Hogarth’s Election Series

Peter Quennell says Hogarth’s great survey of the Humours of an Election is one of the masterpieces of English 18th century painting

An Election Entertainment, The Humours of an Election series, 1755It was in February 1755 that William Hogarth made the first – and, as it was to turn out, much the more fortunate – of his two major expeditions into the field of political satire. Hitherto he had seemed well content with social and domestic subjects. Since 1729 when, according to his fragmentary memoir, he had married at the age of 32 and 'commenced painter of small Conversation pieces from twelve to fifteen inches high,' this energetic and versatile artist had continued to enlarge his fame; but, although generally admired, his 'curious Miniature Conversation Paintings' did not altogether satisfy him. Evidently he loved the theatre; and he now began to borrow suggestions from the actor's and the playwright's art. He had decided (he wrote)

'to compose pictures on canvas similar to representations on the stage. ... Let the figures in either pictures or prints be considered as players dressed either for the sublime – for genteel comedy, or farce – for high or low life. I have endeavoured to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer. ...'

Hogarth's earliest effort at pictorial dramatization was, of course, A Harlot's Progress, painted during the year 1731 and published as a series of prints in the spring of 1732. Their success was apparently immediate; and the appearance of Plate III, which shows the formidable harlot-hunting magistrate, Sir John Gonson, as he bursts into Moll Hackabout's room, bent on removing poor Moll to the miseries of Bridewell, elicited particularly loud applause. Sir John's activities were by no means popular; and the Lords of the Treasury, who did not share either his reforming zeal or his moral prejudices, are said to have cut short their business and abandoned their official posts that they might have an opportunity of hastening to the print shop.

Followed A Rake's Progress, originally advertised in December 1733, and Marriage-a-la-Mode, the finest and most effective of these panoramas of 'pictur'd Morals,' announced after a lapse of a little over eleven years. Meantime the painter-dramatist had attracted the attention of many eminent-contemporary critics. In 1736 Jonathan Swift had paid him the tribute of some enthusiastic doggerel verses:

'How I want thee, humorous Hogarth!
Thou, I hear, a pleasant rogue art.
Were but you and I acquainted,
Every monster should be painted:
You should try your graving tools
On this odious group of fools;
Draw the beasts as I describe them;
Form their features, while I gibe them...

And Henry Fielding, no less severe a judge, had saluted him in 1740 as 'one of the most useful Satyrists any age, hath produced.'

Whether Hogarth was as genuine a moralist as he himself sometimes liked to imagine, and as his literary admirers have often claimed, is a question that, although it throws an important light on the constitution of his genius, cannot be debated here. If he had something of Fielding's genial scorn, tempered by much of the novelist's delight in the oddity and diversity of human existence, we can credit him with very little of Swift's saeva indignatio. He could never have become a ferocious and embittered recluse, but remained essentially a man of the world, for whom the revolutions of fashion and taste and opinion, despite a temperament both irritable and combative, was still the most fascinating of all themes. He was not a man, one supposes, who ever threw a newspaper down till he had studied it to the bottom of the sheet – or, rather, if he flung it down, his natural inquisitiveness, sooner or later, would have persuaded him to pick it up again – and the newspapers of 1753 and 1754 were full of the forthcoming General Election, with particular reference to the County Election to be held at Oxford. Long before the hustings were actually manned, the political struggle waged in the ancient university city and throughout the adjacent hundreds had become (we are informed) the 'constant topic of conversation of almost all our coffee-houses in town'; and the diatribes of envenomed academic pamphleteers and mercenary, local journalists were seized upon and re-echoed in the columns of the London press. What gave a provincial election this nationwide significance? The student of modern political affairs, accustomed to the procedure established by a succession of nineteenth-century Reform Bills, is apt to forget that, during the eighteenth century, parliamentary elections were frequently arranged by a system of judicious compromise. Local interests divided the field between them, thus preserving the stability of a time-honoured feudal status quo. County elections were unusually expensive, owing to the large number of forty-shilling freeholders whose sympathies must be ascertained, aroused or suborned against the advent of election day; and there was no reason to procure with considerable expense results that might equally well be obtained by means of a quiet private treaty. In Northamptonshire, for example, during the entire century, contests were held on only three occasions; only three counties would go to the polls in the General Election of 1761. So long as the magnates of the county were 'determined to keep the peace, their tenants or dependants, the electors, need not hope to break it.

