William Hogarth

A Scene from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ VI


Image released under

License this image

William Hogarth 1697–1764
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 572 × 762 mm
frame: 820 × 900 × 90 mm
Purchased 1909

Display caption

This is one of the first paintings made of an English stage performance. It depicts a climactic scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, first performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728. Here the opera’s central character, a highwayman named Macheath, stands chained, under sentence of death, between his two lovers, the jailer’s daughter, Lucy Lockit, and the lawyer’s daughter, Polly Peachum. At either side of the stage Hogarth has included members of the audience, notably at the far right the Duke of Bolton, real-life lover of the actress Lavinia Fenton, who played the part of Polly Peachum.

Gallery label, February 2016

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

N02437 The Beggar's Opera VI 1731

Oil on canvas 575×762 (22 5/8×30)
Inscribed ‘VELUTI IN SPECULUM’ and ‘UTILE DULCI’ on ribbon to either side of royal coat of arms top centre
Purchased by the National Gallery (Temple West Fund) 1909; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1919

PROVENANCE Commissioned by Sir Archibald Grant, MP, 2nd Bart of Monymusk (together with ‘The Committee of the House of Commons’, probably version now in the NPG), half-payment made 5 November 1729, still unfinished January 1731 and not collected owing to Grant's bankruptcy in May 1732; ...; acquired by William Huggins of Headly Park, Hants, inherited on his death in 1761 by his son-in-law Sir Thomas Gatehouse of Wallop, Herts.; according to Nichols & Steevens sold by him c.1776 to the Revd Thomas Monkhouse, DD, FSA, Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, after whose death in 1798 it became the property of his executor the Hon. and Revd Henry Jerome de Salis, Rector of St Antholin, London (d.1810); ...; with Thomas Bowerbank of Lothbury by 1817, sold by him 1833 or 4 to Dr John Murray; by descent to his grandson John Murray, from whom bt by the National Gallery
EXHIBITED BI 1847 (149); Art Treasures, Manchester 1857 (25); International Exhibition, South Kensington 1862 (4); RA Winter 1876 (100); A Century of British Art (Second Series), Grosvenor Gallery 1889 (9); Georgian England, Whitechapel Art Gallery 1906 (Upper Gallery 60); RA Winter 1908 (85); Jubilee Exhibition, City Art Gallery, Bradford 1930 (45); Art and the Theatre, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight 1949 (93); Tate Gallery 1951 (27); BC tour 1960 (3); Tate Gallery 1971 (47, repr. in col.); Handel, National Portrait Gallery 1985 (108, repr. in col.)
ENGRAVED This version engraved by T. Cook for Nichols & Steevens 1817, facing p.94; the version in the Mellon Collection was engraved by William Blake in 1788, pub. 1 July 1790 (T01801), with additional key of sitters; the central group, loosely adapted from the earliest version, was crudely engraved by Joseph Sympson Jnr (d. 1736) for the ticket of a benefit performance for Thomas Walker (the original Macheath of 1728).
LITERATURE Nichols 1781, pp.15–16, 1782, pp.17–20, 1785, pp.19–23; Nichols & Steevens 1808, pp.29–30, 1817, pp.94–9 (engr. facing p.94); Nichols 1833, p.351; Dobson 1902, pp.34, 168, repr. (with original frame with carved portrait of Gay) facing p.36; Dobson 1907, p.196, repr. facing p.22 (with frame); F. Saxl & R. Wittkower, British Art and the Mediterranean, 1948, p.60, item 3, repr.; R.B. Beckett, ‘Hogarth's Early Painting: II: 1728: The Beggar's Opera’, Burlington Magazine, XC, 1948, pp.167–8, fig. 10; Beckett 1949, p.40, fig. 17; Hugh Phillips, Mid-Georgian London, 1964, pp.192–3, pl.13 (col.), and key of sitters fig.265; W.S. Lewis and P. Hofer, The Beggar's Opera by Hogarth and Blake, New Haven and London 1965, no.VII, repr.; Baldini & Mandel 1967, p.88, no.9F, pl.3 (col.); Antal 1962, pp.26, 59, 61, 63, 65–7, 71, 74, 90, 114, 145, 178, 230 n.91, 231 n.16, 233 n.39, pl.20(b); Paulson 1970, I, pp.III, 116, 297–8, II, pls.320, 341; Paulson 1971, I, pp.180–92, 230, 275, 307, 527 nn.22–7; H. Omberg, William Hogarth's Portrait of Thomas Coram, Uppsala 1974, pp.54–5, pl.2; Kerslake 1977, 1, p.332 (for provenance); Webster 1979, pp.12–13, 36, 97, 104, repr. in col. pp.24–5; Bindman 1981, pp.21–37; Stella Margetson, `Sweet-Tempered Satirist: John Gay and the Beggar's Opera, Country Life, 19 September 1985, pp.832–3, fig.7

The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (1685–1732) was a new kind of musical entertainment, first produced by John Rich at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in January 1728, where it gained immediate and unprecedented popularity. This ‘new English Opera’ satirised the conventional Italian operatic style by substituting popular ballads and airs, adapted by J.C. Pepusch, for formal arias, and contemporary low-life characters for classical gods and goddesses. It came at a time when Hogarth, a life-long enthusiast for the theatre, was changing his career from graphic artist to painter, and not surprisingly he found in it a suitable subject for one of his earliest excursions into oil painting, thus producing, among other things, one of the earliest known painted records of an actual stage performance.

