Detailed Hogarth Marriage A-la-Mode

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Marriage A-la-Mode

Marriage A-la-Mode


William Hogarth

Domain: Visual Arts. Genre: Painting Collection, Print Collection, Engraving, Humour, Satire, Comedy, Narrative comic history-painting. Country: England, Britain, Europe.

For Hogarth the narrative comic-history cycle, Marriage A-la-Mode, was a natural successor to A Rake's Progress, published ten years earlier in 1735. Having shown the middle classes aping the extravagance of the aristocracy in the earlier cycle, he set about showing the aristocracy and middle classes conspiring in mutual selfishness and decadence in the later cycle. Nobleman and alderman, high and middle life, are equally ridiculed in Marriage A-la-Mode. The title refers to a marriage of convenience arranged by the parents of the groom and bride for the benefit, and profit, of the parents rather than their children. The series deals with the 'progress' of a husband and wife, the son of Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a rich city merchant, contracted together against their instincts and wishes. Both go their separate ways after the contracted marriage and both meet a tragic end: the Viscount inherits the Earldom before being killed in a duel with his wife's lover, Counsellor Silvertongue, while the Countess commits suicide on hearing that her lover has been hanged for murder at Tyburn. The only issue of the marriage is a girl, already carrying the marks of inherited venereal disease. The Squanderfield line has been disgraced and, by the law of male descent, the merchant's family will not inherit the title. Neither aristocrat nor merchant has benefited from the selfish sacrifice of their offspring.

Hogarth completed the six paintings of Marriage A-la-Mode early in 1743. He must have had the subsequent publication of prints in mind from the beginning, for the paintings were done 'in reverse', as one looks at them, so that the narrative of the individual prints, when they were run off from the engraved copies of the paintings, which process automatically reverses the image copied, could be read in the usual Western way, from left to right. Hogarth advertised the prints in April 1743 in the London Daily Post:

Mr. Hogarth intends to publish by subscription, six prints from copper-plates, they will be engraved by the best Masters in Paris, after his own Paintings; representing a Variety of Modern Occurrences in High-Life, and called Marriage A-la-Mode. Particular Care will be taken, that there may not be the least Objection to the Decency or Elegancy of the whole Work and that none of the Characters represented shall be personal.

The French title of the series, and stated intention to engage as engravers “the best Masters in Paris”, indicate that deliberate allusion to currently fashionable French styles was an integral part of Hogarth's satire. When the prints were finally published, they not only carried elaborate, rococo flourishes and embellishments, but also the names of the French engravers, Bernard Baron, Louis Gérard Scotin and Simon François Ravenet, at the foot of the prints. In associating the effete decadence of this arranged marriage of convenience with foreign influence, Hogarth was distancing himself from it and contrasting it to an implied English ideal of companionable marriage based on love not money.

At the same time as he issued his advertisement, Hogarth issued a subscription ticket for the six prints showing “3 Characters and 4 Caricaturas”, surmounted by a crowd of almost a hundred faces in side-on profile. A note underneath said that for a further explanation of the difference betwixt “Character and Caricatura” the subscriber should “see the preface to Joseph Andrews.” Henry Fielding had published Joseph Andrews, with comments on Hogarth's excellence as a comic history painter, a year earlier in February 1742. In his “Author's Preface” Fielding had said that:

He who should call the ingenious Hogarth a burlesque painter, would in my opinion do him very little honor; for sure it is much easier, much less the subject of admiration, to paint a man with a nose, or any other feature, of a preposterous size, or to expose him in some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of men on canvas. It hath been thought a vast commendation of a painter, to say his figures seem to breathe; but surely it is a much greater and nobler applause that they appear to.

Accordingly Hogarth's subscription ticket depicted a hundred faces, none of which were exaggerated into a “monstrous attitude” and each of which “appeared to think.” The ticket acted as a receipt for subscribers, who had paid “half a guinea [£0.55], being the first payment for the six prints called MARRIAGE A LA MODE, which I promise to deliver when finished on receiving half a guinea more.” A footnote added that the price would be “one guinea and an half [£1.65] after the time of subscribing.” After a number of delays, caused partly by the outbreak of war between England and France, the prints were eventually published on 8 June 1745.

