'The Graham Children' and Painting Related to Childhood 
by Diana Francocci 1997


The 18th Century gave rise to a plethora of rich and diverse paintings. Whilst the majority of Artists from the period were in the main of European extraction, Britain was not without artists of supreme excellence. Hogarth, with Thornhill before him and Reynolds and Gainsborough following on, ensured that Britain remained no longer in the wilderness of the 17th Century. Firstly a short background of the artist and the genre he worked in, will precede a more in depth analysis of one his 186 paintings. The painting chosen for this formal analysis will be the portrait of "The Graham Children", concentrating on looking at the way he dealt with composition, colour, symbolism and technique. Following this analysis, this work and others will be put into context with particular relevance to childhood in the 18th Century. The essay will conclude with the comparison of how Hogarth and his contemporaries depicted children from the aristocracy to the poorest peasants, especially concentrating on the disparity between the social classes. 


Ellis Waterhouse described Hogarth as being, "A man of pugnacious and self assertive temperament, one of the first English painters of note who could be called a 'character'. He ceaselessly publicised his activities, had no scruples about being consistent , and was something of an opportunist." He gained inspiration from the acclaim given to Thornhill and his reputation as painter to the King. His ambition was ultimately to inherit Thornhill's positions. He failed perhaps, to see that Thornhill's successes were particularly relevant to the times in which he lived and worked. Hogarth married Thornhill's daughter in 1729, and remained an extreme patriot throughout his lifetime, constantly denigrating continental artists as Thornhill had done.

Of the two schools of portraiture existing at that time Hogarth belonged to the younger and more progressive of the two, alongside Dandridge and Highmore, and in which Waterhouse describes that, "the actual texture of the paint surface counted for something." Waterhouse feels however that Hogarth was especially gifted in the handling of oils. That tradition in which Hogarth followed did not have the, "dainty use of paint which is found in Hogarth right at the beginning of his career." He likened this to Watteau or Van de Troy rather than anything English.

He is known primarily for the series' of moralistic paintings including "Marriage a la Mode" painted in 1743, one year after "The Graham Children" and "The Rake's Progress", 1732-4; and his flamboyant theatrical scenes as shown in "The Beggars Opera". The majority of his portraits were painted between 1740 and 1745.

The Portrait

Portraiture was ranked lowest of all types of painting in the 18th Century, and it was not until Jean Baptiste van Loo came to England from France in 1737 that it achieved some status. As one would expect it was Hogarth who led the revolt against this foreign intrusion, as he saw it. He encouraged his contemporaries to improve their skills, and took up their challenge to do it himself. He remained immensely proud of an early portrait; that of Captain Coram and states in his autobiographical notes, "Is it not strange that one of the first portraits, as big as the life of Captain Coram in the Foundling Hospital should stand the test of twenty years as the best portrait in the place notwithstanding all the first portrait painters in the kingdom had exerted their talents to vie with it."

'The Graham Children' 1742

Formal Analysis of 'The Graham Children,' 1742

Family Background

The painting was commissioned by Daniel Graham, who held the position of Apothecary to the Royal Household and the Chelsea Hospital. The three youngest children in the portrait were from his second marriage, to Mary Crisp. His eldest daughter from his first marriage is depicted holding the hand of the infant Thomas. Next to her and almost centrally placed is 7 year old Henrietta Catherine, and in the right hand foreground seated is 8 year old Richard Robert.


The painting is oil on canvas and is of an impressive size , 63¾ by 61¼ inches, and normally resides in the Tate Gallery, although it is on temporary loan to the National Gallery until the end of 1998. The considerably larger scale of this painting and "The McKinnon Children", 1742, compared for example to "The Grey Children", 1740 (41½ by 38 ¾ inches) [illus. 2] has resulted in a superbly detailed, well balanced, and informally posed composition that makes a strong impact on the observer.