Naturally, they might wish to do so. For besides much pleasurable excitement and the gratifying sensation that they were exercising a free choice and gallantly supporting the role of patriotic Englishmen, a contested election was bound to bring them many material advantages. Whereas the lowlier sort were feasted with beer and beef – election 'treats' were always numerous and costly – obscure shopkeepers received a sudden influx of aristocratic patronage, and the humble parson a haunch of venison from his Grace's his Lordship's park. These benefits might be short-lived: they were none the less agreeable.

And when, in the year 1752, the Duke of Marlborough, a devoted Whig or champion of the 'New Interest,' decided to break the truce and launch an attack on Oxford, the traditional stronghold, of Toryism – or, as he preferred to style it, 'the little kingdom of Jacobitism' – his decision was as welcome to the freeholders as it was disconcerting and exasperating to wealthy supporters of the opposite cause. His challenge, however, could not be disregarded; and for the next two years – under the Septennial Act Parliament was not due to be dissolved until the spring of 1754 – the opposing forces gradually assembled in an atmosphere of increasing excitement, taunts being hurled to and fro after the custom of Homeric heroes, while the protagonists looked to their weapons and lengthily buckled on their armour. Both physically and politically, none loomed so large as that massive champion of the 'Old Interest,' Sir James Dashwood of Northbrook and Kirtlington, a tun-bellied country gentleman who since 1740 had represented the County of' Oxford in the House of Commons. A land-owner who, it was said, could travel from Kirtlington to Banbury without ever leaving his own ground, he had a wide circle of Jacobite acquaintances – with whom his association, nevertheless, seems generally to have been convivial rather than political – and was rumoured to have demonstrated his allegiance to the Stuarts by planting a covert of Scottish firs upon a knoll that dominated Kirtlington Park. As an orator he was undistinguished; and the best that his friends could say of one of the rare speeches he found it expedient to deliver in the House of Commons was that he had 'spoken intelligibly with the voice of a man and an Englishman.' Yet this perfect type of the conservative squire, corpulent, good-humoured, hard-drinking, devoted to his generous stake in the county that he helped to govern, was separated by only two generations from the world of commerce. His grandfather, Alderman George Dashwood, had been a brewer and a scrivener; and, among the nicknames coined by his adversaries, Sir James was often referred to as 'The Jolly Brewer':

See but yesterday's knight, how lordly he struts,
With a carcase the size of his ancestor's butts.

Arrayed at his side, in the ranks of the Old Interest, stood his cousin, Lord Wenman of Thame and Caswell, holder of an Irish title and member for the City of Oxford; while confronting them were Sir Edward Turner of Ambrosden, an amiable if somewhat ineffective personage with a taste for Gothic architecture and an unfortunate reputation for political tergiversation, and Lord Parker, the eldest son of the astronomer Earl of Macclesfield. Such were the adversaries brought into the lists by the Duke of Marlborough's precipitate and inconsiderate action; and though the standards they raised bore various devices, and their war-cries were frequently inspired by local spite and prejudice, the main issues that they disputed were of importance to the whole kingdom. The New Interest were henchmen of the Court Party: the Old Interest, representatives of a large and influential section of the British populace that had not yet acquiesced in the blessings of Hanoverian rule. They opposed the extravagance of modern governments and lamented the rapid growth of taxation, both direct and indirect. The Land Tax was specially offensive; and they complained that the proceeds of taxation were devoted to the upkeep of huge and unnecessary standing armies. More vaguely, they asserted that every Whig, notwithstanding his adherence to the present dynasty, was at heart a Republican, an unrepentant, 'king-killer,' just as the New Interest claimed that every Tory was at heart a Jacobite, pointing out that it was the existence of Jacobite plots that obliged the government to impose taxes, maintain a standing army and increase the burden of the National Debt. The Tory country gentlemen made a virtue of their 'independency' – the independence enjoyed by any party that has been long in opposition.

