William Hogarth (1697 - 1764)

First Stage

Second Stage


The Four Stages of Cruelty

Etching and engraving, 1751. Approx: 13 ins x 15 ins. Ref: Paulson: 187 - 190.

"...Neither great correctness of drawing or fine Engraving were...necessary," insisted Hogarth, for that would made them too expensive and put them "out of reach of those for whom they were cheifly intended."

The Four Stages of Cruelty are perhaps the only prints by a great artist that are not only about the criminal classes but were specifically addressed to the criminal classes. Ironically, but not surprisingly, they have attracted rather more academic controversy than almost any other of Hogarth's prints.

The starting point for one school, is that Hogarth was, above all, a man of his times; as such, he believed that he lived in a period of unprecedented lawlessness and that the only possible response was a policy of "maximum severity," which in practice meant the enlargement of the category of offenses deemed serious enough to warrant the death penalty. Rather more narrowly, it makes the point that Hogarth was not only involved with the Foundling Hospital but that he was particularly concerned with the problem of what was to become of the inmates once they were sent out into the world. Placed against this background, The Four Stages of Cruelty is seen as a powerful graphic sermon designed to shock likely candidates into an awareness of the wages of sin. If anything would give a miscreant pause, it was surely the ghastly picture of Tom Nero's eviscerated body jerking on the table at Surgeons' Hall. Hammering home its point, this school has argued that not only do Hogarth's prints involve "a ...rejection of the ....romanticisation of dashing criminals" but come "close" to being propaganda in support of the Murder Act of 1752 which decreed that the bodies of convicted murderers were to be displayed in chains or handed over to the surgeons for dissection.

Professor Paulson takes a very different tack. Hogarth's prints, he believes, were based on an appreciation of the simple fact - obvious to all but the most ideologically obtuse - that the "lower/criminal" classes were disposed to "read" depictions of law and order in a very different way from the property owning classes. Addressing the "lower/criminal" class, Hogarth would have known that it was as likely that, say, The Reward of Cruelty, would be read as an indictment of the "legal" cruelty of the the ruling class than as a salutary warning. More: he would have known the chances were it would be read as an articulation of the horror felt by much of the lower-classes at the idea of handing over the body to the ghastly ministrations of the surgeons. Enough is enough, he would have known they would think. Hogarth, Paulson argues, did not exactly endorse "outsider" views, but he did see them as an elemental resource that could be mobilized in the struggle "against ..dominant official art and even against the official social structure, its analogue". Such is the gist.

The Four Stages of Cruelty: The Woodcuts

"....the most startling prints made in England in the eighteenth century." - Andrew Edmunds, 1990.

Woodcuts by J. Bell under the supervision of Hogarth. Jan/Feb 1750. Approx 15 ins x 18 ins. Ref: Paulson 189/1 & 190/1.

In his Autobiographial Notes, Hogarth gave a forthright acount of why he made The Four Stages of Cruelty:

"The four stages of cruelty, were done in hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the steets of London more disagreeable to the human mind, than any thing what ever, the very describing of which gives pain.... but it could not be done in too strong a manner as the most stony heart(s) were ment to be effected by them... The cirumstanc]es of this set as the two former (Beer Street and Gin Lane) were made so obvious for the reason before mentioned that any further explantion would be needless.... we may only (say) this more than neither great correctness of drawing of fine engraving were all necessary but on the contrary would set trhe price of the reach of those for whom they were chiefly intended."

Hogarth commissioned J. Bell, a professional woodcutter, to cut four large blocks to his designs. The plan was to make prints that would be cheaper and hence more accessible than even the cheapest of engravings and would be in a bold and popular style that would appeal to the meanest and most unsophisticated of sensibilities. More like posters or broadsheets than conventional prints, the woodcuts were designed to be stuck or nailed to the walls of workshops or taverns. However, It was not to be. As John NIchols noted: "Finding this mode of executing his design was expensive beyond expectation, he proceeded no further in it, and was content to engrave them in his own course, but spirited manner." At the end of the day, only two of the four images were cut. That the woodcuts were not issued commerically would explain, as Edmonds has remarked, the extreme rarity of impressions from the 1750s and the fact that the blocks were in such good condition when re-printed by John Boydell in the 1790s. Not usually included in Boydell's folios, later impressions of the woodcuts are hard to come by.

Even if we put practical and commercial considerations aside, there is good reason to think that Hogarth's unusual project was completely misconceived. There is nothing in the recent literature on the English print (T. Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550 - 1640, A. Griffiths, The Print in Stuart Britain, 1603 -1689, T. Clayton, The English Print 1688 - 1802.) to suggest that the vulgar and guileless tradition Hogarth wanted to infiltrate and exploit actually existed. By the 1750s the "meanest and unsophisticated" man in a tavern was well and truely spoilt; he had, aware of it or not, been exposed to far too much graphic material to be gulled by Hogarth's "primitive" broadsheets - he would have known they were by one of those "artist" gents.

Misconceived or not, the woodcuts remain "the most startling prints made in England in the eighteenth century." Whether one believes they should be seen as sui generis, as Hogarth's "bold, original, and powerful modern, equivalents of History" (Paulson), or as an important part of a distinctive tradition of block printing stretching from Durer to Gaugain and Munch, they should be seen.

Previous Page


Haley & Steele

Next Page