Decorated initial W

illiam Hogarth would seem to be the artist least congenial to the Victorians, and in many ways he was — at least to some Victorians. His emphasis upon sexuality, his grotesques, and his anti-aristocratic bent, like his lack of delicacy and his violation of rules taught by the nineteenth-century Academy schools, certainly did not fit well with artistic ideals of aristocratic culture that reverenced Raphael and Claude. It also seemed out of touch with the rival culture of the New men, the upstart mill owners and merchants of the industrial North — the John Thornton’s of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, the men who read John Ruskin and bought work by the Pre-Raphaelites and other purveyors of realism like W. P. Frith or Frank Holl. Therefore, it is especially surprising that Ruskin himself, the would be art-revolutionaries of the PRB who followed him, and the conservative critics of The Art-Journal all looked to Hogarth as one of the founders of true English painting. Equally important, as we shall observe in the following discussion, both the Pre-Raphaelites and their rivals in the Academy relied upon many of Hogarth’s characteristic techniques.

The Englishness of Hogarth, a Father of English Painting

Both Ruskin and the periodical critics who so rarely agreed with him believed that Hogarth was a courageous, independent-minded artist of great originality who founded, or was one of the principal founders of, English art. One encounters these judgments both in unexpected places, such as discussions of fashion or Japanese art, as well as in articles as about Hogarth himself or the art of his time. Thus, the 1858 Art-Journal, typically proclaims

No artist ever deserved the name of a "national painter" more truthfully than William Hogarth. The queen in whose reign he began his career had declared to one of her earliest parliaments that "her heart was entirely English," and her saying was commemorated on a medal. Hogarth's heart was equally English; his works are his medals, and will be as enduring as the metal of his sovereign. As time passes, and criticism expands, he is valued the more as the honest exponent of the manners of his own era, and as an artist who, less than any other, was indebted to foreign influences. His style was essentially his own, the fruit of his own observation; his works were the transcripts of what he saw around him. He is entirely original; and although his originality was both strongly defined and popular, it was so singularly excellent that he left no imitators who deserve to be remembered. [“The Tombs of English Artists. No. 4 — William Hogarth,” 104]

Similarly, an article a decade later on “National Portraits” describes him as “this expressly English painter” about whom “curiosity and pride are naturally felt” (A-J 95). Throughout the Victorian years English artists and critics alike frequently compared the condition of art in England unfavorably to that in France, complaining that England — and they always write “England” rather than “Britain” or “the United Kingdom”— had a much poorer artistic tradition, less patronage by church and state, and poorer training for young painters than did their cross-channel rival. Ruskin, periodical critics, and many painters like William Holman Hunt eagerly sought to advance a kind of art that was intrinsically, noticeably English. Hogarth, they proclaimed, was the father of that longed-for nationalist art. Thus, Mrs. S. C. Hall, wife of the Art-Journal’s proprietor and a frequent contributor to its pages, explained that “His philosophy was of the straightforward, clear-sighted English school; his theories—stern, simple, and unadorned—thoroughly English; his determination—proved in his love, as well as in his hate—quite English; there is a firmness of purpose, a rough dignity, a John-Bull look in his broad intelligent face; the very fur round his cap must have been plain English rabbit-skin!” (253). The Art-Journal’s 1853 article on "French Criticism of English Art" makes clear Hogarth’s essential importance for contemporary artists, urging that “in the path opened by this remarkable man, and it alone, can the British painting advance” (221).

Walter Thornbury’s 1860 article, "The English Caricaturists and King Cruikshank" therefore argues, “It is no use, in English art, beginning much before Hogarth, because with Hogarth began English art; for Cibber, Lely, Kneller, Gibbons, Scheemackers, were all foreigners, and were the products of foreign schools. Hogarth alone was pure English, for he represented English thoughts and painted and engraved English scenes, totally divesting himself of all foreign influence” (229). The Art-Journal’s review of the 1868 Leeds Exhibition compares it unfavorable to the earlier one “in Manchester [where] the origin of the English school was more correctly ascribed to Hogarth” (154). More than a decade later in 1880 this periodical again credited Hogarth with the creation or resurrection of the nation’s art: “The resurrection of painting . . . came in the time of George lI., mainly by the clear-mindedness of Hogarth” (296). Similarly, discussing the origins of British painting in the December 1871 Art-Journal, the author of “The Golden Age of Art” claims that “the Art of no country was so completely severed from the ancients” as it was in England, “but when the tardy revival did come, we had technical ability and dramatic treatment in Hogarth, appreciation of nature in Gainsborough, and a high style of portraiture in Reynolds. In these men painting found new aims and aspirations.”

