Rough and brave: what can soldiers tell us about 18th century masculinity? Part II


Let me begin with the guardsmen at the heart of William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750), the subject of a great exhibition at the Foundling Museum. They are an evocative depiction of the troubling charms of the soldier. In the eighteenth century, officers might be considered examples of idealised masculinity: noble, courageous, and self-sacrificing. The other ranks, however, were considered with some suspicion by society – their form and appearance yet to take on the more solid, reassuring appeal they possessed by the mid-nineteenth century. Politically, after all, the military raised fears of standing armies as authoritarian tools of repression, and individually they were examples of the bad behaviour men were supposed to avoid, such as drinking, fighting, womanising, and gambling.[1]

So let’s unpick the masculinity of these soldiers. Firstly, their bodies matter, as Matthew McCormack’s book Embodying the Militia in Georgian England argues. Hogarth depicts a regiment of Guards, who were generally recruited because they were tall.  In the central figure, we see the elite of the elite – a Grenadier of the Foot Guards. In the 1760s it was said that ‘the best bodied Men in the Battalion’ became grenadiers, not only because they could throw grenades further due to their height, but also because they would flank the regiment in their distinctive uniforms at parade.[2]

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

Hogarth’s mastery of the senses helps convey the power of such martial masculinities, since it was the form, sight, spectacle, and sound of soldiers that made the armed forces function effectively. Studies of fancy uniforms and martial spectacle, for example, show that both helped form regiments into coherent fighting forces, as well as making regiments more acceptable to a society suspicious of standing armies.[3] These factors also helped convey and fix those aspects of masculinity that were more salubrious and celebrated, such as bravery and self-sacrifice. These guardsmen were dressed in magnificent uniforms that were designed to flatter manly proportions and instil admiration and patriotism in those who saw them.

And yet, these guardsmen are hardly heroic figures: this is a picture of soldiers rousing themselves from a night of misbehaviour and debauchery – still ongoing in many instances, with drunk soldiers, one urinating against the wall, another stealing pies, and others casually sexually assaulting women traders.

Badly behaved, impolite, unruly, undisciplined: surely that was unmanly? Well the problem is that all these behaviours could indicate some degree of virility. Hogarth thus reveals the inherent paradox of masculine identity, since many unmanly behaviours were also those which, in a managed form, were central to the performance of normative masculinity. The question is – at what point did this virility become the immoral behaviour that rendered the perpetrator more bestial than manly in the eyes of society? 

This was always a delicate balancing act and historically contingent. Youth has long been recognised as a period of lack of control, when the juvenile male had not yet fully learned to master temptations and control or channel emotions. Some of these guardsmen might be young and unmarried and therefore given some licence. Some, as you can see, were mature, so that would not excuse them all. So, let’s return to the issue of politeness and its risks which I discussed in part I of my series of blog posts. 

Armies have often served as barometers of national masculinity. In the 1740s and 50s commentators were alarmed that politeness was undermining the manliness of the armed forces, with soldiers enfeebled by the comforts of civilian life and unable to cope with the rigours of war.[4] This was especially acute following the 1745 Jacobite rising and ‘the initial disorganisation of the British army’s response’.[5]  The novelist and editor Eliza Haywood, for example published the essay ‘Effeminacy in the army censured’ in The Female Spectator in 1745 in which she declared:

How long this over-delicacy will continue, heaven knows; but it is yet far from being extirpated:—even among the military gentlemen, there are some, who being infected with it before they become so, find it an insuperable difficulty to bring themselves to that hardiness and neglect of personal ornaments, which suit with the life of a soldier.[6]

Hogarth offers a very different portrayal of guardsmen to Haywood’s – no artificial social polish here or lack of hardiness! Combining fine physiques with behaviours deemed problematic in other men, such as fighting, drinking, and sexual liberty, these soldiers are not cautionary tales against succumbing to temptation. Instead, they answer the gender anxieties of their time, fulfilling the claim of a civic tract from the late 1750s that states that the ‘bravest’ and ‘honestes’t’ men were the ‘roughest’.[7] Roughness is presented as the antidote to a fighting force made inferior by social conventions deemed to weaken manliness. The manliness Hogarth displays here is one that is successfully navigating between the two extremes of the period: the villainous blackguard and the weak fop. The former was part of a counter-culture of anti-civility where socially elite men behaved badly, but whose boorishness was a risk to society, and the latter was equally problematic due to his womanly inferiority.[8]

