Hogarth's Marriage A-la-Mode

National Gallery, 15 October 1997 - 18 January 1998

Painter of inexhaustible human drama

To his contemporaries Hogarth's great series Marriage A-la-Mode was as fresh as the morning newspaper. Its stories still tickle Richard Dorment.

Marriage A-la-Mode is the most perfectly realised of Hogarth's great narrative cycles. The series is structured exactly like a play, with the equivalents of an introduction, narrative development, subplot, climax and epilogue. As he had done earlier in the Harlot's and Rake's Progress, Hogarth invented his characters, but took the role of the narrator himself. "Subjects I considered as writers do. My picture was my stage and men and women my actors." Using the conventions of the theatre - props, poses, costumes and gestures - he thickens his plot and moves the action forward.

In scene one we meet the cast: the improvident Earl of Squander who will trade his ancient name for a whopping dowry, the crass Alderman who is selling his daughter for a title, the fatally seductive lawyer Silvertongue, and the sad young couple themselves, yoked together like a pair of mating dogs to satisfy the ambition of their heartless fathers. These characters develop from one scene to the next, as when the future Countess, whom we meet in scene one as a sniffling teenage girl, turns into a sly sex kitten in scene two, a sybaritic grande dame in scene three, and a remorseful suicide in scene six. Through his uncanny ability to capture nuances of feeling in body language and facial expression, Hogarth shows us not only what his characters are doing but what they are thinking. The faces of the young couple in the first scene are at once funny and pitiful. He is a brainless dandy affecting unconcern at the union with a woman he doesn't love, she is able to stop blubbering just long enough to listen to the blandishments of the family lawyer, who whispers in her ear that he'll console her once she's wed.

Despite all the doubles entendres and visual puns, there is nothing obscure about Hogarth. At the time they were made, the engravings of Marriage A-la-Mode were intelligible both to the educated people who bought them and to the illiterate servants who saw them displayed in shop windows or on their masters' walls. Like all good storytellers, Hogarth understood how to hold the attention of his audience by adding details that he knew would pique their curiosity. He introduced topicality into the series by inserting real-life figures into the action. Among the French hairdressers and mincing valets at the Countess's morning levee, for example, the fat and effeminate singer has been identified as the Italian counter-tenor Carestini (or the castrato Farinelli). To Hogarth's contemporaries, such a guest appearance makes the series as fresh as the morning newspaper.

If to an audience in the late 1990s Hogarth's saga of marital misery among the aristocracy seems familiar, it is because we recognise in the sluttish Countess and her unctuous lover the celebrities encountered in the pages of Hello! magazine. For all its high comedy and delicious wit, Hogarth's point in Marriage A-la-Mode is a serious one: there is no moral centre in this world, its empty values lead to disease, unhappiness and violent death. Nowadays at the Countess's morning levee you'd find a pop star, an interior decorator, an astrologer and maybe an art dealer. The Earl would be just as likely to pass out from a surfeit of cocaine than from drink. Otherwise, not much seems to have changed since 1744.

Most people know Marriage A-la-Mode from the engravings. This is a pity, for Hogarth did not engrave the series himself but entrusted it to three French engravers. That was a mistake. Though superb technicians, they weren't able to capture the nuances of expression on which so much of the humour depends. As engravings, I much prefer the Harlot's or Rake's Progress, which are both by Hogarth's own hand. When it comes to the paintings, my reaction is exactly the reverse. The handling of pigment in earlier works such as the Rake's Progress of 1735 is tight and finicky, which suggests that Hogarth's training as an engraver prevented him from relaxing his control of the brush. By the time he came to paint Marriage A-la-Mode he had developed a confidence in the use of pigment that he didn't have in the earlier series. He applies his colours with an easy fluency, working directly on to the canvas, without recourse to life studies or preparatory drawings. Nothing stood between him and the application of paint to canvas. The physical seductiveness of the paintings comes as a surprise if we know them only in the black-and-white engravings after them.

I didn't think there was anything new that anyone could tell me about Marriage A-la-Mode. But the National Gallery's exhibition of the series (until January 18), organised by Judy Egerton, reveals a complexity in certain scenes that has added dimensions to my understanding of the story. Egerton suggests, for example, that despite his gouty foot and noble appearance, the Earl of Squander is a fraud. In the pompous portrait that hangs on the wall behind the Earl in scene one, he is shown wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece - an honour which Egerton's research shows had not been conferred on an Englishman since the time of Henry VIII. To add to the foolishness of the Alderman in marrying his daughter into the Squander family, there is the added irony that he is being duped: they are parvenus.

In scene three, where the young Earl brings a child prostitute to the Quack Doctor, I had always identified the alarming woman who unclasps a penknife as an abortionist. In fact what is happening is more convoluted. The Earl has brought the child to the doctor because he believes that he has infected her with syphilis. The harpy with the knife is actually the girl's mother, feigning anger in order to blackmail the Earl, who, in a final twist, is being set up. The child already had the pox when her mother sold her to him, either because he was not her first "protector" or because she inherited the illness from her syphilitic father, none other than the Quack Doctor himself.

As with all great works of art and literature, you can return to these pictures again and again, and always find something you had not seen before. We should be grateful to the National Gallery and to Egerton (and to the Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation, which is supporting the exhibition) for reminding us that Hogarth's wit, invention and high spirits are inexhaustible.