Authors who thus look to Hogarth as one of the originators of British art either credit him alone or group him with Sir Joshua Reynolds and a painter of landscape, either Gainsborough or Wilson. (Ruskin, not surprisingly, adds Turner [16.144]). Those who look to a group of fathers of English art specifically credit Hogarth with creating genre paintings. For example, G. Walter Thornbury’s “Fuseli in Somerset House,” which appeared in the 1860 Art-Journal, made the usual point, claiming that “Lely and Roubilliac, Scheemakers, Vivares, Cibber, all foreigners, would have given heaven knows what semi-eclectic and foreign bias to English art, had not Hogarth arisen, and founded a new school of genre; and with him Wilson, to originate English landscape; and Reynolds, to bear away the palm for English Portraiture” (134). Or as the reviewer of works of the English school at the 1857 Art-Treasures exhibition pointed out, “Hogarth was everything—engraver, and painter of portraiture, landscape, architecture, conversation, the drama, fabulist, moralist, and caricaturist. He stands alone as the originator of a genre, which none who succeeded him have ever attempted with success” (A-J, 280).

Whether they concentrate upon Hogarth alone or group him with other founders of English painting, Victorian commentators emphasize his independence of thought and firm character. As Mrs. S. C. Hall pointed out in 1848, “No matter what ‘schools' were in fashion, Hogarth created and followed his own: no matter what was done, or said, or written, Hogarth maintained his opinion unflinchingly: he was not to be moved or removed from his resolve. His mind was vigorous and inflexible, and withal, keen and acute” (253). One reason, certainly, that Hogarth remained so central to British critics and reviews was that his works were publicly available when works by many other painters were not. As Dennis Farr explains, “it is difficult to realize now how meager the historic British collections at the Tate were before 1940. The conventional starting point for the national school was then Hogarth, whose six Marriage a la Mode pictures, a portrait or two, and the Scene from the Beggar’s Opera served as a nucleus, while Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Wilson were tolerably well represented” (349).

“He was born to flog vice, and to protest against a corrupt and artificial age”

On one thing all Victorian critics seem to agree — that (as John Burnet put it in his essay on David Wilkie) “Hogarth was certainly the greatest moral painter the world has yet seen. What Johnson, Addison, and others have accomplished by their writings, he has done by his pictures ; his may be truly said to be word paintings—his 'Marriage a la Mode,' his 'Idle and Industrious Apprentices,' his 'Harlot's Progress,' are all so many lessons showing vice punished and virtue rewarded.” They are, he adds, “so many sermons” (237). Pointing out that Hogarth was “greatest as a painter of moral stories,” he nonetheless admits that he “owes much of his fame to the caricatures with which he scourged a foolish age,” never attacking “like a bravo or a hired stabber” but only as a true moralist, exposing and mocking evil. “He denounced . . . the licence of elections, French foppery, military misrule, aristocratic extravagance, cruelty to animals, and the horrors of gambling. . . . . for he was born to flog vice, and to protest against a corrupt and artificial age” (237). Hogarth’s moral satires explain why Ruskin, thought him “entirely wise and right; but worldy wise, not divine” (22.319).

Pointing out that Hogarth’s work “has been universally recognised as that of a great moralist,” the Art-Journal 1853 discussion of Garrick and His Wife in the Royal Collections draws upon sister arts theory according to which “the pencil may claim equally with the pen,” and therefore urges that “the works of this teacher will continue, so long as they endure, vivid and argumentative exponents of good and evil; so powerfully expressed too, that, in them, virtue may trace the pathway to happiness, while vice and folly must shrink abashed from the mirror which reflects their depravity and exhibits their degradation. What the writings of AEsop, Juvenal, and Horace exposed to the ancients, the pencil of Hogarth has shadowed forth to us” (42).

Unfortunately, some members of the Victorian audience found the evils “Hogarth has shadowed forth to us” a bit too indelicate a matter for polite society, and despite praise of the “great talent and unflinching integrity” (A-J 1858: 104) of “the great painter-teacher of his age and country” (1848: 252), critics often write as if they have to defend him. Mrs. S. C. Hall therefore quotes C. R. Leslie who in turn quotes Charles Lamb:

Professor Leslie, in his eloquent and valuable Lectures on Painting, delivered in the spring of the present year to the students of the Royal Academy, has nobly vindicated Hogarth as an artist and a man, in words, that all who heard will long remember. “Hogarth,” he said, “it is true, is often gross; but it must be remembered that he painted in a less fastidious age than ours, and that his great object was to expose vice. Debauchery is always made by him detestable, never attractive. Charles Lamb, one of the best of his commentators, who has viewed his labours in a kindred spirit, speaking of one of his most elaborate and varied works, the “Election Entertainment,” asks; What is the result left on the mind? Is it an impression of the vileness and worthlessness of our species? Or is not the general feeling which remains after the individual faces have ceased to act sensibly on the mind, a kindly one in favour of the species. Leslie speaks of his “high species of humour pregnant with moral meanings,” and no happier choice of phrase could characterise his many works. (1848: 253).

