Favouritism in Georgian England

Today we see favouring one child over another as a risk to happy family life and psychologically damaging for those who are least favoured. This is by no means new. Moral commentators and writers on parenting have long warned parents against favouritism, while simultaneously expecting it to take place. The author of Moral essays, published in 1796, pointed out the results of favouritism: a thousand ill consequences, ‘strife, division, and animosity, [which] usurp the seats of harmony and peace. They warned that

where jealousy and hatred are thus early sown, they generally shoot up in a rank and fruitful harvest of guilt and misery. For, when children find it impossible to please, they will naturally lose all desire of pleasing; where they are contemned [sic], they will contemn [sic]; and where they are injured, they will resent.[1]

Even so, the author also declared that ‘there is scarce a large and numerous family to be met with, where this evil is not in some measure seen, felt, and lamented.’[2] Understanding why societies have seen favouritism as both inevitable and abhorrent can give us insights into family life in the past and how it was shaped by broader social and political practices.

We are already familiar with the way ideas about the early modern state shaped those about the family and vice versa. The patriarchal household was envisioned as a micro-state, justifying the male head of household’s rule over his dependents and shaping the gender politics of family life and society. However, other social and political institutions also had their familial counterparts. In the long eighteenth century, the most dominant was patronage, a configuration of connections and networks through which men gained preferment and posts in politics and the professions, such as the armed forces, the church, the law, and medicine. Deemed morally legitimate, patronage was a sanctioned and formalised process that shaped social, political, and professional life.[3] It functioned through kinship, with preferment granted to sons, grandsons, sons-in-law, cousins, and nephews.[4] It was by no means a male-only process, as Margot Finn shows, since it was rooted in the family institution and women were central to its functioning, acting as mediators between individuals and institutions, facilitating the exchange of gifts, entertainment, and knowledge that was central to the visibility and selection of men. Notions of authority, dependence, and reciprocity underpinned both patron and familial relationships. Those seeking preferment were deferential and stressed the patron’s obligations to them as dependents. In return for preferment, and not unlike children’s filial duties to parents, clients offered duty, affection, political, economic, social, and professional allegiances and support.

So, the question is, when much public life was based on preferring one family member to another, why was family favouritism so condemned and feared? The answer is twofold, rooted in eighteenth-century understandings of personal merit and of differential treatment, in which treating offspring differently could still be fair. Equity, in these cases, was not the same as equality, with equal access to opportunities regardless of gender, race, wealth, and class. It was about identifying an individual’s inner merit and offering them opportunities determined by their gender, race, wealth, and class. Thus, favouritism occurred when parents ignored inner merit and it encompassed behaviours deemed unfair because they elevated someone beyond the natural order. Favour was, after all, a vexed and complex phenomenon that had problematic associations with ideas about merit. There were longstanding suspicions about the role of royal favourites who exercised enormous influence and power due to this favour, yet were selected primarily because of their physical appeal and allure. As Hannah Smith and Stephen Taylor observe, the rise of a favourite risked the wellbeing of the polity, since they might sway the monarch to ignore their other subjects’ needs. In many ways, this paralleled the rhetoric used about family favouritism. Favour continued to have a political dimension in the eighteenth century, since the concept of the royal favourite retained power during the era of parliamentary monarchy, especially as a way to attack the relations between a monarch and chief minister.[5]

Favoured or favourite?

Being favoured could be unproblematic. Life-writers sometimes uncritically mentioned that a child was favoured, simply outlining the qualities or actions that made them so favoured. In a bundle of letters from Lucy Gray, daughter of a prominent York lawyer, to her nephew William Gray, a report about William and his sister, dated January 1809, notes that:

William is very quick, an amazing talker & a very great favourite with us all. He spent the day with us yesterday. He makes the home quite cheerful when we have him and is a very good child. We have him at table with us, when he does not speak a word except that when Grace is said he adds Amen – & yesterday after eating at a good rate he laid his hands on his stomach & called out “Williams cavity very full”. After Dinner he is always in high spirits & expects to have a riot with his Aunts. He was two years old on the 12th of Dec.[6]