'The McKinnon Children' 1742 and 'The Grey Children' 1740

In "The Grey Children" the two figures and their wriggling puppy are centrally placed and take up the majority of the canvas, being framed by the rich draperies on the left and a rather austere and uncluttered background on the right. All the intricate detail surrounds the centre of the painting. In "The Graham Children" however, there are specific areas of interest that lead our eyes all around. He has used drapery to great effect on the right of the picture directing our attention to the cameo going on with the cat and bird, and then leading the eye down to the bottom right foreground where the drapes turn inward directing attention to the toy bird in the foreground. The apron of Elizabeth is cleverly draped over her arm allowing the clean edge of her costume to contrast with her sister's highly detailed decorative gown and providing a break where there could have been too large an area of white. Henrietta is described by Mary Webster in her biography "Hogarth" as, "one of Hogarth's loveliest images of a child: Smooth skinned, bright eyed, with all the gaiety of Rococo flowers and leaves scattered in patches of bright colour which glow on her hair and dress."

The painting is also framed by the positioning of the children, the two placed on the outside are not only looking inwards to the action taking place, but are both seated and lower down. The two girls are both standing and are placed to give a strong diagonal line downwards from top left to bottom right where Richard is seated. The rope acts as an opposite diagonal cutting across the top right of the picture and focuses interest on the cat's predatory behaviour. The other strong diagonal within is the infant's toy bird, again descending from left to right. All the corners have an area of interest filled either with symbolism or richly painted colour. Elizabeth is looking directly at us, inviting our participation in the scene.

The painting is direct front perspective, or what is more commonly referred to as "Dutch Perspective", drawn on horizontal parallel lines as seen on the chequered floor. Hogarth has however altered the perspective, as the side of the birdcage is visible, in the same way that Van Dyke altered the perspective of the King in his portrait of Charles 1st.


Hogarth's palette is made up of a small number of colours, mainly reds, varying shades of white to grey, and a vast depth of tones of brown from the deepest umbers to the rich siennas and all hues in between. These rich warm shades are carefully balanced with either cool blues or greens. Pinks and purples seem absent from his usual palette.

Here, in "The Graham Children" his control of colour and balance is excellent. The rich warm sienna of the infant Thomas' gown and Richard's almost golden satin suit set into the rich burnt oranges of the drapery, help to frame the painting and are echoed centrally in Henrietta's dress and in the floral headbands the girls are wearing. The cool shades of Elizabeth's dress make her stand out against the sombre background and the blue is complementary to the oranges of Thomas' gown. The hints of cool blues and greys filter through the soft muslin folds in the apron where his choice of colour strongly reflects the light source that is from the left of the painting and gives their faces a warm and almost rosy hue.

Style and Technique

The painting is full of intricate details. His brushwork is expressive whilst he manages to execute the most minute attention to detail. According to Mary Webster, "The technique is brilliant, with much use of lustrous colour and highly finished detail." The cat and the birdcage are beautifully portrayed even to the frantic expression on the face of the bird flapping helplessly against the bars of the cage, which is depicted as having the catch open. His use of strong highlights even on the cat's claws and in the eye of the bird reveal his attention to the importance of detail in his painting. Even the thin lines of the birdcage are highlighted across the top.

His ability to include perfectly observed detail and yet retain the softness of a slightly expressive style is the hallmark of this great artist. The brushwork is fairly loose in style and he does not painstakingly eradicate the strokes, and yet still manages to convince the onlooker that Richard's stockings are shimmering silk and the lace on Elizabeth's apron has a delicate flowing quality. The whole work is brought alive by the skilful painting of the clothes and drapes. The children are much more detailed than the general background and are prominently and strongly lit.


The 'Graham Children' is liberally strewn with carefully placed iconography, some of which reflect childhood as a phase of life to be protected from the harsher rigours of the world outside of the nursery. This is illustrated in the painting by the predatory cat stalking the goldfinch in the gilded suspended cage.

Detail from 'The Graham Children'

On closer examination of this area the cat's claws can be seen as out and gripping the furniture. His eyes are focused solely on the fluttering goldfinch. The gilded cage could be seen as the rich protector of the innocent, then released into a dangerous world, an allegory of the child becoming an adult and having to deal with an altogether more dangerous reality. The cord that cuts the corner of the painting and so obviously supporting the suspended cage, could be symbolic of the fragility of life and especially of child mortality. This is even more likely as the portrait of the infant Thomas in the painting was done posthumously.

