The Election (Part 1. “Humours of an Election Entertainment”)

The Election (Part 1. “Humours of an Election Entertainment”) drawn by William Hogarth (1697-1764) and engraved by T. E. Nicholson. Source: Complete Works, facing p. 125. Scanned image and caption by Philip V. Allingham [This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.]

Hogarth's four paintings pillory the much vaunted electoral system, the cornerstone of the parliamentary democracy of Great Britain, by exposing such matters as party violence, bribery, and corruption in the electoral practices, especially prior to the establishment of "Election Committees" under the terms of the Grenville Act (1770). The system of eighteenth-century England, the product of the Glorious Revolution and the defenestration of absolutist King James the Second (Stuart) of 1688, was hardly based on universal suffrage. Women, of course, could not vote, but neither could the majority of British subjects. The British voter was either a "freeman" or a "burgess," each of whom could meet the property qualification of ten pounds. Vote buying was common enough: Sykes and Rumbold, for example, were fined and imprisoned for bribery during the 1696 parliamentary elections, and an elector of Durham in 1803 was fined 500 pounds. Even as late as 1840, voting irregularities compelled the authorities to declare the elections for Cambridge and Ludlow void.

Note to Plate 1. — An Election Entertainment. — Few scenes in life are more full of humour than those of a country election of the olden times. The variety of characters to be met with there, frequently drew a smile from the most grave and rigid.

Our artist commences this humorous series with an entertainment at an inn in the county town, opened by one of the candidates for the reception of his friends, some time before the poll, in order to secure his interest; without which he would have had little chance of success. To preserve the connexion of this piece, we are to suppose it a general election for knights of the shire, when two members of the Whig party are chosen in opposition to two of the Tory. But as, when the court and country are put in different scales, the weight of the second, at least in appearance, makes the first kick to the beam; those in the Tory interest are obliged to wear the faces of the Whig, in order to carry the point in question. Such is the case of the party present, evident by the slashed picture of the king, which they are supposed to have demolished, through a pretended aversion to the court; and the flag, on which is painted " Give us our eleven days," alluding to the alteration of the style in year 1752, which gave great displeasure in England: these things, with some others, such as the foppish dress of the candidate, the name of the person next him (one of his agents), viz., Sir Commodity Taxem, known by the address of a letter just presented him by the leering cobbler, who has him by the hand, and whom he solicits, thinking he has taken him in for some service; and by the motto on the butcher's favour (who is pouring gin on the broken head of another), namely, "For our Country." By these and other circumstances, it is past doubt that the party present are Tories under false colours. To confirm this further, we see the opposite party throwing bricks and stones at the window, one of which has knocked down an attorney from his seat, who was employed in casting up the votes. Without is a flag carried by the mob, bearing these words, "Marry and multiply in spite of the devil and the court;" and the effigy of a Jew, on whose breast is written, "No Jews," alluding to two unpopular acts that passed about the same time. To revenge this riotous proceeding without, observe a man throwing a stool out in return, and another emptying a vessel of urine on their heads: at these seasons decency and distinction are laid aside. As a proof of this, see here an assembly of all ranks of people; view the condescending candidate paying his respects to a female voter, an old toothless jade, who, in obedience to the word of command, viz., "Kiss him, Moll" (from the man above her, who is shedding the fiery ashes on the member's wig), is not only doing that, but is taking other indecent liberties with him, while the girl is endeavouring to rob him of his ring. Before this woman is one Abel Squat, a dealer in ribbons, gloves, and stockings, brought as presents on the occasion, for which he has received a promissory note of 50, payable in six months, which he does not seem to relish. At the middle of this table, on the farther side, sits a crooked object, ridiculing one of the fiddlers for his enormous length of chin, not considering his own deformity, even in that very part. In front is a boy making punch in a mashing-tub, of which one of the corporation behind the young woman near the window, seems to have got his fill. But this entertainment does not consist in drinking only; eating to excess is also part of it, as is shown by a parson and an alderman, voraciously cramming themselves, to the destruction of their health. Though the dishes are removed from the table, we see this guttling divine feasting luxuriously on the remains of a haunch of venison, even when all the rest have done — indulging his palate by heating it in a chafing dish of coals, though he is almost fainting with the task.

With respect to the alderman, behold him after dinner, gorged with oysters — dying with one upon his fork; and a barber-surgeon vainly attempting to recover him by bleeding. Behind this man's chair is a Puritan tailor with uplifted hands, refusing to take a bribe, and his wife abusing him for so doing. "Curse your squeamish conscience," says she, "are not your wife and children starving? have they clothes to their backs, or stockings to their feet? take it, or, by all that's just, you rue the consequence," Beneath the window is an old gentleman afflicted with the gravel. On his right hand is a droll genius making game of him; twisting his handkerchief into the representation of a face, and moving it with infinite humour while he chants the song of "An old woman clothed in grey." In this room we may imagine a variety of noises, loud and boisterous; which is increased by the addition of a few catgut-scrapers, and a north-country bag-piper. The only thing in this plate further to be noticed is the elector's coat of arms against the wainscot, viz., three guineas proper, with the motto, "Speak and have;" whose crest is a bawling mouth: hence we are taught that, in elections, honesty is shut out of doors, and gold the only prevailing argument. [124]


Complete works of William Hogarth ; in a series of one hundred and fifty superb engravings on steel, from the original pictures / with an introductory essay by James Hannay, and descriptive letterpress, by the Rev. J. Trusler and E.F. Roberts. London and New York: London Printing and Publishing Co., c.1870.

Last modified 20 March 2010