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Art Prints That Are Novelesque in Content

A good num­ber of years ago, when liv­ing on the East Coast, I spent leisure time dur­ing many a week­end wan­der­ing about flea mar­kets that (for rea­sons I can’t explain) were ubiq­ui­tous at that time. I was look­ing, in a total­ly ran­dom way, for two things, old children’s books and British 18th-cen­tu­ry prints. 

The children’s books were rel­a­tive­ly easy to find so in time I gath­ered a library of some three thou­sand books—from the 18th, 19th, and 20th cen­turies. Even­tu­al­ly, I gave all the books to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Connecticut’s col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal children’s books, where I assume they still are. 

The 18th-cen­tu­ry prints were some­thing else. These prints, wild­ly pop­u­lar in their day, fas­ci­nat­ed and enter­tained me. The artists, Hog­a­rth (1697–1764), Gill­ray (1756–1815), and Row­land­son (1757–1827), among oth­ers, cre­at­ed works that are rare and found only by luck. Hog­a­rth, who was the most impor­tant painter and engraver of his day, cre­at­ed prints (often in series such as A Har­lot’s Progress, and Mar­riage A‑la-Mode) ) that were nov­e­l­esque in content.

Hogarth Marriage Contract
“Mar­riage à‑la-mode : The Mar­riage Con­tract,” William Hog­a­rth, cir­ca 1743–1745 (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

His engrav­ings are extra­or­di­nary for their vivid depic­tions of 18th-cen­tu­ry Lon­don life and cul­ture. In their day they were wide­ly pop­u­lar. Today you can enjoy them for their artis­tic skill and aston­ish­ing detail, which often tell a sto­ry of great depth and com­plex­i­ty. They are ver­i­ta­ble ency­clo­pe­dias of 18th-cen­tu­ry England. 

Hogarth’s prints were issued in many edi­tions, often with minute changes which enrich or enhance the orig­i­nal work. [It takes an expert—which I am not—to date the sequence.]

Over time, I came to own a few of these prints by way of pure serendip­i­ty since I would nev­er have been able to afford them from art dealers. 

Over my writ­ing desk, I have one such Hog­a­rth print, which goes by the title “The Dis­trest Poet.” My copy is an ear­ly but revised work from (per­haps) about 1741.

Distrest Poet Hogarth

It shows a writer at his desk in a messy one-room attic gar­ret. He is depict­ed as des­per­ate­ly try­ing and fail­ing to write some­thing sell­able, as a buck­et (at his feet) of thrown-away pages can attest. The poet’s wife is sit­ting behind him repair­ing cloth­ing. A cry­ing (?) infant is in a bed. At the open door, a land­la­dy is pre­sent­ing an unpaid bill. A cup­board is open and is bare of food, even as a dog is gnaw­ing on an old bone. On the wall, behind the poet, is a visu­al ref­er­ence to Peru­vian gold mines, the finan­cial scam of the day. He is wear­ing a wig and on the floor is a sword both sug­gest­ing that the poet is a gen­tle­man but, in all prob­a­bil­i­ty, his next res­i­dence will be a debtor’s prison. 

All of this—and more—is vis­i­ble, cre­at­ing an unhap­py but satir­i­cal por­tray­al of a writer’s life. Any work­ing writer today will rec­og­nize the scene, and no doubt has lived it as well.

As I write—or try to write—I can and do glance up, to tell myself that the poet’s mis­ery is both old and shared by many, many writers.

That said, in 1836, a young Charles Dick­ens was asked to add some text to just such a series of illus­tra­tions by the artist Robert Sey­mour. When Sey­mour died Dick­ens con­tin­ued writ­ing the text which became The Pick­wick Papers, estab­lish­ing Dick­ens as a huge­ly pop­u­lar author, and cre­at­ing the vogue for seri­al­ized fiction. 

Hap­pi­ly (I like to remind myself) not all writ­ers are distressed. 

2 thoughts on “Art Prints That Are Novelesque in Content”

  1. I love the idea that a pic­ture can sug­gest a whole sto­ry, like the above one. I think it would take a very spe­cial artist to choose to paint that kind of scene. 

    What an inter­est­ing back­ground to Pick­wick Papers!

    Reply

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