Mark Hallett. The Spectacle of Difference: Graphic Satire in the Age of Hogarth. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999. xii + 259 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-07778-0.
Reviewed by W. A. Speck (School of History, Leeds University)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2000)
Prints in Perspective
Historians of eighteenth-century Britain have long mined the rich seam of graphic satire which provides such vivid illustration of the era's culture. Until recently, however, few used them for purposes other than illustration. Thus Hogarth's prints were employed as though they were equivalents of photographs. His 'Gin Lane', for example, was often used to illustrate the evils of gin drinking in Georgian London as if it depicted a real City street. Reproduction of its companion piece, 'Beer street', on the other hand, was relatively rare. Yet they belong inseparably together as a diptych. Of late historians have attempted to decode their symbolic meanings. However, generally they lacked the expertise in art and communications history to get beyond such obvious statements as 'Hogarth was making a moral point about the social consequences of a culture addicted to gin and one associated with ale.' Each of the scholars who wrote introductions to seven volumes of The English Satirical Print 1600-1832 published by Chadwyck-Healey in 1986 addressed the problem, but only one of them, John Brewer, really faced up to it squarely and used the prints as a genre requiring sophisticated methodological techniques. Since then there has been growing sophistication in the use of prints, exemplified in the fine work of Diana Donald and Eirwen Nicholson.
Now Mark Hallett, who acknowledges the example they set, takes it a stage further with the most absorbing investigation of graphic satire to have appeared so far. His title, 'The Spectacle of Difference,' though it appears at first rather puzzling and awkward, in fact sums up his approach. As he explains, 'the satiric engraving offered a perspective on London life that clearly contradicted the characteristic forms and subjects of politeness. Satire introduced into visual representation the narratives of delinquency and abjection that were being screened out of the polite ideal of the modern city, and it aestheticised them. The satire made a spectacle of difference' (p. 10). To prove this point involves him in locating the prints in a context wherein they interact not only with each other but with more polite representations of society. This methodology extends the exploitation of engravings as historical documents from the analysis of an individual print, or of a series such as 'Marriage a la mode', to a detailed comparison of them with a wide range of other genres, showing how they interact with them. This is the most impressive achievement of the book, which draws on a deep acquaintance with contemporary culture to sustain its thesis.
Thus Hallett begins with an analysis of two satires, George Bickham junior's 'The late p-m-r M-n-r', and Hogarth's 'Morning'. He shows how the first, a grotesque portrait of Sir Robert Walpole yawning, echoes not only formal portraits of the late premier minister but also other pictorial representations of yawns, including physiognomic studies by a seventeenth-century Spanish artist. 'Morning' parodies polite impression of Covent Garden such as that by Pieter Angellis. Hallett then shows how the prints associated with the trial of Dr Sacheverell in 1710, including those by Bickham senior, also had much wider terms of reference than had previously been suspected. As he shows in chapter two, 'translations', the terms were not restricted to Britain but extended to continental examples too. This was especially true during the South Sea Bubble, which was involved in a financial crisis which affected Amsterdam and Paris as well as London. The rewards of this approach when applied to Hogarth are realised in Hallett's 're-reading "A Harlot's Progress"', which is shown to resonate with allusions to a host of other works. It casts fresh light on the perennial problem of whether Moll Hackabout is a victim of circumstances or the morally autonomous agent of her own fate. Hogarth is shown to have been competing in a crowded market for the commodity of graphic prints and to have been as much concerned with commercial as with aesthetic considerations. The ramifications of this market place are demonstrated in chapter four on 'satire, politics and party', where among Hogarth's fellow engravers the Bickhams appear again. George Bickham junior's familiar print 'The stature of a great man,' depicting Walpole as a colossus, is shown to be much more complex than previous commentators appreciated.
In many ways chapter six, 'satire and the street: ^ÑThe Beaux Disaster' is the most convincing case study of the approach adopted in the book. Here the juxtaposition of the polite and plebeian worlds of early eighteenth-century London is at its most graphic. Dandies, fops and genteel ladies wearing outlandish fashionable dresses appear ridiculously alongside butchers, carmen, porters, window cleaners and other members of the lower orders. The concluding chapter, 'The Spectacle of Difference', draws on the overall argument to analyse Hogarth's 'Gin Lane, 'Beer Street' and the last two plates of 'Four Stages of Cruelty'. Thus Hogarth's sensational representation of the murder of Tom Nero's mistress in 'Cruelty in Perfection', and the dissection of the murderer in 'the Reward of Cruelty', are shown to be responses to market as much as to moral forces. As Hallett concludes, 'Now we can see more clearly that Hogarth's images took graphic satire in two directions simultaneously: towards a disturbing aesthetics of the abject operating on the extreme fringes of the city's visual culture, and towards a prescriptive iconography of moral didacticism that functioned at its paranoid centre' (p. 236).
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