Plate 1
Earl Squanderfield, dressed in brocaded finery, sits on a throne-like chair proudly puffing out his chest, in front of a richly curtained canopy bearing his coronet on top. The coronet is displayed everywhere, on a picture frame, a mirror, a chair, his footstool, his crutch and even, most absurdly of all, branded on the flank of his dog. The index finger of the Earl's right hand flaunts his French connection, pointing to a diagram of his family tree springing from the umbilical cord of William the Conqueror. Looked at more closely, however, the tree also has a broken branch, an omen of things to come. The Earl's bandaged foot shows he suffers from gout – the result of too much eating and drinking. Across the table a city merchant, dressed in altogether plainer clothes, holds a marriage contract between his daughter and the Earl's son, the Rt. Hon. Lord Viscount Squanderfield. Piles of coins and £1,000 notes lie on the table and in the left hand of a moneylender who stands between them. In his right hand he returns a redeemed mortgage to the Earl, whose debts can partly be explained by the half-finished, extravagant, Palladian mansion he is building, visible through the window.

Viscount Squanderfield, the Earl's son and heir, dressed in similar fashionable finery to the Earl, sits at the opposite side of the room, as far away from his father as possible, with his back to him and to his bride-to-be. A beauty patch on his neck indicates that he already has venereal sores to hide. He is as uninterested in what is going on between his father and the merchant as he is in what is going on between his future wife and the lawyer whispering in her ear. He is complacently engrossed in taking snuff and striking a self-regarding pose. On the floor, in front of him, two dogs, chained together in bored sufferance, parody the young couple. The merchant's daughter turns away from her husband-to-be and morosely plays with her handkerchief as she listens to the solicitous enquiries of Counsellor Silvertongued.

The Old Master paintings, which adorn the walls, continue the satire. The large painting of the Earl posing as Jupiter reflects his self-aggrandizement, while the smaller paintings, all showing some form of physical violence or martyrdom, allude to the pain and suffering to come. The Medusa in the oval frame seems horror-struck at what she sees going on at the same time as her gaze freezes the Earl into a fixed attitude.

Plate 2
The Viscount, who is now married, has returned home after midday, as the clock tells us, in a disheveled state, having been roistering all night. The broken tip of his sword on the floor indicates that he has been in a fight with someone, while his wife's lap dog sniffs an unfamiliar perfume on a bonnet sticking out of his coat pocket. He is sprawled out in a chair in gloomy unawareness of his wife's almost gleeful superiority at his disarray. She is having a late breakfast and he fails to notice that she has been entertaining a guest to a musical interlude as the two violins on the floor indicate. The toppled chair and abandoned violin cases suggest her musical companion may have left in some hurry. The cards on the floor and a copy of “Hoyle on Whist” show that she too has been entertaining herself. The steward, who has a Ledger under his arm and a copy of a book entitled “Regeneration” in his pocket, throws up his right hand in despair at such goings on. His left hand carries a pile of unpaid invoices and a single receipted one.

The furnishings of the room are a mish-mash, indicating the disharmony of the marriage. The clock is an extraordinary mixture of decoration in which a cat, two fishes and a Buddha are intertwined with a mass of foliage. The mantelpiece is cluttered with jumbled items of Chinoiserie, Indian figures and a Roman bust. The ceiling in the inner room is decorated in the newly fashionable rococo style, and the carpet has had to be cut and rolled at the pillar where it doesn't fit. The four mirrors, each set at eye level, show the couple's vanity. The footman in the far room still wears curlers in his hair and yawns with tiredness. The decorative disarray and human disorder reflects the marital one.

