William Hogarth

O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’)


Not on display

William Hogarth 1697–1764
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 788 × 945 mm
frame: 1072 × 1228 × 105 mm
Presented by the Duke of Westminster 1895


This painting is Hogarth's comment on his second visit to France in the summer of 1748, when he was arrested as a spy while sketching the arms of England on the old city gate at Calais. The contemporary diarist George Vertue records in August 1748 that Hogarth and Francis Hayman were 'attempting to draw some Views of Fortifications &c. were surprized & clapt into the Bastile. from whence they were soon glad to return to England' ('Vertue Note Books III', Walpole Society, vol.22, Oxford 1934, p.142). Hogarth took his revenge with this painting. The title was taken from a popular tune of the day, which extolled roast beef as the symbol of Britain's wealth and power.

Numerous xenophobic references indicate Hogarth's low opinion of the French. The huge side of British beef at the exact centre of the picture, destined for the English inn at Calais, is neatly balanced by the scrawny French soldier at the other side of the drawbridge. A fat friar, the only well-nourished Frenchman in the picture, covetously pokes the beef. In the right foreground, a starving Jacobite sits with his pathetic meal of an onion and a piece of bread, his overturned cup beside him. The Jacobites, the Scotsmen who fled to France after the unsuccessful Scottish rebellion of 1745, are further symbolised by the black crow which perches atop the stone cross above the drawbridge. In the tableau framed by the gate, a white dove hangs on an inn sign above the cross - a satirisation of the Catholic Church. The fish-wives in the left foreground ridicule a skate whose unpleasantly human features resemble their own. To the left of the gate, framed by vegetables, sits Hogarth himself. As he sketches the drawbridge, the arresting officer's hand clasps his shoulder.

Further reading:
Elizabeth Einberg, Hogarth the Painter, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.48-9, reproduced in colour

Terry Riggs
March 1998

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Display caption

Hogarth is known for his satirical views of contemporary subjects. He visited France in 1748 and while sketching the fortifications at Calais was suspected of spying and arrested, as shown far left. Hogarth represents the French by a rabble of scrawny soldiers and a fat friar, salivating over the haunch of beef imported for the British tourists. Hogarth contrasts France implicitly with an England where all eat roast beef and not soupe maigre (watery soup). The ‘Old England’ of the title alludes to an idea of an England when kings protected their people against unjust masters and all lived in harmony and prosperity; again, in contrast to France.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

N01464 O The Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) 1748

Oil on canvas 788×945 (31×37 5/8)
Inscribed ‘For Mad.m Grandsire at Calais’ on label attached to the cloth under the piece of beef
Presented by the Duke of Westminster to the National Gallery 1895; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1951
PROVENANCE Still with the artist in 1761, when exhibited at the SA; ...; according to Nichols, Lord Charlemont by 1781; sold by ‘J. James’ (presumably Lord Charlemont's agent), Christie's 2 May 1874 (58) bt Agnew and sold by them the same year to H.W.F. Bolckow; his sale Christie's 2 May 1891 (107) bt Agnew for the Duke of Westminster
EXHIBITED SA 1761 (44 as ‘The Gate of Calais’); BI 1814 (120, 117 in some copies of cat.); Dublin 1853 (Fine Arts Section 965); Dublin 1865 (Ancient Masters Section 50); BI 1867 (202); British Deceased Painters, Leeds 1868 (1099); Dublin 1872 (Early British Section 217); RA Winter 1875 (28); BC tour 1946 (2, pl.9); Tate Gallery 1951 (64); BC tour 1960 (8, repr.); Tate Gallery 1971 (136, repr. in col.); Zwei Jahrhunderte englische Malerei, Haus der Kunst, Munich 1979 (28, repr.)
LITERATURE Nichols 1781, pp.31–2, 110–11, 1782, pp.42–4, 235–41, 1785, pp.49–50, 289–95; Ireland 1798, pp.349–50; Nichols & Steevens, I, 1808, pp.141–54, II, 1810, p.190, engr. III, 1817, pp.172, 253; Nichols 1833, pp.62–4, 359; Dobson 1902, pp.95, 173, 1907, p.204; Vertue III, pp.141–2; Walpole's Correspondence, XX, p. 13; Davies 1946, pp.70–2; Beckett 1949, p.70, fig.161; Burke 1955, pp.227–8; Antal 1962, pp.2–3, 6, 20, 28, 77, 122, 132, 172, 218 n.7, 241 n.78, 248 n.41, pl.III; Paulson 1970, I, pp.202–4, no.180, II, pl.192 (1749 engraving); Baldini & Mandel 1967, p.II, pls.XL (col.), L (detail); Paulson 1971, II, pp.71, 75–8, 86, 129–31, 149, 196, 262, 281, 323, 396, 432 n.23, 436 n.6, 452 n.92, pl.220; Waterhouse 1978, p.177, fig.139; Webster 1979, pp.132, 136, 148, 187 no.158, repr. in col. pp. 149, 150–1 (detail); Bindman 1981, pp. 162, 183, figs. 129 (col.), 130, 131 (details)