Each Interest had its colours – blue for the Old, green for the New; and very soon verdant and azure cockades began to blossom thick along the streets of Oxfordshire towns and villages. As early as the December of 1752, Dashwood and Wenman, attendedby a bodyguard of gentlemen's servants, marching two and two, musicians with drums, trumpets and French horns, a large procession of freeholders, fifteen coaches and banners bearing the legends Pro Patria, No Bribery, No Corruption and Liberty, Property, Independency, had advanced in state on the town of Henley, where a dinner was held and speeches were delivered, in which the candidates, disdaining the urban wiles of their subtle Whig antagonists, apostrophized their well-fed supporters, not in 'pathetick' and 'admirable' phraseology, but (we are assured) 'in the honesty of their true British hearts,' emphasizing their staunchness, their disinterestedness and their independent standing. Similarly, in February 1753, the New Interest summoned their partisans to attend them at the Bear Inn in Oxford, there to approve the choice of Turner and Parker as candidates, and thus 'exercise a right of which they have long been deprived.' As the New Interest procession assembled outside Christ Church, they were assailed by the clamour of an 'honest' Old Interest mob, rhythmically intoning 'A Wenman! A Dashwood! ...' Canvassing of equal vigour was carried on not only in Oxford and the surrounding districts but in London itself, where many Oxford freeholders had their, houses and places of business; and we hear of Dashwood hard at work among wax-chandlers, brandy merchants, cheesemongers and sugar-bakers, whom he entertained regularly at the King's Arms and One Tun Tavern opposite Hungerford Market and the Saracen's Head in Friday Street; while Parker and Turner retorted with a lavish opposition treat. Volleys of satirical election literature were discharged on both sides and not a few minor contestants, recommended by their oddity or absurdity, achieved a passing journalistic fame. For instance, there was Lady Susan Keck – nicknamed 'Lord Sue' by writers of the Old Interest – wife of the candidate for Woodstock (the Duke of Marlborough's family preserve), who devoted herself with passionate energy to the campaign against the Old Interest and, mounted on horses from her husband's racing stable, spurred like a political amazon into the remotest villages. Also singled out for particular notice was a New Interest don, Thomas Bray of Christ Church (a college that, together with Exeter, was distinguished from the rest of the University by its Whiggish and Hanoverian bent), whom an ignominious private misfortune exposed to widespread public ridicule. A certain Theodosia Cornel, an Oxford street-walker, had imputed to Mr. Bray the paternity of her illegitimate child; and, though the woman was afterwards convicted of slander, Bray and his Theodosia became favourite targets of Old Interest pamphleteering. Professional journalists, of course, took a share in the game, prominent among them being William Jackson, an Oxford printer, who launched the most celebrated of election news-sheets, the Oxford Journal, which professed – but failed – to present both sides of the question with complete impartiality. Amateur satirists were not behindhand; and several eminent academic personages, including Dr. Blackstone of All Souls, Charles Jenkinson of University College, and the Master of Balliol, contributed lampoons, parodies and squibs which added to the virulence of Grub Street all the accumulated rancour of an Oxford senior common room. Augustan Oxford, usually so stagnant, had seldom seen such entertaining years.

Described by its historian as the 'most literate' of eighteenth-century election contests, the Oxfordshire Election was to derive a fresh impetus, and acquire new acrimony, from the events of April 1753. A further issue emerged – the notorious 'Jew Bill.' This mild and praiseworthy measure would have enabled foreign Jews, resident in England, to become naturalized by Act of Parliament, subject to the same limitations as their native co-religionists. English Jews did not, at the time, number more than seven or eight thousand families; but they held important positions in London and Bristol; and it seemed reasonable enough that those who had been born abroad should be allowed to exercise the restricted freedom already granted to their English kin. The proposal, however, aroused fierce resentment and drew down upon the heads of the government an 'inexhaustible torrent of ribaldry.' It was suggested that the Jewish influx would soon absorb the whole realm; an unknown Jew, near the Royal Exchange, was alleged to have been overheard remarking, that he now hoped to live to see the day when he would 'not meet a Christian in this place or an Englishman in the kingdom'; and there was talk of the probable condition of England in the year 1854, when a Sanhedrin would sit at Westminster, St. Paul's would be a synagogue, and for the statue of Sir John Barnard in the City would have been substituted that of Pontius Pilate. The agitation spread to the provinces; and Ipswich urchins were said to have surrounded the Bishop of Norwich, noisily begging him to circumsize them. The government thereupon gave way; and, six months after it had been passed, the alarming Act was hastily repealed.