Art-Journal reviewer of the 1857 Art-Treasures Exhibition takes a different tack, contrasting Hogarth’s moral satire on the one hand to the paintings of French painters that show little “didactic spirit” and, on the other, to “all the coarse and sordid material of so many of the eminent painters of the Dutch school” who do little more than offer “descriptions of the lowest condition of life” (280). Hogarth, the author admits, may be “as coarse as Teniers, Ostade, or Jan Steen,” but at least this great artist makes his moral lesson clear.

Hogarth the Aesthetician

Although most references to Hogarth concern his role in founding a particularly English school of painting and his importance as a moralist on canvas and paper, Victorian critics also remember his importance in the history of aesthetics. Victorian critics remember his Analysis of Beauty, citing it in often unexpected contexts. There’s nothing surprising when critics mention it in relation of Raphael (A-J, 1853 27), but they also bring up the line of beauty in discussions of shoes and Japanese art. Thus, the fifth part of Mrs. Merrifield’s “Dress as a Fine Art,” which appeared in 1853, mentions “the ‘line of beauty’ of Hogarth” in relation high-heeled shoe take the form of “a highly inclined plane, undulating in its surface” (157), and so does the 1856 essay entitled “A Few Words on Beauty” (6). Another unexpected reference comes in 1875 when an essay on Japanese art cites Hogarth: “It would almost seem that Hogarth, guided by his own genius, combined with similar habits of close observation, had divined the secret on which the Japanese had been working for so many centuries” (102), and three years later the Art-Journal observes that “Japanese art and painting of flowers that intricacy of form which Hogarth eulogizes as "leading the eye in a wanton kind of chase," the secret charm of which is ever to see in these outward manifestations of beauty the causa causarum of so much variety—the law of development, the principle of order, the regularity of succession on a geometric basis” (234).

Hogarth, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelites

English periodicals observe some interesting connections between the Pre-Raphaelites and Hogarth. For example, the particular section of the 1860 Cornhill Magazine’s multi-part essay on Hogarth entitled “A History of Hard Work” draws exactly the kind of parallel between his oeuvre and William Holman Hunt’s recently exhibited painting that would have made the young artist cry, “yes!” — “The grandest and noblest monuments of the world are those of hard work. Look at the Decline and Fall. Look at the great porch of Notre Dame de Paris. . . . Look at the Divine Comedy. Look at Holman Hunt’s Doctors in the Temple [The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple]. Every one of them elaborately magnificent performances.” Remembering his sight of St. Izaac’s church in St. Petersberg, the thinks of all the serfs and artisans it took to create that building, but then remarks, “How much more should I wonder at the pyramid of hard work that lies before me in this giant folio of Hogarth’s works” (227).

The Annunciation. Jacopo Tintoretto. c. 1582-57. Oil on canvas, 116 x 214 l/2 in. Scuola di San Rocco, Venice.

A much more important relation of Hogarth to Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites had appeared three years earlier in the Art-Journal’s two part-article, “Tintoretto at Venice, and Mr. Ruskin.” There the often-sceptical author, who obviously doesn't understand much about the way biblical typology permeated medieval and renaissance religious painting, mocks Ruskin’s brilliant (and now standard) interpretations of Tintoretto’s iconography:

There is another "thought" in this picture which Mr. Ruskin places at the very apex of his fanciful pile of eloquence, his huge mountain of admiration reared in honour of Tintoretto. In the shade behind the cross you can just make out the man scaled on an ass, who is pointing out to the multitude the crucified Saviour with malignant triumph, whilst, as Mr. Ruskin has shown us, the ass on which he is seated is eating the very palm leaves which that giddy multitude but a few days before strewed in his path with Hosauuas and shouts of loving welcome. "A happy idea enough!" one exclaims; "an ingenious, shrewd, satirical, Hogarthish touch, happily significant, certainly, of the fickleness of the multitude, though one can hardly help wishing this fickleness had been illustrated by some circumstance less bordering on the vulgar and grotesque, some incident more in accordance with the sublimest terror and sadness of the event, than this one of the donkey feasting on the remnants of the triumphal branches." Nevertheless, we accept the "thought" graciously, with mild approbation of its ingenuity and cleverness; but when we find it cited in Mr. Ruskin's most solemn, puissant, and authoritative diction, as the master-stroke which must terminate at once all doubts as to the unequalled depth of Tintoretto's imagination, we cannot help seeing at once, very clearly, that the power of mind required to produce this thought, and its value when produced, have been singularly, wonderfully exaggerated. Most of the works of Hogarth, it may be confidently stated, abound in touches at least as significant and ingenious; and if such conceptions, indeed, place Tintoretto as a man of mind on the very summit of the painter's Parnassus, as Mr. Ruskin evidently thinks, surely our own Fielding of the pencil ought to be raised there too, very little or not at all beneath him—an exaltation very gratifying to our feelings as Englishmen, certainly. And it should be added, with regard to this vaunted incident of Tintoretto's, that there is absolutely nothing but the bare conception of it, for the pictorial embodying is altogether coarse, slovenly, and uninteresting. [298]

The Art-Journal’s heavy-handed mockery of Ruskin’s readings of Tintoretto provides us with useful way into the complex relations among Hogarth, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. First of all, Hogarth, who had a high place in the young men’s pantheon, offered them one way to solve the central problem faced by the would-be “art revolutionaries” (their own self-description)— how to reject both hackneyed symbolism and the Royal Academy school’s styles of painting based on generalization and instead capture great detail while yet avoiding a painterly materialism. Hogarth’s use of often witty visual puns, easily understandable symbolism, and text within and without the picture space offered the young men one solution, and he left a heavy impress on the work of the Brotherhood and its associates, such asCharles Collins and Ford Madox Brown. Ruskin’s interpretations of Tintoretto — precisely the readings The Art-Journal mocked — provided the direct inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites: according to Hunt, his reading of Ruskin’s typological readings of Tintoretto’s Scuola di San Rocco Annunciation (and not the first volume of Modern Painters, which emphasized close study of visible nature) showed the young men that the painter could become a prophet who elevated materalism (Landow, Hunt, 2-5). Hunt’s career from beginning to end certainly shows his emulation of both Hogarth and Tintoretto.

I have elsewhere discussed the role of biblical typology, including some of the exact examples Ruskin cited, in the major works of Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, and the poets of the circle (Landow, Hunt, 61-162). Now let us look at the influence of Hogarth. Even before the religious experience that enabled Holman Hunt to paint The Light of the World, he had made several attempts to combine realism and symbolism under the influence of Hogarth, who was important to the entire circle of the Brotherhood and its associates. Hogarth was not only a moralist who believed that England had to establish her own form of art but he was also one of those chiefly responsible for the fact that England had "wrested" glory "from the maws of ignorance, indifference, and shallow self-confidence" (II.482). He served as a hero for Hunt and his friends, in part because he exemplified the admirably courageous individualist who had made his way despite the attacks of critics and connoisseurs. Hunt, who agreed with the views the great satirist had presented in Gate to Calais: The Roast Beef of Old England, also shared his predecessor's love-hate relationship with his country: like Hogarth, he took the fiercest pride in his England while yet recognizing that she fell far short of his ideal. Both artists were also resolutely middle class and blamed the aristocracy and the wealthy for the nation's moral and artistic shortcomings. Both, moreover, believed that the English Church, which did not support the arts, was a chief cause of the sad state of painting; and both thought the aristocracy's influence in the Church was in part responsible for this state of affairs. As Hunt pointed out in the 1897 Contemporary Review, "the sham art that we have got in our churches has been tolerated so long because art is considered to be properly an indulgence for the rich" (50-51). Whereas Reynolds had sought to make the artist a member of the aristocracy, Hogarth wished him to be a staunch member of the middle classes, and so did Hunt (See Paulson, I, 16). Both men, in fact, were hard-headed businessmen who had made their way against great odds. In addition, Hunt, like Hogarth, depended for financial success upon a middle class audience: he, like his predecessor, relied upon engravings sold to a wide public rather than upon the support of a few wealthy patrons, and he often earned more from reproductions of his work than from the originals themselves.