Plate 3
The scene is a quack doctor's chambers, sometimes identified, despite Hogarth's claim that “none of the characters shall be personal”, as those of Dr Misaubin, whom Hogarth had previously satirised in A Harlot's Progress, Plate 5. The Viscount has brought two women to the doctor protesting that his pills were no good and ordering him, while brandishing his cane, to examine the women and tell him which of them has infected him. One, a serving girl wearing a bonnet (perhaps the one hanging out of the Viscount's pocket in the previous print?) dabs a sore on her mouth with her handkerchief; the other, a large woman wearing a hooped skirt, unfolds a clasp knife and seems to challenge either the Viscount or the doctor to come anywhere near her. The doctor wipes his spectacles in eager anticipation of the examination.

The plate is a satire on the scientific pretensions of many practising physicians of the day. The room is packed full with the paraphernalia of a quack doctor, not unlike Dr Misaubin's 'museum' at 96 St Martin's Lane, Westminster. Instruments and curiosities, intended to demonstrate his scientific learning, are everywhere. Two machines on the left have a book lying open on them telling the reader that they are respectively for straightening dislocated limbs and for drawing a cork from a bottle. A crocodile and ostrich's egg hang from the ceiling. A periwig on its wig block hangs in the cupboard alongside a life-sized, anatomical figure and a skeleton, which seems to be making overtures to it. A large glass urinal and shaving dish hangs over the top of the cupboard next to a pile of pillboxes and a narwhal tusk (supposed to be an aphrodisiac). In the centre there is a model of a human head with a pill in its mouth and a large bone behind it. To the left are a tripod for holding retorts, a fish's skeleton, a tall hat, a pair of shoes, a spur with its strap and a shield and lance. The glass case to the right of the doctor is full of vessels and jars for holding leeches and other pharmaceutical aids. A stuffed animal's head is on top of it. To its left are two mummies, one an anthropophagus with its head beneath its shoulders, and, on the table in front, a human skull perforated with holes.

Plate 4
The focus shifts back from the Viscount to his wife, who is holding a morning levée in her boudoir. The coronets over her dressing-table mirror and four-poster bed indicate that her father-in-law has died and she is now the Countess. She is having her hair done by a hairdresser with tongs in his left hand and a comb behind his ear, while listening to her suitor, Counsellor Silvertongue, invite her to a masked ball. He sprawls on a settee with tickets for the ball in his left hand, indicating the attractions of a masquerade, as depicted on the screen behind him, with his right. A popular erotic novel of the day, Le Sopha, published in 1740, in which a sofa recounts the events that have taken place on it, nestles behind his ankles. A black boy servant in front of him (cf. A Harlot's Progress, Plate 2) signifies the aristocracy's decadent extravagance and collaboration in the slave trade. He points to the antlers on a statue of Actaeon, who was torn apart by his own hounds, forecasting cuckoldry to come.

Six visitors to the levée sit behind the Countess. To the far right, a person sometimes identified as the Italian castrato mezzo-soprano, Senesino, sings to the accompaniment of a flautist. Next to him an extremely thin gentleman, with his hair in curlers, and a man in raptures at the singing sip chocolate. Behind them a country squire, with his riding whip still in his hand, has fallen asleep. The only lady guest, being offered chocolate by another black servant, vertically divides the composition in two, separating the Countess and Counsellor Silvertongue from the Countess's guests, as she swoons at the singer's performance.

As in the other plates the paintings on the walls add to Hogarth's running commentary on the marriage. Above Counsellor Silvertongue a painting of Lot and his daughters reminds us of the theme of parental betrayal of children; while above the Countess a painting of Jupiter and Io, with Jupiter metamorphosed into a cloud embracing Io, comments on the Countess' s fantasies. The Rape of Ganymede is above the castrato singer, alluding to his own condition, while above this painting a family portrait of the late Earl shows him presiding over an already debased inheritance.

