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William Hogarth’s Representation of Eighteenth Century Wit and Humor Within His Conversation Pieces


Laura James Professor Trittel Winter 2015

William Hogarth (1697-1764) worked tirelessly to become known as a great painter within eighteenth century English society. The artist is most often memorialized by the greatness of his graphic works and there is no question that his etching and engraving skills far surpassed his painting skills. However, Hogarth’s contribution to painting was also considerable, and during his lifetime Hogarth became a forerunner of the English conversation piece, which rose to popularity in the 1720’s and early 1730’s. The conversation piece is categorized as both a genre scene and a portrait as well as giving a glimpse into the polite family life of the patron. Hogarth was not the original author of the conversation piece, but he greatly contributed to its popularity through his talent, wit and social connections, which contributed to his representation of well-known sitters of his time. Through the inclusion of personal humor and wit, William Hogarth elevated his conversation pieces from the mere representation of a patron to a reflection of the society and times in which he lived. The conversation piece is Dutch in its origin, first emerging in the Netherlands in the second half of the 1600’s.1 For an image to be classified as a conversation piece there are many parameters that must be adhered to. The eighteenth century English conversation piece is small in scale and portrays an informal group of family and friends in intimate surroundings. Quite often the sitters were playing cards or taking tea and usually entertaining guests.2 It is not a sporting image, it is never large in scale and it is not a moral story. For instance, Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode cannot be classified as a conversation piece even though it technically shows a couple or a family in the interior of                                                                                                               1 Ralph Edwards, “Georgian Conversation Pictures,” Apollo 105 (1977): 253. 2 Ching-Jung Chen, “Portraying Politeness: The Early Georgian Conversation Piece and Its Patrons,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 27, no. 3 (2011): 203.  


their home surrounded by their worldly possessions: the goal of that series is to tell a moral story.3 The most acknowledged and established use of the conversation piece was to portray one’s family as polite and refined. Conversation was an integral part of English society at the time and displaying one’s family as respectable was almost an obligation in order to be socially accepted into the upper class levels of eighteenth century society. Hogarth is said to have painted over twenty-four conversation pieces in just the three years of 1728 until 1730. The conversation piece did not begin with him and there were countless more painted by Hogarth and other English artists in the years following.4 The conversation piece originated in Dutch society in the later seventeenth century. Dutch conversation pieces portrayed not only the patron and their family but also included representations of all of their worldly belongings. These images were lavish and portrayed the most beloved worldly material possessions, such as silk curtains, busts, columns and delft earthenware that the Dutch patron and his family owned.5 The aforementioned display of family possessions is evident in figure 1, Godfried Schalken’s, Family Concert, from the late 1660’s. In this image the viewer is given a quick glimpse into the life of a Dutch family. We see that they own luxurious textiles that cover the table they sit at and the image is framed with heavy red curtains, giving it an almost theatrical feel. Above the sitters hangs a large brass chandelier, which not only displays wealth but also serves to draw the viewer’s eye to the back of the room where the patron’s porcelain collection is displayed. This image shows us family life in a way that was seen as respectable as there are generations of the same family around one table                                                                                                               3 Sacheverell Sitwell, Conversation Pieces: A Survey of English Domestic Portraits and Their Painters (New York and London: Batsford, 1969), I. 4 Edwards, 254. 5 Ibid., 253.  


displaying their skills and talents. Schalken’s Family Concert (figure 1) is not filled with gratuitous displays of wealth but it is a painting meant to display the talent, superior aesthetic taste, knowledge, and refinement that the family has worked to gain.6 This image foreshadows what is to become the English conversation piece approximately sixty-years later. After a childhood spent in debtors prison due to his father’s poor decisionmaking, Hogarth swore never to be impoverished again. The artist worked his entire life in search of deeper artistic respect, a superior reputation, and greater financial success. The London of Hogarth’s time was a competitive landscape for the common citizen and even tougher for an artist. During his lifetime the city increased its population from 575,000 to 700,000 inhabitants. London was undisputed as the greatest city in the nation during the eighteenth century.7 By all accounts Hogarth excelled financially and artistically during his lifetime, but the artist was never satisfied with his level of artistic acceptance. Subscriptions to Hogarth’s many graphic satirical series The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress and Marriage à la Mode made the artist a very wealthy man, but he was fighting a constant personal battle to improve his stature, and avoid the same fate as his father.8 A sensitivity and sensibility that can only be gained through misfortune showed itself in Hogarth’s work. Hogarth’s experiences and hardships as a child undoubtedly contributed to his sharp wit and allowed him to truly understand and portray the high and the low of London. He viewed the lower working class citizens and

                                                                                                              6 Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Conversation Piece: Scenes of a Fashionable Life, (London: Royal Collections Publications, 2009), 9. 7 Mark Hallett, Hogarth, (London: Phaidon, 2000), 8. 8 Ibid., 14.    