In addition to Hogarth's importance as a pioneer and moralist, he offered two ways of solving the problems with which Hunt was concerned: he successfully combined realism with elaborate iconography, and he used language to clarify the meaning of his images. From Hogarth, Hunt (and Brown) learned to employ documents, labels, and inscriptions within and without the picture to intensify the effect of their visual images. Furthermore, the nineteenth-century editions of Hogarth's engravings which boasted elaborate commentaries seem to be an important source of Hunt's own use of explanatory manifestoes, just as they seem to provide one source for Ruskin's detailed moral explications of art, for they are a comparatively rare example of close readings of art available at mid-century. Hunt and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle would most likely have encountered Hogarth's work in editions containing commentary by the versatile Rev. John Trusler, who published an abridgement of Blackstone's Commentaries, popular histories, sermons, books on etiquette, gardening guides, and the very popular Way to be Rich and Respectable. He first issued his Hogarthian commentaries in 1768, and the British Museum Catalogue, which has an incomplete listing of these commentaries, records editions of 1821, 1831, 1833, 1861, and 1891 who turned the satiric plates into full-fledged sermons. Although modern students of Hogarth have little good to say for such "Truslerizing," Hunt almost certainly became acquainted with the satires in this form and hence encountered what we may term a Victorianized Hogarth.

Left: Work. Ford Madox Brown. 1852-65. Oil on canvas, arched top, 53 15/16 x 77 11/16 in. Manchester City Art Galleries. Right: The Shadow of Death. William Holman Hunt. 1869-73. Oil on canvas, 84 5/16 x 66 3/16 inches. Manchester City Art Galleries [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Comparing Hogarth's series Industry and Idleness, Marriage à la Mode, or the Rake's and Harlot's Progress to the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and their associates clearly demonstrates his great importance to them. For example, like Industry and Idleness, Hunt's Awakening Conscience, Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella, Rossetti’s Found, Brown’s Work, and Collins’s The Pedlar or Berengaria's Alarm all have a strong narrative emphasis combined with texts and signifying visual elements on frame. Hunt's Awakening Conscience; Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents both follow Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness in rejecting the Neoclassical ideal of beauty and in using grotesque and often ugly elements. Several of these works in the Hogarthian manner use symbolic animals as foils to main action. Furthermore, Hunt’s Rienzi and Awakening Conscience like Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella, attack the upper classes and aristocracy in the manner of Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode and Rake’s Progress. Appropriately, Hunt's Shadow of Death, like Brown's Work, share with Industry and Idleness a middle-class anti-aristocratic emphasis upon work as ennobling, and a significant number of important Pre-Raphaelite works were disseminated, like Hogarth’s works, as engravings (Hunt's Light of the World, Finding, and Shadow of Death). In other words, like Hogarth’s works, theirs thus often had multiple middle-class purchasers rather than by a single Aristocrat.

Left: Beer Street. Right: Gin Lane. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Another major influence of Hogarth upon nineteenth-century painting appears in his paired works. Of course, medieval ivory diptychs and altarpieces offer much earlier examples of paired images, and sculpture of diametrically opposed subjects, such as Ecclesia and Synagogia, type and antitype, embellished the portals of medieval churches. Turner’s Claudean subjects exemplify yet different kinds of doublings. In contrast to these, Hogarthian pairings, such as found in Gin Lane and Beer Street or his opposition of The Roast Beef of Old England with the food of France, oppose two scenes to make moralizing social and implicitly political commentary, and we find precisely this kind of opposition in Hunt’s Light of the World and Awakening Conscience and August Egg’s Life and Death of Buckingham (British Art Center, Yale). William Powell Frith’s Hope and Fear (1869, formerly Forbes), which contrast a would-be suitor asking the father for his daughter’s hand while the young woman waits with her mother, exemplify non-satiric paired works, as do Henry Nelson O’Neil’s Eastward Ho! August 1857 (1858) and Home Again, 1858 (1859, formerly Forbes Magazine Collection), which depict a soldier leaving his family for India and his return, wounded, after the suppression of the mutiny. Additional examples appear in George Smith’s The Rightful Heir and The Coming of Age (1869, formerly Forbes) and, later in the century, Frank Holl’s Hush! and Hushed (both 1877, Tate), and William Quiller Orchardson’s Marriage de Convenance (1883) and Marriage de Convenance — After! (1886; Aberdeen).

Yet another instance of Hogarthian influence appears in William P. Frith’s emulation the complex seriation found in Marriage a la Mode, The Rake’s Progress, and Industry and Idleness in His Road to Ruin (1878) and The Race for Wealth (1880), each which exemplifies what Susan Casteras usefully terms a “Hogarthian didactic series” (29). Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s Perseus, Pygmalion, and Briarose series take seriation out of the world of satire and social criticism and move it into late-Pre-Raphaelite medievalized eroticism (or eroticized medievalism).