Moreover, certain family members were associated with partiality for specific children, especially uncles, aunts, and grandparents. It was, however a very different situation when parents had favourite offspring. While Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnson happily described her grandson as a pet,[7] for example, she was worried that her granddaughter Mary was ‘too much an idol with both parents’.[8] Notably, parents themselves rarely admitted to a marked preference for one child. The one exception was following the death of a child when they might confess that he or she was a favourite. Hannah Robertson’s memoir, written in 1791, painfully recounted her suffering at the deaths of all her children, though about her youngest son she confessed, ‘he was my dearest child! – this favourite son was in the silent grave!’[9] More troublingly, evangelical parents might believe themselves divinely punished for favouring a child. Lucy Gray’s mother, Faith, explained that she worried that the death of her four-year-old son from scarlet fever in 1795, a favourite with his parents, was a stroke of punishment for the great grief she had experienced for the loss her infant daughter fifteen months earlier.[10] Here we glimpse the complexities of favouritism emerging.

Tom & Christine with baby (w/c on paper) ABT1762856 © Abbot Hall Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Merit in a differential society

So, what type of partiality towards children did society identify as problematic? Essentially, it was when circumstances drove it rather than internal merit, such as superficial beauty or talents, personality, or the child’s similarity to parents. James Nelson commented in his advice for parents, published in 1753, ‘It is true indeed that it may, and sometimes does happen, that one Child in a Family is superior in Parts to the rest, or is particularly engaging, and may be said to merit that partial Distinction Parents make’.[11] Still, to favour them for this was reprehensible. In 1792, the clergyman William Braidwood advocated that children not be ‘overlooked, despised, and maltreated, perhaps merely for the want of personal accomplishments, or a deficiency in bright and shining talents, which the great Author of nature hath conferred on some, and denied to others.’ It was ‘absurd or unnatural’ that favourites were ‘caressed, and respected, and allowed to trample on one who ought to be accounted their equal’, only ‘because they are more beautiful, or sprightly’.[12] Even in 1830, William Cobbett was still warning fathers: ‘partiality sometimes arises from mere caprice; sometimes from the circumstances of the favourite being more favoured by nature than the rest; sometimes from the nearer resemblance to himself, that the father sees in the favourite’.[13] None of these indicated merit, the authors insisted. As Nelson remarked, does it ‘not often happen, that the greatest Favourite is the greatest Booby?’ In any case, differences between children were often not the result of ‘malice’, but perhaps of ‘giddy youth’.[14] He admonished, ‘Parents should by all Means consider, that every Child is equally the Object of their Love and Care; and, by the Right of Nature, equally demands their Protection.[15]

Nature was key. Natural law meant parents should love their children, but in a hierarchical society, children were different from each other as was their access to benefits and privileges. Indeed, authors noted that birth order and gender might cause favouritism. A ‘Letter to the editor’ in the 1804 Lady’s Magazine, saw ‘Priscilla Firstly’ compile a list of things generally considered ‘first’, one of which was the first child who ‘is often spoiled by the indiscreet fondness of the parents’.[16] This had to be handled carefully, however; after all, it was undisputed that a first-born son was going to have greater opportunities than younger sons and daughters. Yet, parents were warned that favouring first-born children or sons was wrong. James Nelson, in his essay on the government of children (1753), observed ‘Sometimes the Father has his Darling, and the Mother her’s [sic]; sometimes they both doat [sic] on the same Child’; for the most part, though, ‘Mothers are extravagantly fond of the Boys, and either treat the Girls with a visible Indifference, or grossly neglect them, they know not why.’[17]

A structurally sexist society may well offer the explanation, since not only were women often complicit with the advancement of patriarchy, they were also deemed as less rational than men and censured for favouritism’s worst ills. The real problem, as glimpsed in the blame apportioned to women, was that over-indulging children was unfair because it would damage them, undermining their personal morals and merit. Despite being a prudent wife, tender mother, and real Christian, Amelia Stanhope in ‘The Female Reformer by Bob Short’ ‘A Mother’s Failings’ (1784), was too partial towards her eldest daughter. Named after her, the girl ‘is daily dressed out so fine, or as some would say, so tawdry, that she is more like a Bartholomew doll than anything else.’[18] Superficial trappings took precedence at the cost of the child’s character; the comparison to a cheap, brightly painted doll sold at a disorderly fair implied that the partiality would compromise the daughter’s virtue.

