

Further cues are provided by the paintings, most notably one which is largely obscured by a green curtain: the little glimpse we are afforded suggests that it shows sexual activity too explicit to be seen, and a reminder of the couple’s separate couplings.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 3, The Inspection (c 1743), oil on canvas, 69.9 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG115.

The Inspection. Hogarth next takes us to a doctor’s consulting room, in which the Viscount – who appears familiar with the room – is in company with a young girl and an older woman who is most probably her mother, both of them being prostitutes. They are seeking the aid of a doctor who is thoroughly foul in appearance, and himself suffering from severe congenital syphilis.

A crucial detail which may be hard to see in the image is of a link between three small boxes of black pills: the young woman holds one box, which is closed; a second closed box is on the seat of the chair just in front of the Viscount’s crotch; the third is open in the Viscount’s right hand, outstretched towards the doctor. The pills are black, in common with the poxmarks which appear on the Viscount and the mother, indicating that they are mercuric salts used to treat syphilis. The implication is that the Viscount is questioning their effectiveness with the doctor.

A skull on the table at the left bears the unmistakeable erosions produced by advanced syphilis. All around the group are various worrying items of medical equipment and specimens. More worrying still, the mother (whose sleeves are made of the same patterned fabric as the girl’s gown) is caressing a cutthroat surgical knife.

Hogarth sets up some revealing facial expressions here, and uses directions of gaze to provide clues as to the interactions taking place.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 4, The Toilette (c 1743), oil on canvas, 70.5 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG116.

The Toilette. Some time later, the couple have inherited the late Earl’s title, and are now the Earl and Countess Squander. She is being entertained whilst completing her dressing and preparations for the day. By her right arm hangs a teething coral, indicating that she is now the mother of an unseen infant, who is being raised by a nurse.

To the right of the Countess, Silvertongue rests at ease, his feet uncouthly laid on the sofa, clearly intimate with her. He is offering her a ticket to a masquerade ball, where no doubt he will meet her. His left hand gestures towards a painted screen showing such a masquerade.

At the left an Italian castrato (by his wig and jewellery) is singing, to a flute accompaniment. The rest of the room are disinterested, apart from a woman in white, who is swooning at the singer. Beneath him are various invitation cards scattered on the floor. Servants are in attendance, including a French hairdresser, who is curling the Countess’s hair.

Hogarth’s selection of paintings for this scene is revealing and satirical. Above the castrato is the Rape of Ganymede, and above that a portrait of Silvertongue. Above the Countess is Io in ecstatic embrace with Jupiter, and Lot’s daughters making their father drunk so that he can inseminate them both.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 5, The Bagnio (c 1743), oil on canvas, 70.5 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG117.

The Bagnio. The climax of Hogarth’s story, and its peripeteia, is set in a bagnio, a room in a rooming house intended for illicit liaisons and gambling. The Earl stands, with the posture of a dying man, possibly referring to the deposition of Christ, mortally wounded in the chest, his sword impaled in the floor in front of him.

The Countess, dressed in bedclothes complete with a small cap, is on bended knee in front of him, apparently praying for forgiveness. Her clothes are scattered around the floor, as if removed in haste, her stays having fallen on a bundle of faggots (then a common term for prostitutes). A man – Silvertongue, also in night dress – is making his escape through an open window, having fought the Earl. His sword, covered in the Earl’s blood, rests in the foreground.

At the far right, a night watchman and constable force their way in, the watchman’s lantern casting the shadow of a cross on the door.

The implicit narrative is that the Countess and Silvertongue met as arranged at the masquerade, and adjourned to the bagnio to consummate their lust. The Earl had tracked them down, and entered the room. Silvertongue fought and killed him, but his attempt to escape will prove unsuccessful now that the police are involved. He will therefore be tried, sentenced to death, and hanged.

For this, Hogarth chose a tapestry of the Judgement of Solomon, and paintings showing Saint Luke, and a parody best described as a portrait of a harlot.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Marriage A-la-Mode: 6, The Lady’s Death (c 1743), oil on canvas, 69.9 × 90.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of The National Gallery London, inventory NG118.

The Lady’s Death. The final scene takes place in the Alderman’s house, to which the Countess has fled in the aftermath of her husband’s murder and her lover’s execution. Its composition matches the first painting, but contrasts with it in the frugal appearance. Its furnishings are minimal and functional, and its floorboards bare.

The Countess is in the throes of death on an armchair, an empty vial of laudanum (tincture of opium) by her feet. Between her fashionable shoes and the vial is a printed broadsheet containing the dying speech of Silvertongue prior to his execution. Her father – wearing the same clothes as he did in the first painting – is removing her rings, as someone who committed suicide then could not retain any property.

A nurse holds the Countess’s infant for one last embrace. The infant bears the tragic marks and deformities of severe congenital syphilis. In the middle of the canvas, an apothecary is berating a servant for obtaining the laudanum. A doctor skulks in the background, powerless to save the dying Countess. A poor breakfast is laid up on the table, with a dog stealing the pig’s head from it.

