The Woman Hogarth Loved

To call her a muse would, somehow, be insulting.

Because in calling Jane a muse, we would invoke Greek classicism and grandeur and all the pompous posturing that would involve.

Dionysius: he’s a little shallow for our Jane. She was no inspirational goddess; nor was she some  garrett-painted beauty, or fresh-faced ingénue like Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Jane Hogarth was The Artist’s wife, from the moment she and William Hogarth reputedly eloped, until his death; and his last months were occupied in ensuring his life long love would be well provided for by his works.

I have become utterly arrested by her face: and by a hunch that Hogarth’s true regard for his love was portrayed in the most startling of ways throughout his artistic career.

Jane’s father was Sir James Thornhill, an English painter who held the office of sergeant-painter to the King. He ran a school in Covent Garden, and William Hogarth, an engraver by trade with a troubled upbringing, came there to study.

How Hogarth first set eyes on Jane I do not know, though the question excites an insane urge to go rooting through biographies past and present. There are hints that he was not the match Jane’s father would have chosen and that the pair eloped, in March 1729. And the exhibition at Hogarth’s house indicates Jane’s mother had to work hard to affect a later reconciliation.

It is fortunate for Jane that William Hogarth was a rising star, one who hit on an entirely new medium in the early 1730s:  the Modern Moral Subject. The idea was to paint a series of pictures which told frames of a bigger story. Hogarth was brilliant at it: he exposed the seamier side of human nature as part of a wider moralising about the state of humanity. And his engravings sold like hot cakes.

Hogarth was moderately prosperous from that time onwards: but he had his trials; his searing honesty was not tactical or politically apt and he made enemies, both in the artistic world and the wider political community.

But at home, things seemed sweet.

They always referred to each other as Billy and Jenny. They were, reputedly, enduringly happy. He had his work, she her place in the community. She did a lot for the Chiswick community and donated money to the parish school. And every Sunday, there she was in the pews of St Nicholas’s Church.

But the brief biographical details are not the flame which ignited a hunch for me, pacing and prowling round his little house in Chiswick yesterday. Rather, it was a close examination of her face.

I stood a long time looking at her. She looked serene, but I might just be superimposing that on her with a 21st century mind. I liked her immediately.

And then, absent-mindedly, I began to peruse some of the other engravings: those searing examinations of the dark side of humanity. I was looking at one called The Enraged Musician, from 1741. There is a ballad seller trying to flog ballads whilst her baby cries; there is a little boy urinating in front of the little girl’s startled gaze; and the tortured rabble of a crowd behind the enthusiastic oboeist.

But look at the milkmaid in the centre.

Look familiar to you? She is gazing straight at the camera, the only figure of beauty and grace in a motley scene. And maybe it’s just me, but I’d swear that’s Jane.

And I moved on. To this:

And this:

In a wretched squabble, Hogarth’s former friend John Wilkes launched a terrible attack on his work, in his journal the North Briton in 1762. He said  Hogarth was only capable of depicting vice, and incapable of showing virtue. ‘Gibbeting by numbers’, he called it.

If this beautiful creature who appears perennially in the centre of Hogarth’s pictures is Jane: then she is redemption, gazing levelly from the engraving of centuries ago.

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44 thoughts on “The Woman Hogarth Loved

    1. I think he was just that, Madhu. He prided himself on being able to identify real beauty and even wrote a treatise on it, when all the time Beauty was sitting opposite him at every meal.

  1. I’ve long been vaguely aware of Hogarth’s genius, and I love ‘The Enraged Musician’ print, but your posts of the past couple of days, Kate, have engendered a desire to find out more about Billy and his relationship with Jenny, and a visit to a little house in Chiswick in on my must-do list in the near future. Thanks for another great post :).

    1. Hope you enjoy your visit as much as I did – leave it for a month or so as the ground floor dining room and exhibition room are closed at the moment, to make the ceiling safe, I believe.

    1. Hi, Joe! It’s not easy to see: hidden behind its red brick wall, it is only open from 12-5 on certain days of the week. I only found it because I had set out from 20 miles away to visit. There are some lovely surprises in Chiswick. The house and gardens are lovely even in November. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

    1. I used the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography here in the UK, El Guapo. BUt strangely enough Jane was too peripheral to attract their attention. I got most of my information about her from the house itself.

  2. Imagine Billy and Jenny! I love that. She was very lovely, wasn’t she? His works tell stories, and are always memorable. I was able to finally do a little searching and indeed, several of his works are at the Huntington. I plan to visit them very soon, and satisfy my own curiosity. I think it’s so interesting that he’s been on my mind lately. I’m wondering if I heard something about the anniversary of his death and subliminally put a check mark next to his name! :-)

    1. Debra, I am so pleased that our interests have collided in this strange way, across the oceans. By the time I read your comment on yesterday’s post I had already written todays, and I could not wait for you to have a look at part two! Sometimes the ether requires issues to be aired, and perhaps we are part of that :-)

  3. I’ve always loved Hogarth but I never knew anything about his personal life. But that sure does look like Jane in those paintings. That portrait her is really compelling. I agree with you, Kate—I don’t think it’s you just putting your 21st-century view on her. She looks serene, but I can also picture her saying, “Sod off, Billy.” I think I would like her very much.

  4. I love when you discover something detail like this that gives you a glimpse through the veil of time to what the artists intentions might have been. The thought of that face repeated in dipictions of squalor and vice as a gesture of redemption – beautiful.

    1. It is a lovely thought, isn’t it, Alice? Somehow when I look at Hogarth’s Roundabout I shall cherish the knowledge that even in the grimmest scene there is beauty to be found.

  5. Kate, this is amazing! I knew so little about Hogarth before reading your piece on his relationship with his long-time love, but now I feel as though I have a sparkling window into his world. And your discovery of Jane in so many of his images took magnificent sleuthing on your part. Lovely.

    1. Hi, Courtenay! So pleased Jane has struck a chord.I. too, feel a sense of relief that he wasn’t just trapped in that cynical world of his. It’s good to know he had a good life with a soul mate.

  6. The woman in the engravings does look like the portrait of his wife. Amazing. She has a long, elegant nose and looks long and elegant in general. I like the last engraving. It looks like the house is a bit of a mess, there’s stuff on the floor, but this elegant woman is sitting serenely in the midst of it all, sewing, and a little cat is sleeping peacefully at her feet, I think I see a dog over on the bottom left, I’m not sure what the man is doing at the desk.

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