Both Rossetti and Hunt pair works to create implicit narratives — Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domina and Hunt’s portraits of first and second wives, Emily Waugh Hunt and Fanny Waugh Hunt. Since Hunt tells us that Thomas Carlyle’s criticism of The Light of the World’s portrayal of Jesus prompted him to paint Him as a worker, the early painting and The Light of the World form such an implied narrative, but here one of the artist’s career rather than the subject depicted.

Left: Lorenzo and Isabella.John Everett Millais. Right: Isabella and the Pot of Basil. William Holman Hunt. Oil on canvas, 23 7/8 x 15 1/4 inches. (60.7 x 38.7 cm.)Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum (ace. no. 47-9) Special Purchase Fund/ [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Another Hogarthian influence, probable but somewhat harder to prove, appears in various kinds of implied pairs and narrative series in the works of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, some of the most interesting of which, when taken together, take the form of implied narratives joining the works of different artists. For example, drawing upon Keat’s “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” Millais’s Isabella depicts an early stage in the lovers’ doomed romance, while Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil takes us to the end of the story, when the heroine, driven mad by her grief, adores the pot of basil in which she has planted the heart of her lover. Another pairing in which Hunt completes a narrative begun by Millais begins with Christ in the House of His Parents (1849, Tate), and ends with The Shadow of Death (1873, Manchester). Both the portrayal of Jesus as a young boy helping Joseph in the carpenter’s shop and as an adult carpenter praying at the end of a day of hard labor combine realistic representations of workshops with elaborate invented types of the crucifixion. An implicit narrative formed by works of different artists that contains more than two works begins with Millais’s The Woodsman’s Daughter (1848, Tate), which illustrates the beginning of a poem by Coventry Patmore (the man who induced Ruskin to defend the Pre-Raphaelites). Patmore’s tale tells of a young girl who grows up as a playmate of a wealthy young boy who later seduces and abandons her, after which she, like Ophelia, drowns herself. One obvious ending to this sad tale appears in Millais’s famous Ophelia, another in Rossetti’s Found, and yet a third in Hunt’s Awakened Conscience.

A Hogarthian Painting: W. Holman Hunt‘s The Miracle of Sacred Fire

Derby Day. William Powell Frith, RA. [Original 1858 in Tate Gallery, London] Signed and dated 1893-94. 102.3 x 234.4 cm. City Art Galleries, Manchester.

Although the Nachschein of Hogarth’s art appears in many places throughout Victorian painting, reproductive engraving, and book illustration, a number of important works stand out as truly Hogarthian. By truly or fully Hogarthian I mean that paintings like Ford Madox Brown’s Work, W. P. Frith’s Derby Day and similar works do not merely employ one of Hogarth’s characteristic devices, such as caricature, elaborate parallels, homely symbolism, and text within the picture space or on its frame. Instead, these paintings combine all these devices in the service of creating crowded socio-political satires.

In bringing this discussion of Hogarth and the Victorians to a close, I’d like to examine a lesser-known work: W. Holman Hunt’s The Miracle of Holy Fire, which he painted almost forty years after first seeing the ceremony in Jerusalem, is the most explicitly satirical, most Hogarthian of his pictures. For him the Easter Eve rite in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre represented the degeneration of authentic religious wonder into selfishness, superstition, and worse - into mad frenzy and unchristian violence. During the ceremony the Greek Patriarch in the holy city produced a candle supposedly lit by heavenly powers or angelic visitation, and for the painter it had a specific topical reference. It was his response to those ecumenically minded Anglicans who proposed in the late 1870s and '80s to join with the Greek, Armenian, Russian, and other Orthodox Churches. As he wrote to Tupper in 1877, "How Stanley can desire union for our Church with the Greek perpetrators of miraculous fire I can't understand" (15 July 1877; London (Huntington MS.). By the time he came to paint this scene emblematic of institutionalized superstition, much of its topicality had been lost, but it still bore important meanings for him, since it satirized established, conventional Christianity.

