Pugnacious and patriotic: what can soldiers and boxers tell us about 18th century masculinity? Part I

Recently, I had the privilege of talking about William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) in one of the talks accompanying the Foundling Museum’s 2019 Exhibition Hogarth & The Art of Noise. This is a jewel of an exhibition – small and perfectly formed – which explores Hogarth’s abilities to conjure the five senses in his art. It focuses on sounds, surrounding this masterful painting with even more layers of meaning and wonder.

Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

I had the pleasure of exploring what Hogarth’s masterpiece can tell us about Georgian masculinities and it is such a great topic that I wanted to share my talk here, especially since it touches on some of the areas that I’m analysing at length in my new book Manliness in Britain 1760-1900: Bodies, Emotions, and Material Culture, out in 2020. It’s quite a long piece of writing, so I’m dividing it across three blog posts to make it less of an investment of time when you read it!

Like all his scenes of London, William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley teems with life: vibrant and funny, a patriotic and sensory celebration of English liberty.[1] The guardsmen assemble at Tottenham Court Turnpike, ready to march to Finchley and defend the capital against Jacobite attack.[2] Painted a few years after the Jacobite Rebellion, it is, therefore, a knowing, and perhaps, unconventional depiction of victory (after all, this is no heroic battle scene with officers nobly dying)!

So, what can it tell us about mid-eighteenth-century masculinity?

The Age of Hogarth

A lot! After all, we think of the early Georgian period as the ‘Age of Hogarth,’ so closely does his art seem to reveal the complex and contradictory society and culture of a Britain not yet the aggressive imperial force it would be by the end of the century, still internally unstable, but expanding its commercial interests and worrying about the results of luxury and excess. An era when the always-rising middling-sort used morality and politeness to define its interests and aspirations against those social groups above and below.

Hogarth, the brilliant recorder of low and high life, of all human vices and the disorder deemed to result from them, captures and harnesses the tensions of new modes of behaviour and the rise of consumerism. After all, while his cautionary images show the horrors of personal degeneracy, many also acknowledge the delights of consumption and advocate the pleasures of moderation: his preferred alternative to Gin Lane, 1751, remember, is not abstinence, but Beer Street. In these mirror images, as in all his pictorial series and street scenes, we see the many faces of Georgian masculinity.

Georgian masculinity

You will perhaps already recognise several faces of Georgian masculinity if you are familiar with Hogarth’s art. One feature that will strike you, is that they are often negative rather than positive, since the ideals of masculinity were frequently defined through failures to achieve them. As we shall see, one of the central features of Georgian masculinity was that it required self-control to master the temptation and vices that so often led to its failure.

The ne’er-do-well is a case in point. Sometimes he was an aristocrat, or sometimes from a more modest genteel background – like Tom Rakewell of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. He is extravagant, prone to vice and succumbs to temptation; his masculinity undermined by his libertinism and lack of self-control.

A Rake’s Progress, 1735, Plate 2, British Museum, Museum number 1868,0822.1529

And then there is the fop – like the dance-master in the same plate of Rake’s Progress: artificially poised with mannered foot pointing, wide hipped skirt – signifying his foreignness, urbanity, and effeminacy (for the latest work on meanings of effeminacy in the eighteenth century, see Declan Kavanagh’s 2017 book Effeminate Years: Literature, Politics, and Aesthetics in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain). 

Another Hogarthian staple is the polite citizen, urban, portly, plain, weighed down by his full-bottom wig).

Perhaps, for many of us today, these types of masculinity have been superseded by this representation of eighteenth-century manhood:

Bare, buff Ross Poldark scything in a field. This scene and Aidan Turner’s representation more generally in the TV series has provoked discussion about whether Turner has been objectified. Turner’s most recent reflection on the matter is that he does not feel objectified because, as a man, he does not feel at risk from the female gaze.[3]

My own research on masculinity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published in 2020, shows that men’s bodies are always crucial to meanings of masculinity. Certain types of men have often been objectified – typically working men – and notions of masculinity were shaped, maintained, and disseminated through looking at images of men and reading descriptions of men’s bodies. This process was closely linked to emotions. Idealised male bodies considered attractive and strong were linked with ideal masculine behaviours and actions and became even more appealing and powerful through their associations with positive emotions such as love, desire, admiration, and patriotism.