working women of London without any judgment, but yet he always vowed to never be in that financial position of his childhood again. The honor of painting the royal family was something that Hogarth, as well as most other artists of the time, longed to be given the opportunity to do. Hogarth did come close to being afforded the commission to paint the royal family, for which he prepared two oil sketches. The Family of George II, c.1731–32 (figure 2) is one of the two versions of sketches prepared by Hogarth for the royal family. These oil sketches were a requirement before a commission was granted. One version showed the royal family indoors and the other depicts the family outdoors (figure 2). Alas both sketches were unfinished failures, as the commission was taken over by competing artist William Kent.9 This defeat for Hogarth was a devastating blow, as portraying the royal family would have brought him immediate respect and dignity as a painter of the time. In the end, Hogarth was never afforded the occasion to paint a member of the royal family, but his unfinished oil sketches of George II’s family sit in the National Gallery of Ireland and in the Royal Collection Trust of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II today.10 Being seen as a great painter was one of Hogarth’s greatest desires and painting conversation pieces was an ideal way to pursue that goal. Painting was seen as a higher art than engraving and gave him the opportunity to become familiar with the wealthy and aristocratic patrons through painting the upper class. This new professional class of English aristocracy came from a plethora of jobs and often-included commerce, banking

                                                                                                              9 Shawe-Taylor, 80. 10 Ibid.    


and trade.11 England was going through a time of great change in the mid-eighteenth century and bankers, merchants, and other citizens of the professional class were making their way into wealthy aristocratic society. It was important to this new upper class that they be considered polite, respectable and able to hold intelligent conversation. Along with supporting charity initiatives and fulfilling civic-minded duties, portraying one’s family as cultivated, moralistic, and affable, diverted any prejudice about the commercial origins of their wealth.12 England was slowly but surely moving away from a time when one had to be born into high society and many members had begun to work their way into affluent social roles. Having worked hard to achieve his own social status, Hogarth felt a kinship with this new professional class. This change in social hierarchy is portrayed in Hogarth’s conversation piece, The Assembly at Wanstead House, c.1728–31 (figure 3), which shows a group gathered in banker William Wollaston’s town house.13 The inhabitants of the image are practicing the socially acceptable rituals of taking tea, playing cards, and engaging in polite conversation in a palatial interior. An opulent chandelier hangs in the center of the room, the home is decorated with grandiose murals on the walls and ceilings, and the bust over the fireplace recalls the pioneering Dutch conversation pieces. Many of the men and women on either side of the room are making eye contact with each other. The dogs in the foreground are also making eye contact that mimics their owners and they are deliberating on each other from the opposite sides of the room. Hogarth                                                                                                               11 Ching-Jung Chen, “Portraying Politeness: The Early Georgian Conversation Piece and Its Patrons,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 27, no. 3 (2011): 211. 12 Hallett, 137. 13 Ibid., 59.    


painted a monstrous sized curly haired dog in the left of the piece that looks as if he is ready to pounce on the two spindly Whippet-like dogs on the opposite side of the room. This relationship between the dogs adds a palpable quality of honesty and modesty to the painting that could otherwise be viewed as ostentatious due to its lavish interior. Hogarth included dogs in so many of his conversation pieces for many reasons: he was a dog lover, dogs were usually found in the eighteenth century English home, the dog was a symbol of loyalty, humor and personification, and perhaps most importantly the dog was considered quintessentially English. The image of these pets acting playful in a domestic setting covered with murals of history paintings really lends an accessible human quality to the conversation piece and also to the patrons who commissioned it. The patrons are shown not only as wealthy, studied, and polite, but also are given an air of humanity and Englishness through Hogarth’s inclusion and representation of their domestic pets. Three Ladies in a Grand Interior (The Broken Fan), (figure 4) is a conversation piece that Hogarth painted in 1736. To this day there is still question as to the identities of the sitters. One source labels the women as “Lady Thornhill, Hogarth’s mother-in-law; her daughter, who became the painter’s wife; and Hogarth’s own sister.”14 While another source states that the women are “possibly Catherine Darnley, Duchess of Buckingham with two ladies.”15 Whatever the true identity of the sitters is, it does not deter from the truly Hogarthian quality of this conversation piece. The namesake of the painting is the fan that one of the toy-sized dogs is running through the scene with in his mouth while                                                                                                               14 Sacheverell Sitwell, Conversation Pieces: A Survey of English Domestic Portraits and Their Painters (New York and London: Batsford, 1969), 18. 15 “William Hogarth,” Tate Britain, last modified March 2011, accessed February 28, 2015. (accessed February 28, 2015).    


