'Marriage A-la-Mode' was the first of Hogarth's satirical moralising series of engravings that took the upper echelons of society as its subject. The paintings were models from which the engravings would be made. The engravings reverse the compositions.
The story starts in the mansion of the Earl Squander who is arranging to marry his son to the daughter of a wealthy but mean city merchant. It ends with the murder of the son and the suicide of the daughter.
In the first scene the aged Earl (far right) is shown with his family tree and the crutches he needs because of his gout. The new house which he is having built is visible through the window.
The merchant, who is plainly dressed, holds the marriage contract, while his daughter behind him listens to a young lawyer, Silvertongue. The Earl's son, the Viscount, admires his face in a mirror. Two dogs, chained together in the bottom left corner, perhaps symbolise the marriage.
Hogarth's details, especially the paintings on the walls, comment on the action. A grand portrait in the French manner on the rear wall confronts a Medusa head, denoting horror, on the side wall.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Our final story begins with an unhappy arranged marriage. The wife is unfaithful; the husband finds out. There’s a confrontation – the husband’s murdered by the lover, who’s caught and hung in turn, leaving the wife to kill herself in grief and remorse. It’s not the funniest of stories, and yet it’s the subject of one of the most famous satirical works of all time: William Hogarth’s series of six paintings and engravings, ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’. As with any home, the interiors depicted by Hogarth are full of tiny details that say a lot about their inhabitants. We invited Professor Amanda Vickery, a historian of domestic life, to take a look through the keyhole of the first painting in the series and ask, 'who lives in a house like this?'
Amanda Vickery: If we look at the first in the series of 'Marriage A-la-Mode', which was originally published as a series of engravings in 1745, we can see in the very first that a marriage negotiation is in progress and basically an earl’s son is being married off to a rich merchant’s daughter. So cash is being exchanged for rank and blood, and so in the foreground, we have the two fathers – the miserly city merchant who’s peering through his spectacles, but also we have the gouty earl. Here he is – he’s sat resplendent in his chair, very bombastic, chest is up, he’s sort of indicating himself, you know, ‘I am he’, but of course he’s got his foot, his gouty foot, up on a footstool, so obviously the wages of sin there, you know, his aristocratic dissipation; but to ram home the point, he’s gesturing to his family tree, this absurd pedigree that he’s got rolling out down the chair, with a sort of Norman knight at the bottom, which is clearly preposterous. The implication is that this is fake – that’s he not really descended from the Normans. What is going on really is he’s selling his son for money because out of the window, you can see going up, a formidable Palladian mansion. And building houses, this reminds us, cost fortunes. So the house is not just about intimacy and privacy, it’s also a great assertion of your magnificence.
Miranda Hinkley: And it certainly looks like a very uncomfortable interior. I mean, all the characters are either engaged in some sort of monetary transaction, counting coins or looking at mortgage titles, and the bride herself looks really unhappy about the whole thing.
Amanda Vickery: Well, the central couple themselves, who the whole story’s going to unfold about, are the most unwilling young bride and groom, and the bride is an absolute picture of misery, sort of looking down in absolute despair, but you can see next to her, the lawyer Silvertongue is working his magic on her and lasciviously, he’s kind of sharpening his quill, which is quite a suggestive gesture, which has to imply the kind of sexual relationship they’re going to go on to have.
But next to her, and not looking at her at all, is the foppish and narcissistic young groom. He’s all in blue, he has little red heels on his shoes, which show that he’s been presented at court in Paris. But what’s he looking at? He’s looking at himself in the mirror. So Hogarth is giving us a very vicious depiction here of aristocratic culture and marriage as barter and sale, and the fact that this is going to be an utterly loveless marriage is foreshadowed in the front of the picture by the two chained dogs. So the marriage that’s going to ensue from this negotiation is going to be a prison.
Miranda Hinkley: It’s thoroughly wretched isn’t it, when you start to look at the expressions on their faces. Amanda, what does this tell us about the idea of home? I mean, home seems to be a rather uncomfortable place in all of these works.
Amanda Vickery: Well, I think it goes back to the heart of the paradox around home even today. We long for homes to be places of safety, shelter, emotional nurturance, but also homes are clearly the place of cruelty – domestic violence begins at home – and they’re places of hierarchy and power, so domestic rituals, however beautiful, still rely on somebody to do the work for you, so as we can see in all these paintings, there’s servants in the background making it all happen. And the Georgian home in particular was a place of elaborate hierarchy, especially in the aristocracy. It was a kind of ladder and it was arranged for the comfort of the senior members, so it’s not all hearts and flowers, ambrosia and nectar behind closed doors. It’s about power and rank, and for the aristocracy, it’s about the display of their magnificence. Well for Hogarth, he’s saying this magnificence is fake, it’s a façade, it lacks discernment and at its heart there’s no virtue.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty One, March 2010