Those of us interested in the Georgian era resort to all sorts of ways of expressing our enthusiasm – be it blogs, or posting images on Pinterest, or writing academic works – whatever. Today I thought I would offer the spot of ‘guest blogger’ to someone who chooses to write fiction, albeit with a historically accurate slant. He is Michael Dean, author of five novels including his latest one called ‘I, Hogarth’ which comes out in paperback on 19th June. He writes:
“William Hogarth’s love for his wife Jane was deep and enduring. He was twelve years older than her and a penniless engraver when they met. No wonder Jane’s father, the eminent and crusty classical painter, Sir James Thornhill, told his daughter’s diminutive suitor never to darken his elegant Georgian portico again – or words to that effect. The young lovers’ subsequent elopement was one of the great romantic stories of the Georgian era, complete with its artistic coda of young William painting his way back into the old man’s affections, impressing him with his nascent artistic genius.
William and Jane did not have children. So the painter of one of the greatest studies of children in all art – The Graham Children (1742), at the National Gallery – was, in a manner of speaking, working from theory.
Hogarth’s work for the children of London’s Foundling Hospital is well-known; Jane’s, sadly, less so. She was an Inspector, travelling regularly to the little-known Aylesbury outpost of the Hospital. William and Jane had foundling children over for regular visits at their country place in Chiswick; rather movingly all the children were given the names Jane or Billy.
In tune with Georgian mores, Jane would have blamed herself for her barrenness. But I believe Hogarth had syphilis, as I describe in my novel, I, Hogarth. Narratives like The Orgy in The Rake’s Progress III (1733-4) at the Sir John Soane Museum, and the visit to the pox doctor in The Inspection, in Marriage à la Mode (1743-5), at the National Gallery, are surely drawn from life, as is all Hogarth’s work. Hogarth knew the myriad bagnios and brothels of Georgian London first-hand, as a client.
But that was sex. What about love, outside marriage? What about emotional infidelity to Jane? We will never know, but there are two possible candidates.
The first is a mysterious and lovely lady known as The Shrimp Girl, in the National Gallery, painted at some time in the 1740s. One mystery is why the portrait of this buxom young woman was still in Hogarth’s studio when he died in 1764. As far as we know he never made any attempt to sell it. And uniquely we do not know who the sitter is.
The received wisdom is that Hogarth painted this portrait on spec, perhaps having seen the girl in the street. One authority even compares the girl to the stylised, almost generic, milk-maid in the print of The Enraged Musician, 1741. Well, I have written about Rembrandt in another novel and I can imagine him walking down the street, seeing a pretty girl and drawing her. But Hogarth?
Hogarth had been dirt poor. Hogarth had seen his father die in debtor’s prison. William Hogarth invented the art gallery concept at Vauxhall Gardens. William Hogarth never drew a line without being reasonably sure he could sell it, and those of us who have not known hunger may not judge him for that.
So whoever this so-called Shrimp Girl was, I think Hogarth loved her in some way. That is what the painting tells us.
His other possible love was Mary Edwards, who he painted in 1742. Mary Edwards was among the richest women in England; she was a brilliant intellectual and an intimate of that other remarkable Georgian lady, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Miss Mary Edwards, from the Frick Collection
I can’t prove that Hogarth loved Mary Edwards but I imagined it. The extract below is from an early draft of my novel – a scene where Hogarth is painting Mary. I cut it from the published version because it was bulging the narrative arc, but I’m still very fond of it:
Twice, both times when drunk, he sought to declare himself to Mary. Each time she saw itcoming before he had the words in his mouth and compassionately guided him to safer ground. His first attempt to kiss her resulted in a resounding slap in the face, followed by a crisp threat to ban him from her presence. He apologised on his knees.
He planned his next Progress with Mary as much as with Jane, rather more so if truth be told.
‘Blood and thunder,’ Mary said. ‘That’s what you need. Blood and thunder.’
Hogarth stood, transfixed, brush in hand, smock paint-bespattered, cap awry. He had reworked her portrait a hundred times, he felt he could never let it go. Or let her go.
‘I …er … blood …’
‘I know! A scene in a bagnio! The sort of place you go a-whoring with John Thornhill’
‘No. Not these days, we …’
‘A gallant is run through!’ She gave a pealing, tinkling laugh. She laughed with her whole body, bending herself into an S shape. It was exquisite. ‘He is run through by a jealous husband, as he catches them in flagrante!’
They sat down, side by side, as it was clear to both of them that there would be no more painting that day. Hogarth felt a surge of bliss. He never wanted the portrait of Mary to be finished because he never wanted her to leave his studio. He longed to take her long white hand in his stubby ones, but dared not. He twisted in his seat, tilted himself toward her and aimed a kiss at her mouth.
She saw it coming and was not averse to the little man trying, mainly because the little man, ridiculous in aspect though he was, was most definitely one of the great artists of the age. She even intended to kiss him back, out of curiosity, but there was a rash round his mouth and his breath was bad. She was overcome by a fit of giggling. This opened her mouth, so his tongue met her tiny exquisite teeth as much as her lips.
And that is how Charles Mahon, the young Irish second-footman, found them when he strode into the studio, with all the vigour of youth, with a message from Jane.”
Detail from portrait of Jane Hogarth painted by William, courtesy of the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums.
Thanks for that Michael! He has also written the article William Hogarth and Georgian Life for History Today blog, and How to Write a Historical Novel for the Publishers’ Weekly, about the writing and publishing of I, Hogarth. The Kindle version of his book is available online here and in paperback here.
The May 2014 issue of the Historical Novels Review contains an article by Stephanie Renée dos Santos called The Artist’s Call, the Writer’s Calling which features an interview with Michael Dean about I, Hogarth, as well as with other authors about their novels featuring artists. The full interview with Michael Dean is on the Historical Novels Association website from June 14, 2014.