being chased by another dog of similar petite stature. The painting adheres to the traditional qualities that comprise an eighteenth century English conversation piece, yet the mood is playful, with whimsical and mischievous dogs in the foreground who set the tone. Hogarth employs the use of perspective to bring the viewers eye back in to the house that this scenario is set in. The patron of The Broken Fan (figure 4) is wearing black mourning attire and is being read to by one of the ladies that accompanies her. She has a home filled with ornately framed paintings that hang all throughout the grand interior as well as a spectacular Turkish tapestry strewn across the table in the foreground. All of this imagery serves to display the patron’s wealth, travel, and knowledge.16 Even though the benefactor of this painting is in mourning attire and has positioned herself to display the grand interior of her home, it is Hogarth’s portrayal of her little spaniels and their devilment that elevate this painting from just another conversation piece to an undoubtedly Hogarthian painting. The representation of the dogs and their mischievous ways add to the painting, making it less singular in subject than a mere representation of the patron. In Conversation Piece (Portrait of Sir Andrew Fountaine with Other Men and Women, c.1730–35 (figure 5) Hogarth takes the conversation piece outdoors. The painting of Sir Fountaine and many other’s, elicited what has been referred to as a “living conversation piece.” 17 This meant that as the painting was being viewed in the home of the patron, the viewers were creating a living conversation piece in real time. Fountaine’s friends and family would have gathered around this piece, exhibited in his home, taking tea and carrying out the exact rituals that they were viewing in the painting. Once again                                                                                                               16 Sitwell, 18. 17 Hallett, 63.    


Hogarth employs his use of dogs in the foreground of this piece. One of the dogs is a Pug puppy. It is an established fact that Hogarth loved Pugs: not only did he own one, but he also included him in the foreground of one of his most well known self portraits, The Painter and His Pug, c.1745 (figure 6). The painter’s self portrait of 1745 was not the only painting that his beloved Pug showed up in as he was also included in the conversation piece The Strode Family just three years later in 1738 (figure 7) and a few years after that in Lord Graham in His Cabin, c.1742-44 (figure 8). Hogarth depicts a more intimate grouping of conversationalists in The Strode Family, c. 1745 (figure 7) than was seen in The Assembly at Wanstead House, c.1728–31 (figure 3). The setting is less ostentatious and more scholarly. The room is lined with bookshelves and collections to let the viewer know that the patron, William Strode, was a veteran of the Grand Tour of Europe, having travelled the continent to study the classical antiquity.18 One indisputable aspect that The Strode Family, c. 1745 (figure 7) has in common with The Assembly at Wanstead House, c.1728–31 (figure 3) is the introduction of the canines on either side of the conversation piece. We see that Hogarth once again places the possibility of canine “conversation” and introduction at the foreground of the piece. Just as William Strode is being lead out of his bookish shyness by his companions in the scene there are also questions being presented as to how Colonel Strode’s militant personality will fit into the conversation once he accepts the seat that he is being offered at the table. We are left with the same questions in regards to the canine relationship that is being introduced in the foreground of the piece. How are these dogs going to interact? Hogarth’s pug has yet to be introduced to the Strode’s family pet and the viewer is left to                                                                                                               18 Hallett, 61.  


wonder if this genteel group of sitters have trained their pets to interact with the level of civility that they expect from one another. Lord Graham in His Cabin, c.1742-44 (figure 8) is Hogarth’s strongest example of the marrying of his impassioned use of humor and satire with the patron’s wishes for representation in their commissions. Setting the image in the interior of a boat cabin was no less than genius as paintings in this setting are extremely rare for the time period.19 The image depicts Lord Graham smoking a pipe in his boat cabin surrounded by many characters. The group includes an African-American servant (also smoking a pipe and playing a drum), a red haired singer and a server bringing out a platter with gravy spilling down the back of an unknown sitter who is said to have been a poet or tutor of some sort. The server carrying the platter is one of the few inhabitants of the image that makes eye contact with the viewer while also displaying a comical grin. As usual, the foreground of the conversation piece is given to the dogs, and once again Hogarth’s Pug is illustrated. The artist’s Pug is wearing Lord Graham’s wig, the lord is caught “un-wigged” and the spaniel on the opposite side of the image appears to be singing along with the group.20 Hogarth has infused these canine companions with a comical sense of humanism and not only does his pug adorn Lord Graham’s wig but he also sits upright in a chair in a position where he appears to be ready to read the paper in front of him and sing along with the group.

