Hogarth’s famous series of a disastrous marriage of convenience and its consequences is displayed here, with a number of works by his contemporaries

Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode tells the story of a disastrous marriage of convenience between a profligate aristocrat’s son and the daughter of an aspirant bourgeois. The sole purpose of the union is the exchange of wealth for social status. Without mutual affection, respect or companionship, the newly married couple conducts their emotionally empty lives pursuing a modish lifestyle and seeking sexual gratification with others. The tragi-comic plot concludes in a sensational fashion, with a murder, an execution and a suicide.

‘A-la-mode’ means that something is merely fashionable and not enduring. Thus the ‘marriage à la mode’ is, by definition, a travesty of marriage itself. In this context Hogarth’s acerbic analysis of the values and motivations of London’s beau monde is part of the debate about marriage and sexual ethics that escalated from the late seventeenth century. Equally important is Hogarth’s focus on patronage, aesthetics and taste.

The series represents an unremitting attack on the absorption by the social elite of foreign, in particular French, luxury goods, cultural values and lifestyle. It should be noted, however, that Hogarth conceived Marriage A-la-Mode, whether as engravings or paintings, as a sophisticated luxury commodity in itself, equal, if not superior, to any of the objets d’art meticulously represented in each scene.

Works on display in this room

Jean-François de Troy The Declaration of Love 1724

Jean-François de Troy
The Declaration of Love 1724
Oil on canvas

Courtesy Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts, Gift of C.A.Wimpfheimer, Class of 1949

Jean-François de Troy
The Declaration of Love 1724

De Troy’s tableaux de mode (modern high-life subjects) were greatly admired in the French art world and sought after by wealthy European collectors. Hogarth was very familiar with French contemporary art and seems to have parodied de Troy’s work in Scene 1 of Marriage A-la-Mode. Like de Troy’s couple, Lord Squanderfield and his fiancée are seated on a sofa and dressed in French fashions. But instead of an elegant scene of gallantry and courtship, they are turned from each other, with him besotted only by his reflection in the mirror, and she inelegantly slumped forward, the misery on her face amplified by the image above of a screaming Medusa.

Simon François Ravenet, Bernard Baron, Gérard Jean-Baptiste Scotin with William Hogarth
Marriage a-la-Mode, plate 1 (1 April 1745)
Etching and engraving on paper
385 x 465 mm
Andrew Edmunds, London

At the beginning of Marriage A-la-Mode, Lord Squanderfield has just returned from a tour of Europe, dressed in the latest French fashions and displaying an inflated sense of superiority. His appearance closely resembles that of the monkey in John Wootton’s illustration to Gay’s The Monkey who had Seen the World, displayed nearby. Scenes showing monkeys dressed as gentleman or singeries (from the French word for monkey) were conceived as parodies of human behaviour. The monkey was also an ancient symbol of luxury and vanity and was sometimes depicted looking into a mirror, lost in self-love. So, too, is Lord Squanderfield.

Crebillon fils
The Sopha: A Moral Tale 1742
Book
170 x 200 x 170 mm
British Library, London

In Scene 4 of Marriage A-la-Mode, the Countess’s lover, Silvertongue is lounging on a sofa or love seat. Beside him is the English edition of the erotic novel Le Sopha (The Sofa) by Crébillon fils. The story is set in the Orient, thus underlining both the vogue for licentious French literature and the exotic frisson of the East as represented by the Orient-inspired sofa and the turbaned black servant (lower right). The plot of Le Sopha revolves around a man who by magic has been turned into a piece of seat furniture. Thus concealed, he voyeuristically observes the unwary ‘Arabian’ women and their gallants and even provides a stage for their lovemaking.

Gerard Vandergucht after Hubert François Gravelot
Frontispiece (and title page) to John Dryden’s Marriage A-la-Mode 1735; first published 1673
Book
160 x 210 x 170 mm
The British Library, London

The title of Hogarth’s series was taken from Dryden’s Marriage à la mode. The play was written during the reign of Charles II who, after the English Civil War (1642–9), had spent over a decade in exile at the French court of Louis XIV. When the Stuart dynasty was restored in 1660 with Charles as King, the court was markedly francophile, importing many French customs and tastes into England. All of this is reflected in Dryden’s play.

