William Hoggart is one of the greatest of English artists of the 18th century. He made his name as an artist painting “conversation pieces”. These little pictures were very popular in England during the 18th century. They represented members of the same family or close friends having tea, playing cards, or simply talking to one another. Hoggart said that his picture was his stage, and men and women his players.
Later two ideas came to Hoggart’s mind. One idea was to paint moral drama of life in a series of pictures. The second one was to make engravings. His first successful moral series was “The Harlot’s Progress”. It showed a country girl in London.
The masterpiece of the series was the famous “Marriage a la Mode”. This set of pictures describes a marriage between the daughter of a rich man and a young lord, the son of an old Earl. The girl’s father has brought a bag full of money with him. Their children are together but apart: the young man is watching himself in the glass; the girl is listening to a young Counsellor. The pictures round the room help understand the situations. In one of the pictures Madame sits listening to the young Counsellor, whose portrait hangs in her room. Other pictures in the series show My Lord who amuses himself with a bad company. He returns home tipsy. Madame wastes her money at auctions. The end is known. My Lord attacks the Counsellor, who kills him and is executed. Moral: don’t listen to counsellors; don’t marry a man for his rank, or a woman for her money; don’t visit auctions unknown to your husband; don’t have bad friends. Otherwise you will be ruined.
Hoggart’s fame is, in fact, based on these “moral” engravings. They are full of humour. You must read them, and not look at them like other works of art. All through his life, though, Hoggart could also paint pieces of superb painting.