William Hogarth: Conversation Piece

Pallant House Gallery, 18 January - 9 March 2003

This in focus exhibition considers the bawdy print series An Election by William Hogarth (1729-31) in relation to The Beggar's Opera Act III, the 'conversation' painting that made his reputation. Although on one hand a lavish portrait of the actors in John Gay's play, this painting was also a biting satire of the political system of his day. These amusing pictures expose the world of 18th century politics with an insight and humour that is as fresh today as when they were first created.

The 'Conversation Piece' was a popular form of painting in Britain in the early years of the 18th century. These informal paintings usually took the form of small scale group portraits of family or friends engaged in some favourite occupation in private surroundings, as in Gawen Hamilton's Rawston Conversation Piece (c.1740) in the collection of Pallant House Gallery. It was William Hogarth, with The Beggar's Opera, Act III (1728-29), who took the standard 'conversation piece' in another direction altogether, quite different from the usual representations of domestic gatherings.

Hogarth's The Beggar's Opera, Act III

Instead of the polite family group Hogarth's painting represents the final scene of John Gay's Beggar's Opera, which was one of the most popular and controversial plays of the day. It is on one level a portrait group as it shows the actual actors who performed the play, as well as members of the audience. On another level, however, it was a subject painting with its meaning closely related to the dénouement of Gay's 'opera' with the suggestion that the line between respectability and the criminal underworld is not as clear as is generally assumed.

Hogarth's An Election Series

An Election, Hogarth's last and most famous 'modern moral subject', was the most biting political satire of his career. The series consists of just four scenes but each is packed so full of incident that it would appear that Hogarth was attempting to provide a panorama of the entire political scene in 18th century Britain. Although An Election was based in the fictional constituency of 'Guzzledown' it is clear that its inspiration was the very real state of political corruption during the notorious Oxfordshire contest during the general election of 1754. The Oxfordshire seats had been held uncontested by the party of 'Old Interest' (the Tories) since 1710.

When the Whigs, the party of 'New Interest', decided to contest the seats it gave the electors the chance to exercise their rights as citizens for the first time since in over forty years and initiated a campaign that became notorious for the unprecedented levels of corruption and bribery. As in A Scene from The Beggar's Opera, Act III, the characters Hogarth's fictional election bear uncanny likenesses to real political figures, particularly the Duke of Newcastle and the turn-coat politician Bubb Doddington. The dominant theme of the series is that of imminent disaster, both involving individuals and the nation at large, a warning about the possible impact of corruption and greed on the future of Great Britain.

William Hogarth (1697-1764) was the leading figure of the British art world in the first half of the 18th century. Although he originally trained as a silver engraver because his father, who had been imprisoned in the debtor prison, did not have the money to apprentice him to an established painter, Hogarth was to establish himself as artist in the 1720s. He became known for his revolutionary approach to the fashionable conversation piece, with 'modern moral subjects', such as The Harlot's Progress (1731) and The Rake's Progress (1733).

These form commentaries on the human condition through contemporary figures, rather than the mythological heroes of the past that were frequently presented in academic History paintings of the time. In 1735 he established a new St Martins Lane Academy along anti-academic lines. A great philanthropist Hogarth created works for the Foundling Hospital and St Barts Hospital, and as a producer of popular prints was instrumental in bringing about the Copyright Act.

The Beggar's Opera was first performed at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in January 1728. Its popularity spread rapidly and it soon became a subject of conversation among all classes of people. The play simultaneously satirised the taste for Italian opera and the pretensions of high society through its presentation of the fortunes and misfortunes of a highwayman called Captain Macheath, who is loved by Polly Peachum, a thief-taker's daughter, and by Lucy Lockit, whose father is the Turnkey (gaoler) at Newgate Prison.

Its story of London's low-life criminals and prostitutes implied that there was not much to distinguish these rogues and villains from those who ran the country. The satire was aimed at the corrupt administration of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Indeed, the contemporary public could recognise infamous criminals like Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard in the characters of Peachum and Macheath, recognise 'Bob Booty' as Sir Robert Walpole, and compare Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit to the rival singers Cuzzoni and Bordoni.