The Miracle of the Holy Fire. William Holman Hunt. . 1896-69. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 39 1/4 in. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Hunt, who had attacked the corruption of English missionary practices in an 1858 pamplet, Jerusalem. Bishop Gobat in Re Hanna Hadoub, returned to the fray four decades later as a pamphleteer in paint. The Hogarthian tone and method of The Miracle of the Holy Fire are emphasized for the spectator by the catalogue Hunt prepared — or had prepared under his supervision — for the exhibition of his picture at the New Gallery. He included a key-plate, a general explanation of the ceremony, and an anthology of travellers" descriptions of it throughout the ages. In explaining the ceremony, he displays sympathy for the naive beliefs of the superstitious pilgrims, most of whom, he points out, "have accumulated the means for the sacred journey only by years of self denial. Of child-like nature they long to see the Miracle as Heaven's token of their church's supremacy." He did not scorn this superstition, for he recognized and respected the element of faith it contained, but he had only hatred for the spiritual blindness, selfishness, and cruel violence this misguided faith produced — something he makes abundantly clear in the travellers" descriptions he included in his pamphlet. He quotes, for example, a long narrative of the ceremony by Henry Maundrell, “a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford,” which emphasizes the madness and violence of the participants. A second source, which follows immediately upon that by Maundrell, relates an actual "ferocious battle" Robert Curzon saw in 1834. By appending these long passages to his exhibition catalogue, Hunt not only made his views of such religious lunacy quite clear but also managed rather deftly to forestall charges that he had exaggerated.

Both these travellers’ reports and his own key-plate function somewhat in the manner of Hogarthian inscriptions, turning the events depicted within the picture into a series of satiric emblems. In fact, when Hunt came to design his frame, he included "two scrolls, upon which is written a description of the strange incidents of the ceremony." Furthermore, employing the Hogarthian device of the visual pun, he also included "in the pediment of the frame the seven-branch candlestick as a symbol of religious truth for the illumination of the people, which instead of giving light is negligently left to emit smoke, thereby spreading darkness and concealing the stars of Heaven" (II.385). These symbols on the frame make clear that the scene taking place within its confines shows that when men seek material versions of holy illumination and holy inspiration they only extinguish God's true sacred fires. Like Tennyson's "Holy Grail," The Miracle of the Holy Fire demonstrates that when men seek a cheap and easy road to salvation, they inevitably put out the divine light within themselves.

The chief actions within this bizarre and crowded picture comment ironically upon the supposedly sacred ceremony in which God's spirit descends upon men. The first figure we catch sight of is, according to the key-plate, "an Arab boy in flight from the soldiers" who wish to arrest him for rioting or robbery, while in the prominent group in the right-hand corner we catch sight of a young Bethlehemite "who has been seized by Turkish soldiers and accused as one of the rioters." Behind him, and farther to the right, stands his bride, "desire for whose silver ornaments may have been the sole cause of the husband's apprehension by the 'Zuptich.'" Behind this group, almost obscured by the chaos within the church, comes a "Greek priest carrying a light, and guarded by a half a dozen strong men, to secure the first flame for the Russian church." The bright flames of this torch of incarnate superstition contrast ironically with the extinguished candelabrum of truth which Hunt placed upon the frame, and throughout the painting such contrasts prevail. At the center of this Christian ceremony stands the Turkish ruler of the city, and before him is Bim Pasha, his second in command, who calmly leans on his sword, while his troops who are supposed to keep order among the riotous worshippers apparently extort the young inhabitant of Bethlehem. On the left side of the church men carry a "pilgrim personifying 'Jesus Dead.'" while immediately before the Sepulchre, on the left side, stands a pious "Pilgrim personifying the Crucifixion" — both ironic images of the way this superstitious, violent ceremony truly enacts the Crucifixion of their Saviour. From the galleries groups of "ecstatic devotees" look down like a mad chorus upon the events taking place within the church. At the extreme lower right-hand corner, Hunt included his family, depicting his wife as she turns from the turmoil to enfold her children in English Protestant maternal protection.

Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism. William Hogarth. 1762. Engraving/ 14 l/2 x 12 5/8 inches.

The Miracle of the Holy Fire is thus Hunt's version of Hogarth's Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, which satirizes many of the same excesses within the setting of an English church. In fact, the opening of Trusler's commentary on the plate well captures the spirit of Hunt's painting, and conceivably could have been its inspiration: "Superstition is worse than infidelity. It takes from religion every attraction, every comfort; and the place of humble hope, and patient resignation, is supplied by melancholy, despair, and madness" (Works of William Hogarth, II, 217). I have found no external evidence that Hunt had either Hogarth's design or Trusler's reading of it in mind when he set out to paint his own satire, but an important similarity between the works of Hunt and Hogarth appears in the fact that both make use of the commonplace satiric device of the observing stranger, and in both cases this standard of sanity is a Turk. As Trusler points out, "The ridicule is wound up by a Turk, who we see through a window smoking his tube of Trinidado; lifting up his eyes with astonishment at the scene, he breathes a grateful ejaculation, and thanks his Maker that he was early initiated into the divine truths of the Koran, is out of the pale of this church, and has his name engraven on the tablets of Mahomet" (II, 218). In Hogarth's print the Turk stands outside the action and looks in through a window, while in Hunt's painting Bim Pasha stands near the center of the action, and yet in his calmness he is as divorced an observer as his Hogarthian predecessor.

