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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hogarth's Legacy

As working artist, we all take for granted the effects of copyright laws protecting our creative endeavors. But few of us know the debt we owe to one particular English artist whose lobbying was directly responsible for the English Parliament's passage, in 1735, of the first copyright laws. His name was William Hogarth, and it was little wonder he pushed so hard for legal protection for the work of artist like himself, for he was being robbed blind by the unscrupulous (and at the time, legal) engraving and reproduction of his wildly satirical paintings. His work, which poked fun at the aristocracy, was immensely popular with the middle classes, yet because of their scandalous content, he could not sell his paintings to those with money enough to buy them. For example, his "An Election Entertainment," painted in 1754, after hundreds of prints of it were sold, brought a mere 200 pounds at auction.

An Election Entertainment, 1755, William Hogarth
 Even though Hogarth's sympathies were with the common people, politically represented by the Whigs, this painting is a devastating political cartoon with eight or ten different things happening at the same time as almost three dozen figures celebrate an election eve victory over the Tories who are marching just outside the window in spite of boiling water being poured upon them and a man about to toss a stool through the window at them. Meanwhile, another man is being hit with a brick tossed through the broken window from the other side while another is having his head wound dressed with alcohol, which he is also imbibing. Elsewhere, a young boy pours from a keg into a washtub full of punch, the mayor has passed out from eating too many oysters and is being bled by his barber; a candidate is being kissed by an elderly woman while her husband sets fire to his wig and his daughter steals a ring from the man's finger.

All around the two tables that serve to unite the composition, are celebrants drinking too much and thinking too little. On the wall is a slashed portrait of King George III, there is a mockery of a string quartet playing in the background, a man entertains the revelers (who are mostly too drunk to appreciate his efforts) with a scarf tied around his fist turning it into a hand puppet; and in the foreground, a political operative counts cash, the life's blood of all political endeavors. If much of the action seems to be of little consequence, it's only because time has caused it to lose its significance. The scene seems to be one straight from Fielding's "Tom Jones," which was published some five years before. In addition to his legacy of copyright legislation, William Hogarth was also responsible for paving the way for the founding of the Royal Academy of Art, thus insuring that England's artistic tradition would one day match her literary excellence.

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