The painting is Hogarth's comment on his second visit to France in 1748, when he was arrested in Calais as a suspected spy, and it expresses his profound disenchantment with life on the other side of the Channel.

The first mention of the event comes from Vertue in a passage dated August 1748, but probably written a little later. He reports that a group of artists, consisting of Thomas Hudson, the Van Aken brothers, Hogarth, Hayman, and the sculptor Henry Cheere, had gone to Paris, taking advantage of the freeing of the Dover-Calais passage after the May armistice that preceded the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle signed in October that year. His (not necessarily correct) information seems to be that while the others went on from Paris to make a four- or five-week tour of Flanders and Holland, Hogarth and Hayman returned early, and ‘attempting to draw some Views of Fortifications & c, were surprized & clapt into the Bastile, from whence they were soon glad to return to England’.

Next comes a more circumstantial account by Horace Walpole in a letter to Horace Mann, dated 15 December 1748:

Hogarth has run a great risk since the peace; he went to France, and was so imprudent as to be taking a sketch of the drawbridge at Calais. He was seized and carried to the Governor where he was forced to prove his vocation by producing several caricatures of the French; particularly a scene of the shore with an immense piece of beef landing for the Lion d'Argent, the English inn at Calais, and several hungry friars following it. They were much diverted with his drawings and dismissed him.

Hogarth's own autobiographical notes, written at the end of his life and never published in his lifetime, do not mention the other artists, but broadly substantiate the above (BL Add.MS 27991, here quoted with slightly modernised spelling and punctuation; for an exact transcript see Burke 1955). He expands on his poor impression of France as a place of empty pomp, bigotry and poverty, and notes that the fish women have faces of [word illegible] leather, and soldiers [are] ragged and lean. I [was] seized by one of them and carried to the governor as a spy, as I was sauntering about and observing them & the gate, which it seems was built by the English when the place was in our possession. There is a fair appearance still of the arms of England upon it. As I concealed none of the memorandum I had privately taken and they being found to be only those of a painter for [his] own use, it was Judged necessary only to confine me to my lodging till the wind changed for our coming away to England where I no sooner arrived but set about a Picture wherein I introduced a poor highlander fled thither on account of the Rebellion year before, browsing on scanty french fare, in sight [of] a Sirloin of Beef, a present from England, which is opposed [to] the Kettle of soup maigre. My own figure in the corner with the soldier's hand upon my shoulder is said to be tolerably like.
The first published account (Nichols 1781, p.31) adds some information which the author had indirectly from the Revd William Gostling of Canterbury, at whose house Hogarth spent the first night on his homeward journey, to the effect that the artist was put in the custody of Grandsire, the landlord of the Lion d'Argent, until his return to England. Nichols also gives the account by ‘an eminent English engraver, who was abroad when it happened’, thought to be either Thomas Major or Robert Strange, which adds threats of hanging from the Commandant and some rough treatment by the guards, which may or may not be subsequent dramatisation.