Meanwhile, Old Interest propaganda had not let the occasion slip. As True-Blue defenders of British Liberty, Wenman and Dashwood Were loud in their condemnation of this insidious and subversive Bill (though the New Interest complained that originally they had not taken the trouble to vote against it), and Dashwood, contrary to his usual practice, addressed his fellow members in a 'very curious speech of almost unheard-of oratory.' At Oxford, where a Jew can very rarely have been seen, and the idea of a Jewish invasion was correspondingly dreadful, his anti-Semitism had the required effect. The New Interest might compare him to a pantomime-actor and announce that, in the 'new farce called Repeal or Harlequin,' the part of Harlequin had been 'done intolerably bad.' But Oxfordshire at large responded to his call; and at Bicester the churchbells rang all day, and loyal toasts were vociferously drunk, amid shouts of 'No Jews! No Naturalization!- Wenman and Dashwood for ever!'

So the preliminary stages of the election followed their lively and disorderly course. Treating was lavish, drunkenness widespread and physical violence not uncommon. In January 1754, the Old Interest offered the corporation and freemen of Oxford the 'most plentiful entertainment ever known in tha memory of man'; whereas the New were content to meet at various inns and drink the health of the Duke of Marlborough, because (hinted their opponents) the two sheep-stealers commissioned to procure mutton had just been arrested and committed to the local gaol. Frequent clashes occurred between organized mobs. At Banbury an Old Interest gang, inflamed with free liquor by the 'domestick of a certain gentleman,' grossly affronted 'one honourable person'who had attended a New Interest supper-party; and at Chipping Norton, where the Old Interest faction had set an example by throwing stones, the New Interest burst into the White Hart and brutally assaulted a Tory gentleman who was dining there. ... At length the electors went to the polls – from April 17th to April 23rd, 1754. Hustings had been erected in front of Exeter College; but New Interest supporters found it difficult to penetrate the dense Old Interest mob that opposed them twenty men deep; and at this point the Fellows of Exeter, devout adherents of the government party, resorted to a skilful and (their adversaries considered) an extremely unfair stratagem. Voters were admitted through the back-gate on the Turl and allowed to pass out again through the Broad Street main-gate. They could thus enter the hustings from the rear; but during its passage the ungrateful electorate abused the Fellows' hospitality. The Hall of the College became a scene of Bacchanalian merriment, 'offuscated' with clouds of tobacco-smoke, obstructed by casks of ale and polluted by the presence of loose women. Exeter, as the Vice-Chancellor declared, had signally disgraced itself and, by the excesses it permitted, remained 'per aliquot dies foedata et conspurcata.' Yet Exeter's stratagem failed to turn the tide; and when the poll was made known, both Old Interest candidates had respectable majorities. A scrutiny was at once demanded; petitions, alleging corruption and other irregularities, were eventually laid before the House of Commons; and, after numerous sittings, Turner and Parker were declared to be the rightful victors. But controversy did not die down. Two pretended plots, the 'Rag' and 'Watch' plots, both of them intended to convict the Old Interest of treasonable Popish designs, were opportunely brought to light; and, on the heels of the High Sheriff's inconclusive scrutiny, there was a final burst of violence as a body of New Interest supporters drove in procession across Magdalen Bridge. Their carriages were pelted with filth, and an 'honest' mob made desperate attempts to hurl them into the river below; at which a Captain Turton leaned from his post-chaise and shot down, mortally wounding, an aggressive Tory chimney-sweep.

So much for the topical background of Hogarth's famous series. But to compare the pictures that the artist produced with the actual course of the Oxfordshire Election, as he read of it in the London papers or heard if discussed in one of the coffee-houses he was fond of frequenting beneath the piazzas of Covent Garden, is at once to become aware of many significant discrepancies. The Oxfordshire contest evidently supplied a hint; but, like every artist worthy of the name, Hogarth did not employ the material that he had gained from his experience of 'real life' until it had gone through lengthy interior processes of digestion and assimilation. Clearly he made no attempt to provide a literal representation of Oxfordshire scenes or personages. Hogarth's election is held in the country; behind the last of the series, Chairing the Member, we observe the unpretentious red-brick buildings of a quiet English country town. Indeed, since a scrutiny was at once demanded, none of the candidates was ever chaired; while Hogarth seems deliberately to have confused the issue by giving orange, instead of green, cockades to the supporters of the New Interest. But the campaign against the Jew Bill is reflected in the Entertainment episode; and, in the same picture, we find a reference to one of the actual Whig contestants in the blue banner – obviously snatched from the Tory procession by the broken-headed New Interest bravo whose wound is being dressed with gin – which bears the inscription: Give Us Back Our Eleven Days. As President of the Royal Society, Parker's father, Lord Macclesfield, had helped Chesterfield to present his case for the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in September 1752, by which September 3rd became arbitrarily September 14th. This 'Popish' innovation both puzzled and alarmed the British proletariat; and the cry, 'Give us back the eleven days we have been robbed of!'' was taken up by the conservative mob, who felt that eleven precious days had been wrenched out of their life-span. Some of Lord Macclesfield's unpopularity appears to have followed his son to Oxford.