Four Times of the Day (1736)

Compared with Hogarth’s other narrative series, this appears more experimental in terms of narrative. Instead of showing the same group of characters in a temporal series of scenes, he chose to show four views of various people going about their lives in different parts of London, each at a different time of day, and a different season. Thus their only real link is by time.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Four Times of the Day: Morning (1736), oil on canvas, 73.7 x 61 cm, National Trust Bearsted Collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, England. Wikipedia.

A lady, making her way to church, is crossing the west side of the piazza of Covent Garden, early on a winter’s morning. Holding, but not opening, her fan, she stares intently at two couples who are making love, the men fondling the women lustfully. A small group of children by them are warming up over an open fire. Behind the couples is Tom King’s Coffee House, which opened once the tavern doors closed. A fight appears to have broken out inside it, and a wig flies out. People in the background are setting up market stalls ready for the start of the day.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Four Times of the Day: Noon (1736), oil on canvas, 74.9 x 62.2 cm, the Ancaster Collection at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, England. Wikipedia.

For noon, we move to Hog Lane, in the slums near Saint Giles in the Fields, seen in the background. It is spring. A group of Huguenots are leaving the French Church (now in Soho); they arrived as refugees during the 1680s, and engaged in silk and related trades, hence their fashionable dress and decorum.

Opposite is a contrasting group of Londoners outside a pie shop: a black man fondles the breast of a woman holding a pie, which looks about to fall as quickly as her virtue. In front of her a young boy bawls over his pie, which has broken, dropping fragments to feed a beggar below. The body of a dead cat rests on the dividing line between the two groups.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Four Times of the Day: Evening (1736), oil on canvas, 74.9 x 62.2 cm, the Ancaster Collection at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, England. Wikipedia.

At dusk, in the warmth of the summer, we are outside the Sadler’s Wells theatre near Islington, then in open fields and countryside. With a background of a cow being milked, a dyer carries his tired young daughter, alongside his large wife. The cow’s horns are positioned so as to appear to be on the dyer’s head, a longstanding indication that he is a cuckold. Two children behind them replay a scene of marital discord. We can see that, inside the tavern, those escaping the oppressive air of the city are sat in the smoke of their pipes.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Four Times of the Day: Night (1736), oil on canvas, 73.7 x 60.9 cm, National Trust Bearsted Collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, England. Wikipedia.

Here it is late at night on 29 May, Oak Apple Day, which celebrates the restoration of the monarchy. We are now back in the centre of London, in what was then the Charing Cross Road, now known as Whitehall. A bonfire has caused the Salisbury Flying Coach to overturn. In the foreground, the Worshipful Master of a Masonic Lodge, usually identified as the hard-line judge Sir Thomas de Veil, is so drunk that he is being helped home by his Tyler (doorkeeper); a chamberpot is being emptied over them from above. Around them are taverns well known for being brothels, and signs to bagnios of the type featured in Marriage A-la-Mode.

Inside the window at the right, a barber-surgeon is busy shaving a customer haphazardly, as if drunk. Below the window some homeless are settling down for the night, and a child blows on a firework.

I hope that you will agree that, despite their temporal association, these paintings and the scenes shown in them do not constitute any form of narrative as a series, although the individual paintings contain isolated fragments from various narratives.

Hogarth’s narrative series

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Hogarth’s narrative series is the sheer number of them. They included:

  • A Harlot’s Progress (c 1731), 6 paintings and prints,
  • A Rake’s Progress (1732-5), 8 paintings and prints,
  • Four Times of the Day (1736) (non-narrative), 4 paintings and prints,
  • Marriage A-la-Mode (c 1743-5), 6 paintings and prints,
  • The Happy Marriage (started c 1745), 2 paintings, incomplete,
  • Industry and Idleness (1747), 12 prints,
  • The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), 4 prints,
  • The Humours of an Election (1755), 4 paintings and prints.

This makes a total of 8 series, of which 7 were narrative, and 5 painted narratives. The latter included no less than 27 paintings in total.

At the time, they were successful mainly, as he had intended, for the production of prints. Pirated copies of his prints became such a problem to him that he pressed for better protective legislation: the Engravers’ Copyright Act became law on 25 June 1735 to provide just that, and has since flourished into modern copyright law. The original act was known as Hogarth’s Act.

Hogarth used Alberti’s ‘laws’, but enhanced them with the addition of facial caricature, and most distinctively the use of paintings within paintings to develop his narrative.

However, his paintings are now full of puzzles and problems for the modern reader, as the references in his satire and fine details are largely forgotten. Thus narrative which, at the time, was seen as being topical, and hugely successful, has not stood the test of time, and now just appears mystifying.

There is a trade-off here: topical references often bring immediate popularity and commercial success, as well as making contemporary viewers see their relevance; longstanding classical references may be seen at the time as being hackneyed and irrelevant, but are more likely to stand the test of time. This is particularly true when trying to tell stories which are unlikely to be familiar to the viewer, either at the time or in the future.

Despite these issues, which must have been obvious to Victorian artists, these unique narrative series were to influence several British painters a century later – the subject of the next article.


Wikipedia on Marriage A-la-Mode
Wikipedia on Four Times of the Day

Egerton, J (1997, 2010) Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode, National Gallery Company. ISBN 978 1 8570 9510 4. Complete with a DVD.
Hallett M (2000) Hogarth, Art & Ideas, Phaidon Press. ISBN 978 0 7148 3818 2.