Richard is playing a serinette which is decorated with scenes of Orpheus charming all the animals with his music. He is smiling at the goldfinch oblivious to the scenario behind him. James Hall states that, "the subject was popular in Roman times, and early Christian artists used it to represent the Messiah at whose coming the 'wolf shall lay down with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.' Early representations of Christ as a shepherd were derived from the Orpheus image." Thus we see the irony contained in Hogarth's depiction of the enmity between bird and cat becomes more apparent as he would have been well aware of the Orpheus symbolism.

Elizabeth is holding a sprig of two cherries, symbolic of the fruits of paradise and given to those who were virtuous. The bird itself was a strong symbol going back into pagan times where the soul of a man flew away when he died. This myth continued into Christianity and was most often depicted as a goldfinch, a favourite pet with children. All of these symbols including a variety of fruit became common symbols in 17th Century still life painting and continued to be used at least during the 18th Century. The other obvious symbol in this painting in the top left hand corner where the triumph of time over love is shown in the elaborate clock, on top of which stands Cupid holding a scythe.

Mary Webster mentions a particularly significant detail in "The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox", 1730, regarding a red carpet rolled up for the occasion. She states, "This is a significant detail, for it supplies us with a rational reason for what are essentially artificial features in the foreground. Later this gift of conferring significance on every detail will progress into a masterful system of symbol and allusion." As it was impossible to have all the people sitting for a portrait at the same time, the artist often had to create a space to place them in, full of artificial objects of a symbolic nature.

'The Wedding of Stephen and Mary Beckingham' 1730


Painting Related to Childhood

Hogarth's marriage was childless and yet he had a great affinity with children from all walks of life and this was clearly shown not only in the way he depicted children in paintings and engravings, but also in his position as a Governor of the foundling hospital. He played a considerable part in setting up this institution to take in abandoned children from the streets of London and the surrounding countryside. Coram and his helpers were besieged when the doors opened in March 1741, becoming full in a matter of a mere 4 hours. Hogarth was forced to plead with mothers not to abandon their offspring in the streets to an almost certain death.

This must have had a huge effect on his work as an artist and although he painted beautiful and sensitive paintings of children such as the one discussed above and for which he received payment, much of his work was inspired by the underclasses of the London streets. It has to be realised that the mortality of rate of children during this period was high. There was an enormous disparity between the children if the rich and the poor. Children as young as four or five were expected to help earn the daily bread, by such work as stone picking, bird scaring and berry picking in the countryside. Of course with the Industrial Revolution they had to take on much less healthy work in the factories.

The main problem was lack of adequate contraception and due to the employment by the wealthy of wet nurses to suckle their young, the birth rate rose among the rich and fell among the poor. It can be clearly seen in "The Graham Children" and others of its ilk that the wealthy were exceptionally richly clothed. It is thanks to Hogarth in particular that the other side of life was so well portrayed. This was done mainly through his engravings and in 1751 Hogarth produced "Gin Lane", one of a pair of prints designed as he said, "to reform some reigning vices peculiar to the lower class of people."

'Gin Lane' 1751

Here he has no qualms about presenting to those who could afford his prints, strong images of the seedier side of life in England's capital city. Centrally placed is a woman completely inebriated on gin the drug of the poor. She is so drunk that she fails to notice the babe she had been feeding is falling to an obvious death from the top of steps above a Gin Palace. What is also evident is that everyone else in the picture is completely oblivious to the plight of the child, being preoccupied with their own problems. In the mid left someone hungrily gnaws on a bone, whilst behind a couple try to pawn belongings. To the far side of the picture another mother pours neat gin down a baby through a funnel , possibly to keep it quiet.

This was quite a common practise at this time and Hogarth has repeated similar images in other works. In "Strolling Actresses in a Barn", 1738 he reveals some interesting methods of infant feeding.  

'Strolling Actresses In a Barn' 1738

In the bottom left of the picture a child is being fed pap from a bowl standing on a stage crown on the floor, and is just as quickly vomiting. To the bottom right a monkey urinates into a stage helmet . Derek Jarret makes the observation that, "Perhaps next time the monkey will use the crown and the mother the helmet, after both pieces of headgear have picked up another layer of grease and germs from the wigs of the players who wear them."