                                                                                                              19 Sitwell, 20. 20 “William Hogarth,” Royal Museums Greenwich, (accessed February 27, 2015).  


William Hogarth is considered one of the most important artists to come out of England in the eighteenth century, and there are many that believe he is the finest. Satire and humor displayed in his many graphic series is what the artist is most well known. His small-scale conversation pieces are less conspicuous and frequently underappreciated, but as art historian Sacheverell Sitwell stated in 1939, “The discovery of a new conversation piece by Hogarth must always remain one of the most delightful possibilities in English art. For, with Hogarth, scale is not everything and often it is his smallest pictures that are the best.”21 Time and again it was the personification of dogs that Hogarth used as the tool to elevate the conversation piece to more than a mere representation of a patron, but to a truly witty and approachable depiction of reality in the eighteenth century. The artist added personality and playfulness into his conversation pieces by way of using everyday English eighteenth century objects and often pets to show life as it was. The English conversation piece was an inherently staged and often stodgy image, which would not have been interesting to anyone beyond patron and their family. However, Hogarth incorporated numerous elements of the sitter’s daily life into his paintings, which made the conversation pieces more alluring to others than just the benefactor. Satire was never to be included as an element of the conversation piece and Hogarth certainly did not satirize his patrons in their own paintings, yet he did use his sense of drollery to depict the domestic scene in an intriguing and compelling way that elevated the conversation piece from more than a mere representation of the patron.

                                                                                                              21 Sitwell, 21.    



Fig 1. Godfried Schalken, Family Concert, late 1660’s, oil on panel, Royal Collection, Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. Source: Proffesor Trittel’s class 5 PowerPoint presentation on the conversation piece.


Fig 2. William Hogarth, The Family of George II, c.1731–32, oil on canvas, 25 1/10 x 30 1/10 inches. Royal Collection Trust, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Source: Artsy, (accessed February 27, 2015).


Fig 3. William Hogarth, Assembly at Wanstead House, c.1728–31, oil on canvas, 25 ½ x 30 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Source: Artstor, mbly20at20Wanstead20House%7CMultiple20Collection20Search%7C%7C%7Ctype 3D3126kw3DWilliam20Hogarth2C20Assembly20at20Wanstead20House26id3Dall26 name3DAll20Collections26origKW3D (accessed February 23, 2015).


Fig 4. William Hogarth, Three Ladies in a Grand Interior (The Broken Fan), c.1736, oil on canvas, 26 ¼ x 25 ½ inches. Tate Gallery, London. Source: Tate Britain, (accessed February 27, 2015).


Fig 5. William Hogarth, Conversation Piece (Portrait of Sir Andrew Fountaine with Other Men and Women, c.1730–35, oil on canvas, 18 3/4 x 23 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Source: Artstor, Multiple20Collection20Search%7C%7C%7Ctype3D3126kw3Dhogarth20sir20fountai ne26id3Dall26name3DAll20Collections26origKW3D (accessed February 23, 2015).


Fig 6. William Hogarth, The Painter and His Pug, c.1745, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 27 1/8 inches. Tate Gallery, London. Source: Artstor, 2C20The20Painter20and20his20pug%7CMultiple20Collection20Search% 7C%7C%7Ctype3D3126kw3DWilliam20Hogarth2C20The20Painter20and 20his20pug26id3Dall26name3DAll20Collections26origKW3D (accessed February 27, 2015).  


Fig 7. William Hogarth, The Strode Family, c.1738, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London. Source: Tate Gallery, (accessed February 23, 2015).


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Fig 8. William Hogarth, Lord Graham in His Cabin, c.1742-44, oil on canvas, 27 x 35 inches. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich, (accessed February 23, 2015).


Bibliography Chen, Ching–Jung. “Portraying Politeness: The Early Georgian Conversation Piece and Its Patrons.” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 27, no. 3 (2011): 203–226. Edwards, Ralph. “Georgian Conversation Pieces.” Apollo 105 (April 1977): 252-261. Hallett, Mark. Hogarth. London: Phaidon, 2000. Paulson, Ronald. Hogarth: His Life, His Art and Times, vol. I. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971. –––––––––––––. Hogarth: His Life, His Art and Times, vol. II. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971. –––––––––––––. Hogarth: The Modern Moral Subject, 1697–1752, vol. I. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1991. –––––––––––––. Hogarth: High and Low Art, 1732–1750, vol. II. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1991. –––––––––––––. Hogarth: Art and Politics, 1750–1764, vol. III. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1991. –––––––––––––. Emblem and Expressionism: Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Press, 1975. Rosenthal, Michael. Hogarth. London: Chaucer Press, 2005. Sitwell, Sacheverell. Conversation Pieces: A Survey of English Domestic Portraits and Their Painters. New York and London: Batsford, 1969. Shawe–Taylor, Desmond. The Conversation Piece: Scenes of a Fashionable Life. London: Royal Collections Publications, 2009. Williamson, George Charles. English Conversation Pieces of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1975.


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William Hogarth's Representation of Wit and Humor Within His Eighteenth Century Conversation Pieces  

William Hogarth's Representation of Wit and Humor Within His Eighteenth Century Conversation Pieces