Hogarth must have completed the painting within a few months, for an engraving after it by himself and Charles Mosley (see no.108) was published on 6 March 1749 under the title ‘O The Roast Beef of Old England’. A cantata, or ballad, based on the painting and attributed to Hogarth's friend Theodosius Forrest (1728–84) was in print by 1759 (reprinted in full in Nichols 1782, p.237, and Nichols & Steevens, I, 1808, p.148). The theme, however, was not a novel one and Hogarth was partly exploiting existing popular sentiment, as can be seen from an anonymous poem called ‘Beef and Liberty’ published by The Gentleman's Magazine in June 1748 (p.277). This gloats over the wretched existence of Jacobite exiles in France who, having forfeited their birthright to rich British fare with its ‘princely loin’, now have to ‘cringe and starve on Gallia's envy'd coast’, where ‘... soups and sallads shall your board supply,|And the kind priest absolve ye when ye die’. There are even earlier precedents (see O. Baldwin and T. Wilson, ‘250 Years of Roast Beef’, Musical Times, April 1985, pp.203–7).

The main difference between the engraving and the painting is the crow perched atop the cross on the gate. This seems to be a later addition to the painting for, according to Nichols (1781, pp.110–11) ‘soon after it was finished, it fell down by accident, and a nail ran through the cross on the top of the gate. Hogarth strove in vain to mend it with the same colour, so as to conceal the blemish. He therefore introduced a starved crow, looking down on the roast beef, and thus completely covered the defect.’ No obvious repairs to this spot were found when the painting was restored in 1966, and in fact the detail provides a relevant if macabre echo to the scene directly below, where a processional cross, above which a white dove hovers in the shape of an inn-sign, is carried through the streets, juxtaposing, as it were, the very real adulation of the flesh in the foreground with the hollow worship of the ‘spirit’ beyond the gate. Forrest's ballad identifies the soldier with a spoonful of soup as an Irishman who had joined the French army to escape the English gallows, and the man with the beef as Madame Grandsire's cook.

The sirloin itself occupies the exact centre of the composition, and is further highlighted by the only patches of pure white in the picture - the cook's cap, cloth and apron. Yet another visual pun is achieved by painting it against one of the chains of the drawbridge, so that it seems to outweigh the brilliantly painted ragged French soldier, placed as if he were a dangling puppet on the other side of a pair of scales. The long shadow across the gate itself leads the eye to a cameo behind his back, where, enclosed in a spiky triangle of carrots, halberd and musket, Hogarth is seen sketching the scene, with a soldier's hand about to grab him by the shoulder. According to Nichols (1781, p.110), the sitter for the fat friar was his friend the engraver John Pine (1690–1756), who as a result became known as Friar Pine, much to his disgust. Hogarth was to paint him again in 1756 in the more dignified disguise of a Rembrandt self-portrait (Beaverbrook Foundation, Fredricton, New Brunswick; Beckett 1949, fig.185).

The white cockades in the soldiers' hats, the bullet-hole in that of the Irishman, and the black wound-patch on the Highlander's forehead show that they are supporters of the Stuarts and mercenaries used by the French in battle. In the left foreground a group of leathery-faced market women laugh at the human appearance of the skate, unaware how closely it resembles them. The other side of the dark and shadowy foreground is occupied by the tragic figure of the despairing Jacobite, beside whom lies a scanty meal of raw onion, a dry piece of bread, and an empty overturned rummer.

The arms on the gate are those of England, but it is difficult to know if Hogarth has given an accurate representation of the structure, for already in 1855 Leslie noted that only the drawbridge remained as in this picture (C. R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, 1860, 1, p. 232). It was finally demolished in 1895.

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

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