All children rich and poor heard the same nursery rhymes and played with some sorts of toys. In "The Harlot's Progress", plate 6 a child can be seen playing with a toy under his mothers coffin. Spinning tops and hoops were toys that were bought by the rich and often improvised by the poor. The rattles and teething rings of the rich were made of coral and silver. In Hogarth's painting "Gerard Anne Edwards in his Cradle" the baby is holding an elaborate figure on wheels and surrounded by rich blankets and linens, a far cry from the poor who were loosely wrapped in rags.

'Gerard Anne Edwards in his Cradle' 1733

Contemporary Artists

Hogarth's best known contemporary was Joseph Highmore and the development of his art according to Waterhouse, "runs closely parallel to that of Hogarth in his formal elements, and even to some extent in its social implications. But it is entirely without a bias towards the satirical, the comic, or the moralising." Highmore was a great friend of the author Samuel Richardson and illustrated his works.

In "Pamela Telling a Nursery Tale", Highmore is merely illustrating Richardson's story; he is not the narrator of his own story like Hogarth. The French engraver Gravelot was the main force behind the Rococo and French manner. He had a strong influence on both artists. Waterhouse explains it thus, "Of the older generation it was Highmore who felt this influence most and corrupted it least. In Hogarth's hands it became something like a French dish attempted by an English cook." Although the similarities are there, delicacy of feeling is only visible in Highmore's work.

'Pamela Telling a Nursery Tale' by Joseph Highmore 1746

In the painting of the nursery and "The Graham Children", the interiors are very similar but the balance and mastery of composition in Highmore's painting is inferior, with the characters all being pushed to one side. He has drawn attention to Pamela in her striking blue dress, but the quality of brushwork and attention to detail are not as accurate or vibrant. It is indeed a charming illustration but lacking the wit and cynicism of Hogarth's works. It is another idealised picture of the life of rich children cocooned by the trappings of comfort, with servants to their every need; and yet was not painted to show this.

Similar to "The Graham Children" in its symbolism is Goya's portrait of "Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga", 1784 (40 by 50 inches) [illus. 8], where a young and richly dressed boy stares out. The cage on the floor to his right is full of goldfinches who seem totally unpeturbed by the three cats on his other side and the cage is closed. The magpie tethered on a string and held by the child is similarly oblivious to the cats two of which looks hungrily at the bird. It would seem that whether or not the children were rich or poor, life was very fragile in the 18th Century.

'Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga' by Goya 1784 and detail from the left hand corner of the painting.


It can be seen that from an in depth study of one painting and its comparison to a few of his other works and those of other contemporary artists that William Hogarth was a supreme master not only of the genre prevalent in the 18th Century, but unique in the way that he portrayed all facets of life. His moralistic, cynical, and satirical paintings and engravings have left an indelible mark on the history of art. Without this artist the world would have been left with a much more idealistic picture of life of that era. Whatever his moral stance regarding the rich and poor alike he has treated all with the same blend of satire and compassion, leaving the world of art the richer for it.


Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art

James Hall, Harper and Row, New York

England in the Age of Hogarth

Derek Jarret, Purnell Book Services Ltd, 1974


Express Art Book, Beaverbrook


Mary Webster, Studio Vista Book, Cassell Ltd, 1978

Hogarth's Progress

Peter Quennell, Collins, 1955

Painting in Britain, 1530 - 1790

Ellis Waterhouse, Yale University Press (Pelican History of Art)

List of Illustrations

William Hogarth, 'The Graham Children', 1742

William Hogarth, 'The McKinnon Children' 1742

William Hogarth, 'The Grey Children', 1740

William Hogarth, 'The Wedding of Stephen and Mary Beckingham', 1730

William Hogarth, 'Gin Lane', 1751

William Hogarth, 'Strolling Actresses In a Barn', 1738

William Hogarth, 'Gerard Anne Edwards in his Cradle', 1733

Joseph Highmore, 'Pamela Telling a Nursery Tale' 1746

Francisco Goya, 'Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga', 1784