Bodies were unruly, however, and needed constant self-control. Bodies considered unattractive, non-normative, often diseased or ill-formed, were associated with vices and bad habits that were deemed unmanly, a set of ideas made more influential by stirring disgust and revulsion. The lineaments of this are present in Hogarth’s work. He was an artist who deployed bodies and emotions; relishing in the sensory. Indeed, Mark Hallett observes that Hogarth ‘knew how to provide good pictorial acoustics’.[4] He did more than evoke the sounds and sights of metropolitan life, he also conjured its feel, and smell – all of which contributed to defining gender norms too.[5]

Take the vicious libertine, whose body is weakened by his vices, scarred by venereal disease and excess. Viscount Squanderfield of Marriage a la Mode (1743), is the perfect Hogarthian example. These men were rendered unable to sire a healthy heir and ultimately driven insane, as Rakewell in the final plate of A Rake’s Progress.[6] The fop’s failings, as we saw above, are written on his body too – non-muscular, vain; a body considered woman-like both physically and in his interests in fashionable appearance.

In the mid-eighteenth-century, as these failures of masculinity indicate, masculinity was still not comfortably aligned with politeness. Indeed, Hogarth does not often depict graceful polite manliness. One example is the slender, graceful dancer at the left of plate 2 of his Analysis of Beauty (1753) (the Country Dance). While politeness had its social benefits, it also had its hazards, as Philip Carter explained in his book Men and the Emergence of Polite Society. This code of behaviour, which required courtesy, a mannered style of deportment, and the ability to mix in polite female company could be viewed as undermining masculinity. For the most part, therefore, Hogarth shows the risks of too much comfort, luxury, and pleasure.

His A Midnight Modern Conversation 1730-1 is a case in point. It shows what happens when polite sociability goes wrong. Hogarth pulls the curtain back at the end of an evening on London lawyers, merchants, clergymen, and physicians who have drunk and smoked too much, leading to violence, drunkenness, and unconsciousness. As Declan Kavanagh observes in Effeminate Years, the homosocial clubs of the mid-century were often seen as sites of excess.

So, A Midnight Moral Conversation offers a moral lesson to be learnt, perhaps. Yet this is an ambivalent scene, as is frequently the case with standards of masculinity.[7] Kate Davison recently formulated the concept of ‘occasional politeness’, to show that polite comportment was only necessary for men in certain circumstances. When men got together (rather than in mixed sex groups) they could be bawdy and humorous for there was a ‘tacit acceptance of looser manners that might be called ‘intimate bawdiness’, which had its origins in a renaissance humanist train of thought that valorized wit as the centrepiece of male sociability’.[8] Hogarth plugged into this ‘intimate bawdiness’, demonstrating through humour the somewhat disgusting results of deviating from politeness. [9] Astute enough not to alienate his male viewers, his humour made his satire more palatable and easier for them to look at, even identify with uncontrolled appetites and, thus, perhaps more likely to avoid them. [10]

My next post will turn away from middling and elite men, for they can only offer a partial account of eighteenth-century masculinity. If you look back at Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley above, you will see the guardsmen in the foreground and the boxers in the middleground and they will be my focus in the next two posts. What I want to draw to your attention is the plebeian nature of Hogarth’s vision of masculinity here. These two types of working men became for many social ranks the embodiment of masculinity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – in all its complexity and ambivalences. Part two considers the soldier and what he can tell us about Georgian masculinities.

[1] For Hogarth as the patriot artist of nationalistic subjects see Mark Hallett, ‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’ in Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, London: Tate Publishing, 2006, p. 217

[2] Hallett, ‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’ p. 218.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jul/09/poldark-star-aidan-turner-shirtless-scene-more-empathy-women

[4] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, p. 60.

[5] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, p. 121.

[6] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, p. 114

[7] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, pp. 64-8

[8] Kate Davison, ‘Occasional politeness and gentlemen’s laughter in 18th c England’ The Historical Journal 12 November 2014.

[9] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, p. 68

[10] Hallett points out that Hogarth’s depictions of ‘errant masculinity’ in his pictorial series were intended to reinforce respectable manhood through negative example. Mark Hallett, Hogarth, p. 114

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