Thanks, Bill!

GinLane

Hogarth worked out every minute detail of even image: the angle of the robe behind the gin-soaked mother so that the eye is draw directly to her head; the leering muncher of the large bone, the position of the pawnbroker’s sign above their heads as a kind of upside down religious symbol; the distant grey of the growing city in which these denizens would never take part; so much more. That was the painter, and illustrator, William Hogarth’s intent: to tell remarkable, compelling stories through a series of images sold in a subscription series. His work was widely pirated.

If Bill Hogarth’s father, Richard, was alive today, he’d probably be writing a blog, cleaning up Wikipedia articles, and spending far too much time watching TED Talks. He was always busy writing what he hoped would be a popular play or a textbook for schoolchildren. As a boy, Bill tagged along with his father as he made the rounds from one coffee house to another, for that’s where the printers tended to meet their clients, customers, and friends. In a word, coffee houses in 1700s London were places to network. In time, Richard Hogarth managed to sell of his manuscripts to a a London printer named Curll; it would become a book that would “bring joy to learning through the playing of games” enabling (a then-radical) idea of learning without the direct assistance of a teacher. With tears of joy in his eyes, Richard Hogarth signed the publishing contract, and that, as would be inevitable in a story of this sort, was his undoing. When Curll demanded money to pay printing costs, Hogarth could not pay the bill, could not fulfill the requirements of a contract that he clearly did not understand. Richard Hogarth was placed in debtor’s prison, a nasty place where bribery could, at least, secure better living quarters for the fledgling author and his small family.

Son William was fortunate to secure an apprenticeship with an engraver, made some contacts, eventually earned some money, and became quite popular as both a painter and a storyteller. His prints, including the one pictured at the top of this article, were published in series, offered by subscription. The originals made money, but they were often copied (pirated) by unscrupulous printers throughout London. As he worked his way up London’s economic and social ladder, William Hogarth became a very popular painter, busy with commissions until the very last years of his long career. Battling syphilis (a very common theme in stories of this era), frequently lusting after young women (especially in his younger years), Hogarth often considered the fate of his father, and devoted much of his life to steering clear of any such problems.

Benefitting from his upscale connections, Hogarth began to pursue a new law, one that would protect creative people from piracy.  At the time, this was extraordinary; in London, and elsewhere, piracy was simply part of the system. Nobody much questioned the many illegal copies of an artist’s work. Printers published whatever they wanted to publish.  Standard business practices were uncommon. An artist who fought the system ran the risk of speaking truth to power, and could well end up in debtor’s prison, or worse (that is,  murders under dark bridges were extremely common at the time).

Hogarth had been painting, on commission, for a Select Committee of Parliament as they investigated gaols (now: “jails”). Hogarth painted the deliberations of the committee, made a friend of Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk. In time, Hogarth visited the influential man in his home, and over tea and gooseberry tarts, they considered a plan. There was an act of Parliament from Queen Anne’s time that protected writers, so Sir Archibald, in his strong Scots accent, thought aloud:

The connection to the other Act is gud. They like laws that build on other laws.”

Sir Archibald wrote letters to several important people in Parliament. Hogarth hoped that James Oglethorpe would be one of them, but his London home was boarded-up. Sir Archibald explained that Oglethorpe was in the colonies, founding a new one called Georgia. A short time later, Oglethorpe returned, and Hogarth gained his support:

Of course, I’ll support you. The book trade is run by scoundrels and idle incompetents. Always has been, always will be. But we’ll fire a few shots at them, eh, Hogarth?…Show me where to sign!”

Hogarth’s Law eventually passed and became law. Of course, his very next set of prints were his poorest sellers to date–he probably made more money on the previous subscription series, even with the piracy. And then, of course, there was the matter of enforcement of the new law–uneven because there was no system to police the bookseller’s constant practices. Still, times did change, and we benefit from Mr. Hogarth’s good work today.

So: the next time you’re in London, make your way to Leicester Square (Leicester Fields in his day), and take note of the statue of the man who made the world safe for creative professionals.

And, if the story intrigues you, pick up a copy of a lovely novelization of his life entitled I, Hogarth by Michael Dean, from which this article is derived. There is much more to Hogarth’s story–a lusty one, in parts–intentionally reminiscent, in its way, of early British novels that were developing at the same time Bill Hogarth was telling his stories in pictures.

I-Hogarth-1-copy

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