In ‘The Unnatural Mother from Marmontelle’, published in the Lady’s Magazine, 1782, the author linked the mother’s usurpation of marital authority to her partiality for one child and the ensuing familial collapse. The daughter of a French Intendant, she had agreed to marriage only on the condition that she had ‘absolute authority’ in her husband’s house. Quickly widowed and possessing too much power, this ‘unnatural mother’ favoured her eldest son, Mr De L’Etang. Her preference ruined him and he became headstrong, capricious, and bad tempered. She neglected James Coree, her younger son, who despite his mother’s enmity remained honourable, intelligent, and morally sound. Thanks to lack of maternal support, James left for Antilles to make his fortune. Damaged by her favouritism, the eldest son wasted the family fortune, leaving his mother in debt and ill. As with many such stories, the neglected child returned home. Tending his mother’s sick bed, James’ moral decency persuaded her that heaven was punishing her for her acts of favouritism; this revelation and her penance restored her to good health, a decent living, and appropriate patriarchal oversight since she went to live under James’s care in the Caribbean.[19] Overall, such cautionary tales warned that both parental inability to identify inner merit in some offspring and the over-indulgence of others would lead to disaster for individuals, families, and society.

The rhetoric condemning favouritism sought to clarify and align ideas around merit with a notion of equity that was rooted in differential needs and societal and cultural constraints. Several writers acknowledged that reconciling equitable treatment, suitability, and merit was difficult. William Cobbett warned fathers that the division of property could lead to terrible hostilities in families.[20] Fathers should, therefore, be impartial where property was concerned. Nonetheless, he reflected, this did not equate with equitable distribution in all cases, because offspring’s’ ‘different wants, their different pecuniary circumstances, and different prospects in life’ necessitated diversity.[21] This might play out unexpectedly in discussions around parental partiality. In the Lady’s Magazine, 1783, the ‘Matron’, Mrs Gray, an agony-aunt, responded to Eliza Willis, a young woman who perceived her two younger brothers to be favoured over her. As a result, she says, the siblings insulted her, and her parents sent her to be apprenticed. Now nearing the end of her term, she asked should she return home to a ‘miserable’ life, or set up in business independently.[22] The Matron acknowledges that many parents were too partial in the distribution of their favours to their children, making no efforts to conceal their partiality, leading to uneasiness and unhappy consequences. Nonetheless, she offered reasons why Eliza might be mistaken about her situation. Firstly, the two sexes require different modes of education since their views in life are distinct. Secondly, Eliza’s brother was, perhaps, less healthy and capable of making his way in the world than her; and, therefore watched with more care.[23]

The factors shaping the treatment of children had several similarities to the structures shaping the patron-client relationship. Studies of eighteenth-century patronage argue that it was envisaged to be compatible with merit, defined as a set of qualities that deserved reward, since it often operated through knowledge of the candidate. [24] Indeed, in the clerical nepotism that William Gibson investigated, patrons actively sought to select meritorious kinsmen to place.[25] In the section on naval and military officers in his Enquiry into the Duties of Men (1794), Thomas Gisborne similarly identified merit as central to preferment when he commented that patronage and promotion in the navy ‘ought to be considered as a public trust, and exercised with a strict regard to desert’.[26] Those who promoted ‘a favourite, a friend, or a relation, to a post of which he is unworthy’, betrayed ‘sordid principles or an unskilful judgement; [which] discourages meritorious exertion throughout the service’ and thus laid the nation open to danger.[27] For Gisborne, bestowing indulgences on men was fine as long as the practice aligned with the public good, just as bestowing charity should attend to the merit of the recipient. He recommended, therefore, that an officer should ‘allow to virtuous conduct every degree of reasonable weight in the granting of favours, and the distribution of preferment’.[28] Favour was acceptable if bestowed on clients who deserved it through their good conduct. It is perhaps no coincidence that the advice he offered on the bestowing of preferment had its echoes in that given to parents; after all, the power structures on board ship mirrored domestic patriarchy, with the naval officer acting as a surrogate father over his men, inculcating in them morals and piety to protect against vice. In effect, both family and patronage operated through power relations structured by obligations between those who bestowed favour and its recipients. Both shared similar concerns about the elevation of those who did not possess sufficient merit or capacities over those who did.