Plate 5
The Earl and Countess come together again for the first time since Plate 2 as he breaks in upon his wife's secret tryst with her lover with whom she has been to a masquerade. Counsellor Silvertongue has fatally wounded the Earl in a duel and, dressed only in his nightshirt, is making good his escape through the window as the watch, led by the bagnio owner, makes a dramatic entry through the door. Silvertongue's discarded grinning mask lies beneath him on the floor. The Earl is comically captured toppling to his death, ironically mirrored by his finely poised sword, in an exquisite self parody by Hogarth of his own proclaimed “serpentine line of grace”. His wife kneels before him, wringing her hands and begging forgiveness for her part in the fatal assignation. The composition of the two figures is a pictorial joke, a playful allusion to paintings showing Christ's descent from the cross. The dying Earl echoes Christ's body being deposed after the crucifixion, while the Countess echoes Mary Magdalene mourning at his feet. Dancing shoes and a second mask on the floor indicate where Counsellor Silvertongue and the Countess have been before returning to the Turk's Head Bagnio (named on a sheet of paper in front of the upturned table) while her discarded hoop and corset make the nature of her assignation fully explicit.

The tapestry across the back wall shows the judgement of Solomon, an apt comment on the choice confronting the Countess. A mirror, hung in the centre, frames the Earl's head as he dies, just as mirrors reflected his vanity in Plates 1 and 2. A large picture of a prostitute dressed as a shepherdess with a squirrel (18thc. slang for a harlot, “because she, like that animal, covers her back with her tail”) perched on one hand and a parasol dangling from the other, warns of the dangers of role-playing. Above the door a painting of St Luke, the patron of artists, and an ox, looks down horrified on the entire proceedings.

Plate 6
The final scene is set in the plain living quarters of the alderman's house, overlooking London Bridge, and contrasts the grandeur of the opening scene, set in Earl Squanderfield's ornate salon. Plain ceilings and floorboards contrast the painted ceilings and carpeted floor; a plain pelmet and curtains that hang straight down contrast the looped drapes and tasselled cords; and simple panelled walls contrast the patterned, velvet wall-coverings. A toppled chair replaces Squanderfield's plush throne, and a grossly underfed and maltreated dog replaces his well groomed, if cruelly chained, pet hounds. Imitations of low Dutch genre paintings on the walls (one shows a man urinating and another two men smoking, with one lighting his pipe from the other's red nose) take the place of the imitations of high Italian art that decorated Lord Squanderfield's chamber.

Everything points to the merchant's meanness and single-minded concern to make money. The books in the lockable corner cupboard on the wall all have to do with this, being entitled on their spines as “Day Book”, “Ledger”, “Rent Book”, and “Compound Interest”. A spider has built its web in the top left-hand corner of the window because it knows it will not be disturbed by anyone dusting or cleaning. The food is frugal and the cheapest available – the head on the platter would be the least expensive part of the pig to buy. As the ravenous dog indicates, it is food more fit for animals than humans. Some of the buttons on the servant's coat, which is far too big for him, are missing suggesting it is has been handed down by his master.

The central focus is on the Countess, dying of an overdose of laudanum, as we know from the label on the empty phial in front of her on the floor. She has taken her own life because of the death of her lover, Counsellor Silvertongue, hanged at Tyburn for murdering the Earl. A copy of his “Last Dying Speech” lies at her feet with a design showing gallows at its head. To her right, a maidservant holds up her daughter to receive a dying kiss. The child's right leg is in a splint, indicating she is crippled with brittle bones, caused by inherited venereal disease. A beauty patch on her face covers associated sores. To the maidservant's right the apothecary who supplied the laudanum berates a servant for having obtained the poison from him under false pretences, perhaps for having lied to him that it was required for pest control. To the Countess's left, her father tries to make good some of his losses, before rigor mortis sets in, by removing her wedding ring. He shows no concern for the suffering of his dying daughter.

Published 02 August 2003


Citation: I. R. F. Gordon, Emeritus Anglia Polytechnic University. "Marriage A-la-Mode." The Literary Encyclopedia. 2 Aug. 2003. The Literary Dictionary Company. 2 July 2006. <>