Hogarth chose to represent one of the most dramatic moments towards the end of the opera (Act III, scene XI, air LV), set in Newgate prison, where all the main actors appear on stage together. The highwayman hero Macheath (played by Thomas Walker, fig.22) stands, dressed in scarlet and chained, in the centre. On the left, with her back to the audience, Lucy Lockit (Mrs Egleton) pleads with her father the Prison. Warden (played by ‘Mr Hall’) to save Macheath from hanging. On the right Polly Peachum (Lavinia Fenton, figs.23, 24), dressed in white, does the same with her father (John Hippisley), a dishonest lawyer and informer; both ladies believe themselves to be married to Macheath. The players are flanked by the audience, privileged members of which sat in boxes which occupied part of the stage (a practice abolished only in 1763 by Garrick).

It is an added dimension of the drama that Lavinia Fenton as Polly faces the Duke of Bolton, shown seated prominently in the right-hand box, wearing the Garter star and ribbon, for a celebrated aspect of the production was the fact that the Duke, twenty-three years her senior and separated from his wife, fell in love with Lavinia on the first night and thereafter became a constant attendant at performances. At the end of the season Lavinia Fenton retired from the stage to become his mistress, and eventually, on the death of his wife in 1751, Duchess of Bolton (see N01161).

Apart from the Garter motto around the royal coat of arms at the top, there are two Latin inscriptions on the ribbons on either side which encapsulate the view of the theatre and The Beggar's Opera in particular, as successfully holding up a salutary mirror to reality; ‘veluti in speculum’ (‘as in a mirror’), and a quote from Horace's Ars Poetica, 1.343: ‘Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci’ (‘He who joins instruction with delight, carries all the votes’). The quote does not presuppose great classical learning, as ‘utile dulci’ was a common popular phrase even among the moderately educated. It peppers, for instance, the correspondence of young men on the Grand Tour endeavouring to present their social activities in an educational light (e.g. Lee correspondence, c. 1749–53, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven).

At least six oil versions of this scene by Hogarth are known, and the Tate Gallery version is one of the last and most developed. The earliest and simplest (now in the W.S. Lewis Collection, Farmington, fig.26) was painted soon after the initial performance, possibly for John Rich, the producer of the opera. It was bought in 1762 at Rich's sale by Horace Walpole, whose signed note on the back identifies the players, and two members of the audience - Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby on the left, ‘a tall gentleman with a long lean face’, and on the right, ‘Sir Robert Fagg in profile, a fat man with short gray hair much known at Newmarket’. Walpole's note (repr. Lewis and Hofer 1965, no.11) also describes it as a ‘Sketch’: its present heavy outlines suggest that it may indeed have once been a much slighter work that had been subsequently worked up by another hand to look like one of the more finished versions. In this early version the audience is composed of recognisable caricatures (Fagg is shown with a riding crop under his arm, turning his back to the performance), while in the more polished later versions (including the Tate Gallery's) they are rendered as straïght portraits, with Fagg as the third man from the right, now facing the other way and attending the performance, while Robinson is identified with the man standing at the top against the wall on the left-hand side of the stage. The Duke of Bolton does not figure in the early versions, and was presumably added later after the scandal had gained in notoriety. There are two other versions very close to this early one, one of them, signed and dated 1728 (private collection, fig.27), and the other formerly in the collection of Lord Astor of Hever (sold Christie's 15 July 1983, lot 48, repr. in col.), now in the Birmingham Art Gallery. Version IV (National Gallery, Washington, fig.29) seems to be a largely abandoned attempt to rethink the groups, and is the only one without a royal coat of arms in the centre, which, however, is clearly visible under the curtain painted over it.