Favouritism, conflict and disorder

In granting preferment, a patron sought to preserve family interests and, in some cases, professional and national ones, as well as status, and security.[29] Yet patronage was seen as potentially destabilising, since those seeking preferment competed with each other within a process that frequently manifested itself as a jostling for restricted resources. Rivalry for resources was also one of the frequently mentioned outcomes of favouritism. Often derived from biblical injunctions against favouring one child, print culture fulsomely warned that favouritism’s outcome was wrathful offspring, hatred, rivalry, and conflict. [30] Loving one child above the rest of their children, the author of ‘A Mother’s Failings’ cautioned, led to the ‘ruin and destruction of the beloved object, and planting of a thorn in their [the parents’] dying pillows’.[31] Most writers agreed that children were ruined by indulgence becoming, ‘haughty, overbearing, and petulant’, while the ‘neglected children’ ended up broken hearted or resentful’.[32] As a result, offspring ‘conceive a Hatred to one another, and often to the Parents themselves, which perhaps lasts as long as their Lives’.[33] William Braidwood’s sermons delineating parental duties, published in 1792, counselled that ‘an unwarrantable partiality’ would unfailingly provoke children ‘to wrath, and discourage them.’[34] Cobbett’s ‘Advice to Fathers’ explained that ‘By nature they are rivals for the affection and applause of the parents; in personal and mental endowments they become rivals’.[35] In effect, favouritism resulted in internecine family conflict with implications for social cohesion. Nelson spelt these out as everything from lawsuits, to poverty, and rash marriages.[36]

There is evidence that preferential treatment within families caused dispute. This could be especially complicated in blended families. When John South’s mother, for example, wrote to him when he was away at boarding school in the early 1810s she voiced her resentment about his father’s relationship with the daughter of his first marriage. One Saturday morning, she noted: ‘Sally is gone to Lincoln, I suppose for her Summers [sic] residence, as pleasure for her, seems the chief pursuit, and your Fathers greatest delight, as his particular attachment to her, wants little penetration to see’.[37] If this close father-daughter caused relationship caused marital disharmony, she used it to demand that the love she felt her son owed her. Reflecting on this, she told John: ‘I hope to have comfort in my own Children as they grow up, as mine is a Mind much distressed from various disappointments: which I hope you will always make it your study to alleviate ‘. In 1812 she wrote to him:

You have but too great a share in my affection, which makes me often think I have a very small return in your Infant Years, with great care I watch’d over you, and seem’d to promise myself much from you, I thought I should always have in you a Companion, and as you grew up in Life a most sincere friend – I always endeavoured to instruct you in your duty to God; and your Parents

Life-writers also positioned themselves within a narrative of favouritism. For instance, some memoirists identified favouritism as one of the factors shaping their life trajectories. The educator Catherine Cappe, writing her memoir in 1822, presented parental favouritism as predictable, and deployed print culture’s conventions concerning its consequences. Her younger brother was, from infancy, she remarked, ‘my mother’s delight’. Like his fictional counterparts, he was indolent and self-indulgent. This made his father dissatisfied with him, a breakdown in father-son relations that distressed their mother. Although Cappe was, she said, her father’s favourite, this brought no advantage because of his failure to recognise merit, which stemmed from gender prejudice:

As my father was himself literary, and as I was his supreme favourite, it may seem extraordinary that he did not take the business of my instruction into his own hands. But the fact was, that although in other respects extremely liberal, he had imbibed some of the prejudices of that day, in respect to the cultivation of the female mind. And if he saw in his daughter an early desire of mental improvement, and some capacity for making progress in it, it is probable that he might think it the more necessary not to encourage, but rather to restrain the growing propensity. However this might be, I not only lost many of the superior advantages which I should otherwise have obtained, but what is more to be lamented, my affection for him was not cultivated and improved as it would have been.’[38]

Her father’s preconceptions about educating women left Cappe’s abilities undeveloped and her merit unrecognised; in turn, she was unable to give him the filial love she felt she owed him and that society commended as the reward for good parenting.

The writer Lady Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1750-1828), alleged her mother’s neglect of her from birth and preference for her older beautiful sister. Craven was married at 16, and after a year of marriage, her husband told her that her mother had intimated her worries that if his manners were rough he would break Craven’s heart, since was such ‘a meek-tempered child’.[39] This shocked her:

for I had never discovered that my mother thought me amiable. To the gracious gifts which Providence had bestowed upon me, to my application to do good, and to excel in what I was taught, I was obliged to acknowledge to my governess and relations my great obligations. My mother’s thoughts appeared to be fixed on the handsome face of my sister; and this mortification rendered me more humble and more happy, while, at the same time, this partiality prevented my sister from thinking any improvement to be necessary.[40]

Craven’s adult life would be one of sexual scandal and separation from her family and most of her own children. It is perhaps, therefore, not surprising that she chose to position herself as the victim of favouritism; the child whose merit went unrecognised and unrewarded, whose advancement and improvement depended upon those outside the kin networks.