The text of Marriage à la mode was reprinted at various times during the eighteenth century. This version includes an illustration by the French designer Hubert-François Gravelot, who came to London in 1732. His elegant style was highly influential, especially in book design.

William Hogarth
Taste in High Life c.1742
Oil on canvas
630 x 750 mm
Private collection

The themes of this painting are the folly and superficiality of aristocratic taste with an emphasis on foreign influences. Two effete ‘connoisseurs’ are in raptures over a tiny and thus seemingly insignificant cup and saucer. Meanwhile, a richly dressed lady examines another ‘luxury item’, a black pageboy in a turban. As a servant, he acts as a satire on his ‘masters’, who are themselves ‘slaves’ to fashion and fripperies. But he also embodies the perceived exoticism of ‘the Orient’, in particular the Turkish harem, which for Europeans was the embodiment of sexual excess and fantasy. Significantly, a similar pageboy figure appears in Scene 4 of Marriage A-la-Mode, which involves an adulterous wife.

Gerard Vandergucht after John Wootton
The Monkey Who had Seen the World 1727
Illustration in John Gay’s Fables
Book
230 x 380 x 230 mm
The British Library, London

John Gay’s fable, The Monkey Who had Seen the World, describes how a monkey travels abroad, adopting courtly manners and fashions. He returns to his native wood (as shown in the illustration) and becomes an object of envy and emulation. Monkeys were often employed in Western art to represent mimicry or ‘aping’. Hogarth included one in Taste in High Life, dressed as a gentleman and reading a list of exotic foreign dishes. His characterisation of Lord Squanderfield in Scene 1 of Marriage A-la-Mode relates directly to such simian figures, underlining the aristocrat’s superficiality and lack of judgement.

Simon François Ravenet, Bernard Baron, Gérard Jean-Baptiste Scotin with William Hogarth
Marriage a la Mode, plate 4 1 April 1745
Etching and engraving on paper
385 x 465 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

Like other members of London’s fashionable elite, the alderman’s daughter (now a countess) has adopted the toilette, a custom established by the French court of receiving visitors in the bedroom or boudoir while the aristocrat dresses. It was often used as a subject in French art and literature, habitually depicting a lady dressing, and was thus imbued with sexual connotations. Hogarth underlines this by including mythological and biblical seduction scenes on the wall behind the countess and her lover Silvertongue and by placing a copy of an erotic French novel by his side.

Simon François Ravenet, Bernard Baron, Gérard Jean-Baptiste Scotin with William Hogarth
Marriage a-la-Mode, plate 6 1 April 1745
Etching and engraving on paper
385 x 465 mm
Andrew Edmunds, London

The marriage theme of Hogarth’s series would have had particular resonance in the wake of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, a literary phenomenon that was praised and vilified from the moment it first appeared in 1740. It tells the story of an educated lady’s maid who resists the sexual advances of, and finally reforms and marries, her aristocratic master. That Marriage A-la-Mode was, in part, a jibe at Richardson’s moralising novel is underlined by Hogarth reworking the loving mother/child vignette in Gravelot’s illustration to Pamela (displayed below) within The Lady’s Death, where the distraught nurse proffers a sickly child towards the distinctly un-maternal Countess, who has just expired.

After Hubert-François Gravelot
Engraved illustration in Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded’ 1742
Book
180 x 280 x 180 mm
Lent by The British Library, London

The volume displayed here combines Pamela and its moralizing sequel Pamela, Part II, which presented Pamela as the perfect wife and an adoring mother. In The Lady’s Death (last scene of Marriage A-la-Mode) Hogarth parodied one of Gravelot’s illustrations, displayed here, which shows Pamela turning from writing a letter to her husband to receive her baby (‘Just now, dear Sir, your Billy is brought into my Presence, all smiling’). Richardson wrote the sequel because of the furore surrounding the original novel and the various spin-offs that it inspired, including Henry Fielding’s satirical responses, An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742).