In 1729 John Rich ordered a larger and more elaborate version , now at the Yale Center for British Art (605×735, 23 3/4×28 7/8, signed and dated 1729). This shows a wider and deeper stage, places the central group on a carpet, adds the Duke of Bolton and various other figures to the audience (presumably chosen by Rich himself), and introduces the crouching satyrs holding up the curtain on either side. The Tate Gallery painting follows this version very closely, and was commissioned by Hogarth's early patron Sir Archibald Grant in 1729, along with a group portrait of the ‘Oglethorpe Committee’ of which Grant had been a member (National Portrait Gallery, see Kerslake 1977, I, pp.330–8, fig.942). This commission is documented by Hogarth's autograph list of ‘Pictures that Remain unfinished’ on 1 January 1731, now in the British Library (BL Add.MS 27995, folio 1):

the Committy of the house of Commons
Sir Archibald Grant
half Payment Rec'd
Novbr the 5th
the Beggars Opera

Without moving Macheath out of his central ‘Choice of Hercules’ position, this version gives greater prominence to Lavinia Fenton by placing her, dressed in white, on a carpet between the two strongest male figures, as befits the leading lady whose singing brought the house down on the opening night of what was considered initially to be a risky production, thus ensuring its unrivalled and, for Rich in particular, lucrative run. Hogarth's increasing confidence as a painter is manifested not only in the greater spaciousness of the composition and more complex lighting of the interior, but also in the more fluent handling of paint and in the elaboration of the wings, with their handsome satyr caryatids conceived in terms of classical contrapposto and echoed in the poses of the audience directly below.

In 1788 William Blake was commissioned by John Boydell to engrave version V, which then belonged to the Duke of Leeds. This was finally published in July 1790, together with a smaller key (not by Blake) which not only identified the players, Robinson, Fagg and the Duke of Bolton as already described, but also the second lady from the left as ‘Lady Jane Cook’, the man next to her leaning forward across the box as ‘Anthony Henley Esqr’, the man standing directly behind him with his hand in his waistcoat, as ‘Lord Gage’, and next to him, wearing the star and red ribbon of the Order of the Bath as ‘Sir Conyers D'Arcy’. The men standing in the box opposite are given, from left to right, as ‘Mr Gay’, ‘Mr Rich, The Manager’ and ‘Mr Cock, The Auctioneer’, while the man between Sir Robert Fagg and the Duke is ‘Major Pounceford’. In view of their late date, however, these identifications have to remain open to some doubt.

The Tate Gallery painting is in an eighteenth-century frame surmounted by a finely carved and painted cartouche consisting of an oval portrait medallion of Gay (possibly loosely based on Rysbrack's medallion portrait of 1736 on Gay's monument in Westminster Abbey), flanked on either side by a laurel bough, flute and two three-dimensionally carved satyr's masks that echo the satyrs and the satyr's masks on the columns behind them in the painting. At some stage in the past the canvas had been cut at the edges, removing part of the masks behind the statue, especially on the left-hand side. Nichols writes in 1781 that the painting, which by then belonged to Thomas Monkhouse, ‘is in a gilt frame, with a bust of Gay at the top. Its companion, whose present possession I have not been able to trace out, had, in like manner, that of Sir Francis Page, one of the judges, remarkable for his severity, with a halter round his neck.’ The Tate Gallery painting is still in the frame so described, but the fate of its companion is not clear. It seems likely that this was the ‘Committy of the house of Commons’ in the National Portrait Gallery, now bereft of its special frame, but with which it was apparently still equipped at the BI exhibition of 1814 (Nichols & Steevens 1817, p.93, although the evidence is negative: Steevens, who writes about the frames and saw the exhibition, makes no mention of the ‘Committy’ picture no longer being in its special frame). The implication is that the Tate Gallery version of ‘The Beggar's Opera’ and its companion ‘Committee of the House of Commons’ (either the National Portrait Gallery version or another) acquired their unusual frames sometime before being split up as a pair, which happened either soon after the death of William Huggins in 1761, or at the dispersal of Gatehouse's collection c.1776 (Steevens gives contradictory information on this). In either case, William Huggins seems the likeliest person to have commissioned them, as his personal interest in the paintings was no less than Grant's, who probably never collected the paintings, as he went bankrupt in October 1731 and was expelled from the Commons in May 1732 for embezzling the funds of the Charitable Corporation. Huggins was not only a personal friend of Hogarth and Rich, but Sir Francis Page (d.1741) had been one of the judges who took part in the trial of his father John Huggins, former titular Warden of the Fleet Prison, which resulted from the House of Commons Committee shown in the painting (Huggins pleaded ignorance of all malpractices and was exonerated).

John Nichols claims (1782, p.20) that Horace Walpole, who owned the earliest version of this scene, also had in his collection a ‘picture of a scene in the same piece, where Macheath is going to execution. In this also the likeness of Walker and Miss Fenton ... are preserved’, but nothing further is known about this painting.

A chalk sketch for the earlier version of this scene is in the Royal Collection (A.P. Oppé, The Drawings of William Hogarth, 1948, no.23, repr., and English Drawings ... at Windsor Castle, 1950, p.62, no.344, pl.58).

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

You might like

In the shop