William Hogarth (1697-1764) was a prolific artist in the mid-eighteenth century, often depicting scenes of everyday life in London and its surrounds.
In 1743 he began painting a series of six prints called Marriage A-la Mode, in which he depicted the dangers of arranged marriages made merely for financial reasons. Arranged marriages were popular with the upper classes in England during the eighteenth century, as they were often used to form alliances between families to secure wealth and ensure good breeding for the family name.
The Marriage Settlement
Marriage A-la Mode: 1. The Marriage Settlement (1745)
In the first picture Hogarth depicts the marriage settlement between the son of an Earl and the daughter of a rich merchant, with the Earl’s lavish house as the setting. From left to right, the characters in this painting are Viscount Squanderfield (the groom-to-be), the bride-to-be, the lawyer Silvertongue, the Alderman (the bride’s father), the creditor standing at the table, the architect looking out the window, and Lord Squanderfield (the groom’s father).
The Alderman wants to elevate his family’s social status and is prepared to pay the necessary money to do so through a marriage. He is examining the marriage contracts and has just handed over a pile of gold and bank notes which lie on the table in front of the Earl.
The Earl is heavily in debt due to his lavish lifestyle and is keen to have the Alderman’s money to help finish his new house which stands half-completed outside. The Earl’s architect stands examining the plans and the new building, which is an embarrassment to tasteful architecture. The Earl’s creditor takes some bank notes with one hand to pay for a mortgaged property, and he returns the mortgage documents to the Earl with his other hand. The Earl’s leg is bandaged with gout, which is the result of a rich and excessive lifestyle. The excesses of his vanity and self-importance are indicated by the canopy under which he sits and the paper showing his family tree, which can be traced back to William the Conqueror.
The affianced couple show little interest in each other, and the bride is instead being wooed by the lawyer. The groom is examining himself in the mirror on the wall, and the black mark on his neck is a sign he already has syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease. The chained dogs on the floor indicate that the union will be a mismatched mistake.
Hogarth even used the paintings on the wall to communicate the disastrous nature of this marriage, with them all depicting horrible historical or mythical events.
Marriage A-la Mode: 2. The Tete a tete (1745)
The setting of the second painting is in the new couple’s apartments. The Viscount and Viscountess sit reclined in two chairs, and the only other people in the picture are two servants, one walking out of the room and one in the background. The clock on the right puts the time at 1.20, probably in the afternoon, yet the couple are looking tired from their busy night. The candles in the candelabra look as if they have only just been snuffed out, indicating a very wasteful lifestyle.
The Viscount has been out all night and looks tired and dejected. The dog ferrets out a lady’s cap in his pocket, so it is presumed he has been to visit a brothel or a mistress. His broken sword on the floor indicates his impotence, and the black mark on his neck shows he has contracted syphilis, which he already had before his marriage.
The Viscountess looks quite satisfied with herself as she sits back in her chair in a very unladylike position with her legs apart. She appears to have held a wild card party at her house, indicated by the cards on the floor, the book “Hoyle on Whist” at her feet, and the dishevelled appearance of the room. Her hair has fallen down by her temples and the stays of her bodice are undone, which were both considered quite loose behaviour at the time. She appears to be signalling someone with the mirror in her hand as she looks out of the corner of her eye, so she may have been having an affaire. The overturned chair in the foreground with a book of music and an instrument may indicate she had been suddenly interrupted.
The servant exiting the scene is showing his disgust by throwing his hand in the air. The book in his pocket indicates that he is Methodist, and he carries a household ledger under his arm. In his hand are a sheaf of unpaid bills, and the spike that hangs from his finger holds only one paid receipt, indicating the spendthrift habits of the household.
The mantlepiece is filled with a mish-mash of ornaments in a variety of designs, such as the Roman bust in a Palladian style, and the Asian-syle figurine of Buddha. The clock to the right of the picture is a mixture of the Rococo influence and a Chinese imitation of art. The mismatched collection of items proclaims the owners to be without taste and thoughtless in their design and furnishing choices.
Marriage A-la Mode: 3. The Inspection (1745)
In the third painting, the Viscount visits a surgeon with a pillbox in his hand. Surgeons in this era did not have the good reputation that they developed later on in the century, and this is indicated by the appearance of the room. To further polarise the practice of the surgeon, there is a book on the right outlining the procedure for setting a dislocated shoulder and the drawing of corks, which is declared to be approved by the Royal Academy of France, however Hogarth believed that the French knew little about medicine. The skull on the desk behind the surgeon would not instil a large amount of confidence in his patients either.
The Viscount is passing a bottle of mercurial pills to the surgeon, and this was the common treatment for venereal disease in the eighteenth century, and he is unhappy that these are not working. The surgeon’s female assistant also has the characteristic black syphilitic spots on her face.
The young girl next to the Viscount appears to be his child mistress or prostitute, and she is dabbing at a sore on her mouth, which could be an early sign of syphilis.
Liza Picard writes that Hogarth meant the surgeon to depict Dr Misaubin, who had already been dead for several years in 1745. After his death, his wife – shown in the middle of the picture – continued his “medical practice”, advertising her premises in St Martin’s Lane as the place where tablets for venereal disease could be purchased.