Like The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, which Hunt painted more than three decades earlier, this picture employs many subsidiary actions and emblems to comment upon its main point. Unlike the earlier picture, this one does not have a single commanding visual center. Even this aspect of the painting's composition reflects both its satiric intent and its probable ancestry in Hogarth's graphic works. As Paulson reminds us, in a satiric print "people and objects, however alive they are, have to be discrete and relatively static things; they are shown in movement, but caught and held out for contemplation" (Paulson, Hogarth's Graphic Works, I, 55). It is in fact just because he tried to achieve the satirist's emphasis, which requires every part to stand out, that Hunt has created a work which divides into groups of hard, often static figures. Here, perhaps more than in any of his other oils, Hunt succumbed to that Pre-Raphaelite tendency towards the accumulation of disparate, disunified elements for which the critics of the 1860s attacked him.

The painting's lack of a dominant center suggests that Hunt fell prey to the imitative fallacy, creating a chaotic design in an attempt to render a chaotic subject. Even so this singular work is not a failure, since its incredibly crowded, busy picture space has a grotesque energy. Unlike Hogarth, Hunt does not consciously strive for the grotesque by animating the inanimate, but his crowded, jumbled assemblage of people creates much the same effect. Part of Hunt's difficulty with this painting, and part of the reason it depends so heavily upon its exhibition pamphlet to make its point, is that he was too much of a realist to be a completely effective satirist. In Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he claimed that "whether the celebration is regarded with shame by the advocates of unflinching truth, or with toleration as suitable to the ignorance of the barbaric pilgrims for whom it is retained, or with adoration by those who believe the fire to be miraculous, it has been from early centuries regarded as of singular importance" (II.385). As powerful an emblem of false religion as Hunt believed the rite to be, he was nonetheless attracted to it as an anthropological and ethnographical event, one that must be presented realistically, accurately, and in detail. He further explains in his memoir that he felt "it would be a pity if I, who had seen the wild ceremony of the miracle of the Holy Fire so often, and knew the difference between the accidental episodes which occur, and those which are fundamental, should not take the opportunity of perpetuating for future generations the astounding scene" (II.380-1). His need to present an accurate record of this ancient ceremony required him to place at least some pictorial emphasis upon participants, such as the young monks in the left foreground, who do not function emblematically; and in so doing he distracts us from his satire.

Perhaps this lack of unified intention is one reason why the picture long remained in the artist's hands. In his memoir he only tells us that after exhibiting it first at the New Gallery and then at Liverpool, he "then determined to retain it in my own house as being of a subject understood in its importance only by the few" (II.386). He painted the picture a decade too late for it to have had much effectiveness as a weapon in the war against union with the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, even if that quixotic venture had ever had much chance of success. Of course, even without such specific topical reference, The Miracle of the Holy Fire remains satirical, now attacking, not the excesses of this particular rite, but all religion and all conventions which have betrayed their inner spirit. A Pre-Raphaelite to the end, Hunt closed his career as he began it — mocking ossified conventions, beliefs, and practices which smother the life they should nourish.

In observing that a satiric thread runs through Hunt's career, one must be careful not to overemphasize its importance, for such intentions are always joined to other aims as well — to paint more realistically, to teach others to see more clearly, to preach sermons, and, above all, to create powerful, beautiful images of human life. The chief influence of Hogarth, then, is that he provided the much needed example of a painter who had been able to reconcile a realistic style with complex symbolism. Hunt was able to borrow certain methods from the satiric print, and in this, of course, he was paralleled by Robert Martineau, Brown, and others. But Hogarth, whose aims were generally different from those of Hunt, could not furnish all the answers he sought, because the great eighteenth-century artist was primarily a satirist and Hunt was so only on occasion. For all the great admiration Hunt felt for Hogarth, his basic attitude towards his usefulness to his own enterprise is best captured in his remark to Millais before the formation of the Brotherhood: Ruskin had made Tintoretto seem "a sublime Hogarth," a painter who had created a symbolic realism that, unlike Hogarth's, was sublime. Hunt, in other words, wished to find a means of employing methods analogous to those of his predecessor which were yet deeply moving. During most of his career, he wished to create an art that employed symbolic realism based on praising God rather than attacking men. In The Miracle of the Holy Fire, however, he returned fully to his early master Hogarth.


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Last modified 16 November 2001