Changing views?

Patronage increasingly came under attack from radicals and reformers in the nineteenth century, who viewed it as nepotism and a source of corruption, undermining political and professional institutions. In its place they sought to articulate and advance a new vision of personal merit, based upon more utilitarian conceptions of social and professional worth. Was family favouritism condemned along similar lines? Did the personal and political remain thus entwined and, if so, how did it shape family dynamics? These are the questions I hope to explore further as my research into this topic develops.

[1] Moral essays, chiefly collected from different authors. By A. M. Vol. 2, Liverpool, 1796 2 vols, pp. 81-2

[2] ibid

[3] William Gibson, ‘Importunate cries of misery’: the correspondence of Lucius Henry Hibbins and the Duke of Newcastle, 1741-58’ The British Library Journal 17/1, 1991

[4] William Gibson, ‘Patterns of Nepotism and Kinship in the Eighteenth-century Church, Journal of Religious History 14/4, 1987, p. 383; William Gibson, ‘Nepotism, Family, and Merit: The Church of England in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Family History 18/2, 1993, 179-90.

[5] Hannah Smith and Stephen Taylor, ‘Hephaestion and Alexander: Lord Hervey,Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the Royal Favourite in England in the 1730s’ English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV No. 507, 2009, 285, 291, 294-5]

[6] 1809 March Lucy Gray at Ockbrook to her nephew William Gray at Olgeforth, York. Acc 24/M3, Folded ‘parcel’ with note on front saying: Master Gray Ogleforth York by favour of Miss Dikes. In another hand: Letters to my father from his aunt Lucy Gray and others.

[7] Rev. Arthur Wentworth Eaton (ed) Recollections of a Georgia Loyalist by Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston, written in 1836. New York and London, 1901 [1764- (122, 125-6)

[8] Ibid, p. 149.

[9] Hannah Robertson, The Life of Mrs Robertson,  p. 44 

[10] Faith Hopwood Diary 1764-1810 Acc 5,6,4,235/D1a

[11] James Nelson. An essay on the government of children, under three general heads: viz. health, manners and education. By James Nelson, apothecary. London, 1753.  

[12] William Braidwood, Parental duties illustrated from the word of God, and enforced by a particular account of the salutary influence therein ascribed to the proper government of children; in three sermons, preached to a church of Christ in Richmond Court, Edinburgh (Edinburgh,1792) p. 14

[13] William Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, and (incidentally) to Young Women, in the Middle and higher ranks of life. (First edition 1830, published as an Oxford University Press paperback 1980) p. 310

[14] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, pp.  205-6 210

[15] Ibid, p. 209

[16] The Lady’s Magazine XXXV 1804, p. 5

[17] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, p. 205

[18] The Lady’s Magazine, p. 85

[19] The Lady’s Magazine, 1782, p. 15

[20] Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, p. 310

[21] ibid

[22] The Lady’s Magazine 1783 pp. 131-2

[23] Ibid, pp. 204-5

[24] Gibson, ‘Patterns of Nepotism and Kinship’, p. 385

[25] Gibson, ‘Nepotism, Family, and Merit’, 186.

[26] Thomas Gisborne, Enquiry into the Duties of Man, p. 303-4.

[27] Ibid p. 304

[28] Ibid, p. 312

[29] Gibson, ‘Patterns of Nepotism and Kinship ‘, 382, 388; Gibson, ‘Nepotism, Family, and Merit’, 180.

[30] Braidwood, Parental duties, pp. 13-14

[31] The Lady’s Magazine, 1784, 86

[32] Braidwood, Parental duties, p. 15

[33] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, p.208

[34] Braidwood, Parental duties, pp. 13-14

[35] Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, p. 309

[36] Nelson, An essay on the government of children, p. 208

[37] Notes on MS0232/8

[38] M. Cappe, (ed.), Memoirs of the life of the late Mrs Catharine Cappe. Written by herself

(London, 1822), pp. 18-19.