Yet, in another sense, the connection is close. It was the singularity of the Oxfordshire Election – at a period when such conflicts were rare – that excited Hogarth's fancy; and what he gives us is a generalized view of party corruption and. political discord. Hogarth had sprung from the people – the grandson of a small farmer, the son of an impoverished schoolmaster – but he had a realistic appreciation of the dangerous effects of popular feeling. Popular agitation had defeated the Jew Bill, just as in 1733 it had whipped up the Excise Riots; and we should not be surprised (as Mr. R. J. Robson sensibly reminds us)

'that the most liberal and enlightened of men tended to identify the very real democratic elements in the eighteenth-century constitution with 'mobility' and violence, and deprecated any attempts to render more readily articulate this public opinion by the introduction of manhood suffrage.'

Thus the Election Entertainment – one of those 'treats' which Old and New Interests alike showered on their supporters – has degenerated into a popular orgy. The New Interest is standing treat here; but beneath the window of the country inn streams an excited Old Interest procession, armed with staves and brickbats, carrying the effigy of a bearded Jew, roughly labelled 'No Jews,' and flags displaying the legends 'Liberty' and 'Marry and Multiply in spite of the Devil.' A chamber pot is emptied on their heads, and three bricks skim through the open casement. One of them scores a lucky hit; and the election agent reels from his stool at the table, dropping the register of votes and over-turning a bottle of wine. ...

Within the room all is heat and confusion and noise. A fiddler scrapes: punch is brewed on the floor: the chairman, his fork still impaling a very large oyster, has succumbed to apoplexy. An 'ignorant and ferocious populace' is guzzling and swilling at their betters' expense; while the gentry join in the fun with various degrees of cynicism or good humour. The elder candidate, not very sober himself, struggles feebly against the boisterous endearments of two extremely drunk supporters; but his colleague, a smooth and fashionable youth, submits complacently to the lickerish caresses of a stout and aged Doll Tearsheet, though a little girl is filching his diamond ring and his wig is being set on fire. Canvassing for Votes and The Polling depict further stages of a contested election in full swing. Money is pressed-into a farmer's palms by representatives of both parties, a plump ingratiating innkeeper and a lean and truculent sailor; and the blind, the dying and the mad are hustled to the polling-booth. Then, at last, the victorious member is chaired – incidentally, he does not resemble either of the two candidates hitherto exhibited – and is nearly upset by a fight that breaks out in the crowd between an old sailor, turned bear-leader, and a furious countryman who is swinging a flail. Blackened chimneysweeps look down from the churchyard gate; and politicians and political agents are carousing in an upper chamber. As a banner carried by the procession explains, it is the Old Interest that has gained the day:

So far the moralist is in charge of the story. But satirical or moral motives have never been in undisputed control of any genuine artist's creative talents. The Election Series has a topical message and a political and moral point of view: it is also an illustration of how far the artist's creative impulse may transform and transcend the limited aims that he has begun by setting himself. Hogarth's four pictures are a triumph of vision and skill. In Sir John Soane's Museum they hang alongside the Rake's Progress, executed in 1733; and, in the intervening years, the pictorial moralist had become a great creative artist. The Rake's decline and fall is displayed in a succession of ingenious but often somewhat cramped and, at times, badly lighted peep-shows. Their appeal is primarily dramatic; whereas, in the Election Series, every window of the painter's imagination appears to have been thrown wide. A golden illumination beams down from the summer sky: noble trees soar into the air among the rose-red housefronts. As for the human figures who swirl in the foreground, they combine the charm of incisive characterization with a proper regard for the complex decorative schemes in which they are incorporated. Tumultuous but never overcrowded, each composition carefully built up on daring and original lines, his Election Series was Hogarth's finest contribution to the cycle of contemporary dramas he had launched in 1731 – a monument not only to the painter's gifts but to the masculine and abounding genius of the English eighteenth century.