The purpose of this exercise was to analyse the work of 18th century political satirists to understand what makes the satire work and what elements could be reworked for a current context.
Key words from the brief:
- Look at the work of William Hogarth, James Gillray, George Cruikshank or other eighteenth century political satirists
- Pick out examples you think could be successfully re-worked for a contemporary audience.
- Establish the core symbolism and metaphors that make the satire work.
- Identify what would you replace with what to make this work for a contemporary setting
Context & approach
A the time of writing it’s approximately a month after the General Election that saw the Tories return a huge majority, with Labour suffering a humiliating defeat. The Brexit Withdrawal Bill that took three years of pain, stress and angst and divided the country was passed through its final reading in the House Of Lords with barely a mention. Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party are in control and we’re leaving the European Union at the end of January.
So with this momentous context I was struck by a series of four oil paintings by William Hogarth created in 1755 entitled ‘The Humours of an Election‘. Surely there would parallels to be drawn between these paintings and the current situation.
The four paintings are titled:
- An Election Entertainment
- Canvassing for votes
- The Polling
- Chairing the Member
In a National Archives Article (The struggle for democracy), it’s noted that A survey conducted in 1780 revealed that the electorate in England and Wales consisted of just 214,000 people – less than 3% of the total population of approximately 8 million. So whilst there was still a lot of general interest in General Elections, it was only a very small number of privilege people that could actually vote.
The images I’ve selected to discuss below are hand-coloured engravings of the paintings.
An Election Entertainment
This image shows a dinner organised by the Whig candidates who are doing their best to ingratiate themselves with the guests. The Tories can be seen protesting outside through the open window. They are carrying an antisemitic caricature of a Jew which references recent Whig legislation that provided greater freedom to Jews; sadly the shadow of antisemitism was a problem that dogged the Labour Party in the 2019 election.
The dinner is no-expense-spared with the Mayor falling back off his chair stuffed with oysters.
The Tories are throwing bricks and furniture through the window.
The image is depicting a number of things that could be reworked into a contemporary context:
- A political party using it’s wealth to influence voters – in this case excessive food and drink. In a contemporary context this could be use of campaign techniques such as tv and online advertising or the targeted use of social media.
- Two parties poles apart – us and them. This was made much worse during the 2019 election because of the divisive influence of Brexit. The protestors outside the window might be waving blue European Union flags whist the political slogan inside the room might be ‘Get Brexit Done’.
- The anti semitic reference is still directly applicable.
Canvassing for Votes
The theme of corruption continues in the second image with two agents, one for the Whigs and one for the Tories both trying to bribe an innkeeper to vote for them.
A jewish peddler is employed by another agent to hand out bribes of trinkets and jewelry to the wives of male voters.
Some of the symbolism is more hidden. Two old sailors sit at a table on the left and soldier peers out from behind a door. These figures represent uncorrupted patriotism. The decorative lion devouring the French fleur de lis is a symbol of the once powerful but now weakened British Army. When the French threatened to invade in 1756 the Duke of Newcastle has to call in the services of foreign mercenaries to defend the country because the state of the army was so inferior to the French.
The underlying theme of image is the corruption of the tactics of the political parties and bribing people for votes.
The much subtler meaning is around the empty symbols of power or a weakened country living with past glories and ignorant of it’s true status. To a certain extent this could be applied to the Brexit situation (depending on whether you’re for or against Britain leaving the European Union).
Voting in 1755 was not by secret ballot and this meant agents from both opposing parties could use various underhand tactics to increase votes.
The Polling depicts a number of these.
A blue and an orange flag, the colours of the Tories and the Whigs flutter above the polling station.
A Whig voter with an amputated hand is being challenged for using his hook rather than his hand to swear on the bible that he is who he says he is. The implication being that by only appearing to swear an oath he may in fact by not eligible to vote at all.
Tories are seen bring the sick and mentally ill to vote to increase their numbers.
A women in a broken carriage in the background is a metaphor for Britannia – indicating the broken state of the country.
The parallels between 1755 and the present day are striking.
- The blue and the orange branding remain the same, albeit there is now an inclusion of other parties/factions.
- Voter identity remains and issue, although perhaps the identity of fake/misleading information, possibly intervention by a foreign state is more relevant today.
- The broken carriage metaphor could be replaced by many others to indicate the broken divisive nature of recent politics or the split between the UK and Europe. A great example is Steve Bell’s cartoon depicting all of Prime Minister May’s Brexit plans using the now popular over a cliff-edge metaphor.
Chairing the Member
This image shows the victorious Tory candidate being carried through the streets on a chair high above the crowd. He is about to take a fall from his lofty position because one of the chair carriers has been smacked over the head by a flail carried by a Tory supporter fighting with a Whig supporter.
The herd of pigs running across the bridge is a biblical reference to The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac which was a miracle performed by Jesus to exorcise demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs that ran down a hill and into a lake where they drowned.
The contemporary context would be the success and celebrations of the victorious Conservative Party after the 2019 General Election. The fall about to happen would translate into the uncertainty of Britain’s position in the world after Brexit, particularly the relationship with the USA and the unpopular compromises that might be required to secure a trade deal quickly.
Additionally, the assumption that a deal can be done with the EU by the end of 2020 leading to the potential of another cliff-edge.
The struggle for democracy At: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/getting_vote.htm (Accessed: 26.01.20)
List of illustrations
Figure 1 – Hogarth, William (1812) [Hand painted engraving] An Election Entertainment At: http://www.bridgemaneducation.com (Accessed: 26.01.20)
Figure 2 – Hogarth, William (1812) [Hand painted engraving] Canvassing for votes At: http://www.bridgemaneducation.com (Accessed: 26.01.20)
Figure 3 – Hogarth, William (1812) [Hand painted engraving] The Polling At: http://www.bridgemaneducation.com (Accessed: 26.01.20)
Figure 4 – Bell, Steve (2016) Brexit plans A B C, At: https://www.belltoons.co.uk/bellworks/index.php/leaders/2016/4062-161116_BREXITPLANSABC (Accessed: 29.01.20)
Figure 5 – Hogarth, William (1812) [Hand painted engraving] Chairing the Member At: http://www.bridgemaneducation.com (Accessed: 26.01.20)