Marriage A-la Mode: 4. The Toilette (1745)
It is evident in the fourth painting, from the appearance of various coronets around the room, that the old Earl of Squanderfield has died, making the Viscount and his wife the new Earl and Countess.
This picture is set in the Countess’s bedroom and depicts the popular pastime of the upper classes of women who hold a reception in their rooms while they attended to their toilette. This involved first a private washing and dressing, and then the more public dressing and setting of hair and applying make-up. The man behind the Countess is her hairdresser and is testing the heat of his hair curlers.
The lawyer, Silvertongue, lies reclined on a sofa talking to the Countess. He appears very comfortable in his environment, and has even taken his shoes off. He holds out some papers to her and points behind him to a picture of a masquerade, inviting her to one. At these balls the attendees all wore masks, enabling their identity to be unknown while they behaved as indecently they pleased. The insinuation here is that they could go together and not be discovered. We know they must be – in some way – involved together, as the Countess has a picture of Silvertongue on her wall.
The other characters in the picture are an opera singer, a flutist, several other upper class “friends”, a black servant, and a black page boy in the foreground. The little boy holds a statue with horns, which is a symbol of cuckoldry or a husband with an unfaithful wife.
Marriage A-la Mode: 5. The Bagnio (1745)
In the fifth painting, the Countess and Silvertongue have gone to the Turk’s Head Bagnio in Bow Street, Convent Garden, signified by the bill on the floor. This place actually existed at the time of Hogarth and, whilst it was initially a coffee house that also offered Turkish baths, it was also known as a place where you could hire a room with no questions asked.
Their masks and fancy dress costumes can be seen discarded on the floor, and the bed, at the left of the picture, is clearly unmade. It is therefore presumed that the adulterous couple were discovered in bed together by the Earl.
A duel ensues and the Earl is mortally wounded, while the lawyer escapes out of the window in his nightgown, leaving his bloodstained sword on the floor. The Countess falls to one knee on the floor, begging her husband’s forgiveness.
At the door, the proprietor of the Bagnio appear with a member of the Watch.
The Lady’s Death
Marriage A-la Mode: 6. The Lady's Death
In the final painting we see the Countess has been reading the paper and has learned that her lover, Silvertongue, has been hung at Tyburn for his crime. She has obtained some poison, labelled Laudanum, and the empty bottle lies at her feet. Laudanum was used widely in Hogarth’s time, and it is a liquid opiate mixed with alcohol which was sometimes flavoured with other ingredients. It was considered a cure for almost all diseases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, largely due to its sedative properties and usefulness in reducing pain. However, an overdose of only a few teaspoons could be fatal in a person not used to opiate consumption.
Her father, the Alderman, takes her wedding ring from her finger, as in eighteenth century law the possessions of a person who committed suicide were forfeited to the state. This means that the Alderman would also lose the dowry he paid to the Old Earl (that would have passed on to the Viscount upon the Earl’s death), which would usually revert back to him upon the death of all inheritors.
The Countess’s crippled child clings to her dead body, while a distressed maid tries to pull her away. The child shows the black spot of syphilis, which could have been contracted from the mother during pregnancy or from the father. It was a common belief that having sex with a virgin would cleanse a person from venereal disease, and eighteenth century sufferers took this maxim to new levels by using small children and even babies. Unfortunately, such a practice only served to spread sexually transmitted diseases further.
An apothecary scolds a young servant for procuring the bottle of poison for Lady Squanderfield. The pictures on the wall are Dutch paintings and show that the Alderman has fairly poor taste in art.
The view from the window shows that the house is in the City with an outlook to the Thames River and Old London Bridge. The furnishings show that the house is miserly; there is no carpet on the floor, they are having a pig’s head for a meal, the curtains are plain and simple – all of which offer a sharp contrast to the lavish furnishings of an apartment in the fashionable West End of London.
Real Examples in Eighteenth Century Life
Marriages between members of the upper and middle class (as in the case of the Squanderfields) could not be considered common in the eighteenth century, but two famous examples are the Irish sisters, Maria and Elizabeth Gunning, who made their debut in Dublin society in 1748. By the time they were introduced to King George II in London in 1750, they were virtually household names.
Elizabeth Gunning met the Duke of Hamilton at a masquerade ball early in 1752, and when they met again a month later they were hastily married at Mayfair Chapel. Despite his reputation as a gambler and ramshackle fellow, their marriage seemed to be relatively happy until his early death six years later. Elizabeth went on to marry the Marquis of Lorne who later became the Duke of Argyll.
Maria Gunning married the Earl of Coventry only a month after her sister was married, but soon after their honeymoon the Earl had already taken a mistress. This caused Maria much unhappiness. She died only eight years later – at the age of 27 -, possibly due to lead poisoning from her over-use of the lead-based cosmetics that were often used at the time.
Whilst these two sisters did marry extremely well, they had virtually no fortune, and it was instead their famous beauty that enabled them to achieved such an elevation of their social status.
Hogarth is my cup of tea (my favourite historical artist) mainly because he communicated so much in the details of his artwork. Who is your favourite artist?
Hogarth: Gin Lane and Beer Street
Sources and Relevant Links
The works of Hogarth
Dr Johnson’s London: Everyday Life in London, by Liza Picard (2000)
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