In some ways Hogarth proffers a martial masculinity more attuned to that of the Jack Tar (the nickname for a sailor), who in popular culture combined carousing with comradeship, sexual prowess, and bravery.[9] Never as reassuring as the Jack Tar, soldiers took longer to be domesticated in popular culture (for which, see the volume I have edited with Michael Brown and Anna Maria Barry: Martial masculinities: Experiencing and imagining the military in the long nineteenth century (MUP 2019)). Two of the guardsmen most reveal the ambiguities of martial masculinity: the grenadier in the centre who takes his leave of his pregnant sweetheart, and the regimental drummer pulling away from his tearful wife and clinging child.

These are early examples of a symbol of martial masculinity that became immensely popular by the later eighteenth century and into the next century: the sailor’s and soldier’s farewell. In these later popular sentimental images, the handsome military man takes his leave of his pretty family; in so doing proving his self-sacrifice, his patriotism, and his feeling – symbols of moral manliness in the age of sensibility that marked out the decades from the 1760s to 1830s. In The March of the Guards to Finchley, before the full grip of sensibility, Hogarth’s departing guards are less comforting and sentimental. Is the pregnant woman a sweetheart, rather than a wife, likely to be abandoned to bear a bastard? And note the difference between the toddler with face buried in its mothers’ skirts and the grumpy boy with clenched fists.

Still, though these men are not yet fully formed as heroic, since their manly roughness is necessary to show their effectiveness as soldiers, their potential for valour, discipline, and self-control is literally on the horizon. As Mark Hallett explains, Hogarth shows the transformation of a ‘sprawling, inchoate mass of men into the well-drilled fighting unit that starts to take shape in the shadowed mid-ground and then marches in perfect formation across the distant, studiously illuminated landscape’.[10]

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

He describes the regimental drummer just beginning to drum the beat that will bring these soldiers into fighting order, if still staggering, somewhat punch drunk, into the scene from the left, his bloated face bearing the marks of drinking and fighting.[11] Hogarth’s acoustic talents are heard here as the elaborately uniformed man and boy play fife and drum; crucial sounds of army life since they regulated soldiers’ daily routines, set the tempo of the march, and communicated battlefield signals to company commanders in battle.[12] Military music, we must not forget, also stirred the emotions and senses of civilian onlookers not just to patriotism but to emulate the gender of the martial men. No wonder that men writing in the later eighteenth century recalled their excitement at seeing soldiers and regiments as children and its impact on their sense of selves as men.

These guardsmen surely stirred humour and perhaps some envy in their contemporary audience – as men who could enjoy licence, escape familial obligations, and still emerge as ideals of masculinity. In fact, men in general may well have found martial manliness appealing and something to emulate because it resolved the often-competing aspects of manliness and unmanliness. Thus, military men were useful gender role-models for civilian youths and men because they battled with and overcame the challenges of self-mastery, often in extreme situations.

In the next post I turn to the boxers in The March of the Guards to Finchley, another plebeian patriot who influenced ideas of manliness in the Georgian and Victorian periods.

[1] Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle, p. 10.

[2] Matthew McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England, p. 89.

[3] Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle, passim.

[4] Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800, Harlow, Essex, Pearson, 2001, pp. 130-1 and McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England passim.

[5] Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 131

[6] Haywood, Eliza. “Effeminacy in the army censured.” 1745. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 12 Oct 2007. 16 Jul 2019 <;. NB – longer quote sought after reading Carter, p 131.

[7] The Tryal of Lady Allurea Luxury 1757 p. 77, cited in Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 135

[8] Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 137.

[9] Joanne Begiato, ‘Tears and the manly sailor in England, c.1760-1860’, Journal for Maritime Research, 17:2 (2015), 117-33.

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

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

[12] Steven M. Baule, ‘Drummers in the British Army during the American Revolution’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 86, 2008, p. 20.

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.


[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