William Hogarth
Piquet: or Virtue in Danger (The Lady’s Last Stake) 1759
Oil on canvas
914 x 1054 mm
Lent by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1945

Here Hogarth returned to the themes of aristocratic vice and sexual subterfuge previously explored in Marriage A-la-Mode. The gestures of the couple resemble those in de Troy’s Declaration of Love, displayed nearby. The scene was inspired by Colley Cibber’s theatrical comedy, The Lady’s Last Stake (1708), and depicts a married aristocratic woman who, addicted to gambling, has just lost her fortune to an army officer. The soldier’s terms, according to Cibber’s play, are as follows: the two will play one more game, and if she wins, she will regain her fortune; if she loses, however, she will still have her goods returned but be obliged to take him as her lover

Hogarth’s ‘Happy Marriage’

These two oil sketches are generally accepted as part of a group of preparatory works for the ‘Happy Marriage’ series, which Hogarth seems to have planned as a counter to Marriage A-la-Mode. Hogarth may have abandoned the series because of the prints published in 1745 after Highmore’s Pamela paintings (displayed nearby) in which the main protagonists are eventually happily married.

As evidenced by these surviving sketches, the ‘Happy Marriage’ would have been set in the country with the down-to-earth virtues of the rural community played off against the affectation and shallowness of London high society in Marriage A-la-Mode. Although the proposed narrative of the series is not known, the so-called Staymaker (on the left) would have acted as a revealing contrast, for example, to The Toilette. Whereas the countess dressed in her bedroom, surrounded by hangers-on and her lover, here the young squire’s wife is being fitted for a dress surrounded by a loving family and devoted servant. And the sketch known as The Dance (on the right) would have made a hearty and joyous conclusion to the ‘Happy Marriage’ series, emphasising the wider significance of a respectable, well-matched couple within their community, in opposition to the futility and destructive repercussions of the marriage à la mode. Highmore’s Pamela paintings.

William Hogarth, 'The Staymaker (? The Happy Marriage V: The Fitting of the Ball Gown)' circa 1745

William Hogarth
The Staymaker (? The Happy Marriage V: The Fitting of the Ball Gown) circa 1745
Oil on canvas
support: 699 x 908 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1942

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William Hogarth, 'The Dance (The Happy Marriage ?VI: The Country Dance)' circa 1745

William Hogarth
The Dance (The Happy Marriage ?VI: The Country Dance) circa 1745
Oil on canvas
support: 677 x 892 mm frame: 840 x 1050 x 70 mm
Purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund 1983

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Highmore’s Pamela paintings

The complete series of paintings comprises twelve scenes from Richardson’s Pamela. The heroine is the virtuous and educated lady’s maid, Pamela Andrews, whose mistress on her deathbed confides her to the care of her son, ‘Mr B.’ He abuses his position of authority and attempts to seduce Pamela on numerous occasions, as depicted in Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B . Her honourable nature and spirited defence of her virginity, however, affect a reformation in his character and he marries her instead. The subsequent story deals with Pamela charming Mr B.’s relatives, who initially consider her too low-born to be worthy of him. They eventually admire her for the innate nobility of her character and she is accepted into the family, as depicted in Pamela Asks Sir Jacob Swinford’s Blessing.

Highmore’s Pamela paintings are exactly contemporary to Marriage A-la-Mode and, like Hogarth’s series, were engraved by French artists in 1745. Highmore was extremely well-versed in French contemporary art and visited the studios of leading practitioners in Paris during 1734. Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B, in which the heroine is shown in an alluring state of undress, shows striking parallels with sexually-charged toilette scenes by artists such as François Boucher. 

Joseph Highmore, 'VII: Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B.' 1743-4

Joseph Highmore
VII: Pamela in the Bedroom with Mrs Jewkes and Mr B. 1743-4
Oil on canvas
support: 627 x 757 mm frame: 840 x 960 x 110 mm
Purchased 1921

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Joseph Highmore, 'XI: Pamela Asks Sir Jacob Swinford's Blessing' 1743-4

Joseph Highmore
XI: Pamela Asks Sir Jacob Swinford's Blessing 1743-4
Oil on canvas
support: 632 x 750 mm frame: 820 x 955 x 115 mm
Purchased 1921

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