[39] Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach. Written by Herself. London 1826, 2 vols. 1750-1828 p. 51

[40] Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach, 52

Manly beauty: what can boxers tell us about 18th century masculinity? Part III


The other men in William Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) that I want to talk about are the boxers. In the painting, so evocatively displayed at London Museum, a bare-knuckle prize-fight takes place in the middle-ground. This was a boxing booth opened by James Figg in 1719 on Tottenham Court Road, at the Adam and Eve pub. Figg was one of the first boxers to commercialise the sport, opening his Amphitheatre to teach boxing, fencing, and quarterstaff.[1] George Taylor took over the booth in 1734 and one of the boxers depicted may well be Taylor.[2] We can see its fenced stage, the boxers squaring up to each other, surrounded by a closely packed audience of men, women, and children so avidly watching the match that they pay little attention to the guardsmen behind them. 

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

It is wise not to overlook the fight as merely a lively backdrop to the scenes in the foreground. Nor should we assume the pugilists are a pictorial symbol of cruelty or the brutal habits of the lower orders; a Hogarthian moralising vignette of the callousness of metropolitan life. For Hogarth, the boxer was a signifier of male beauty, his sport was patriotic, and both were closely associated with national identity. So, with that in mind, what can boxers tell us about Georgian masculinity?

Rather a lot, since they were public performers of the most visceral forms of masculinity; indeed, boxing matches were often advertised as ‘trials of manhood’.[3] They were popular with most social ranks. Aristocrats and royalty patronised them and gambled on them and their spectators and followers included most social groups.[4]

Like the soldier, the boxer was a plebeian patriot. Fighters were labouring men drawn most often from trades that depended on upper body strength, like watermen and blacksmiths. They shared other attributes with Hogarth’s soldiers. Controlled violence was their stock in trade. Pugilists were compared to gladiators in the first half of the eighteenth century, for example.[5] Both were prized for their bodily ‘superiority’ – height in the guardsmen’s case, muscularity in the boxers’. The physiques of both were considered ideal examples of manhood.[6] Indeed, it was soldiers and boxers who often acted as life-models for artists and anatomists in the Georgian period, as discussed in the lovely book Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body by Anthea Callen (2018).

Like soldiers, boxers also resolved some of the challenges for masculinity that politeness and, later, sensibility, posed. Karen Downing has shown that in the period from the 1760s to 1815 the ‘gentleman boxer’ answered the question of whether a man could be manly while conforming to the conventions of the ages of politeness and then feeling. A boxer like ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson (1769-1845) resolved these concerns by cultivating the courtesy and gentility of polite sensibility while displaying the vigour and force required to fight to extend and defend an empire.[7]

Charles Turner, after Benjamin Marshall, Mr John Jackson, 1810

We can see the early stages of this being worked out in Hogarth’s art and writings. His boxers offered a mode of manliness that was rough, plain, sturdy, and authentic. Like other artists, Hogarth admired boxers, featuring them in his art as well as discussing them in his 1753 publication The Analysis of Beauty. The English champions James Figg (1684-1734), George Taylor (1716-1758), and Jack Broughton (1704-1789) served as models for his art.

Figg appeared in Southwark Fair, 1732, the figure on the right, riding in on horseback, A Midnight Modern Conversation, and plate 2 of a Rake’s Progress – the wigged prize-fighter bearing his quarterstaffs. Hogarth also depicted a naked Taylor on his design for the famous prize-fighter’s tombstone. Taylor’s muscular physique in these plates demonstrates why boxers were used as nude life-models – like the other plebeian labouring men who acted as life-models, their work led them to have defined musculature.[8]

William Hogarth, George Taylor Triumphing over Death, c.1750, Tate T08212

The role of such men was to be living examples of classical statuary, in pose, proportions and physical type.[9] They were looked at and studied by both artists and anatomists in art academies and associated events. Hogarth, for example, likely used such life-models at St Martin’s Lane Academy, which had been reopened in 1735 under his leadership. Johan Zoffany joined St Martin’s shortly after arriving in London in 1760 and this is the only known depiction of a life-drawing class there. The figure in red is a porter and occasional model at St Martin’s, who was also the first porter at the Royal Academy, founded in 1768.

Johan Zoffany, An Academy by Lamplight, A Life Class at St Martin’s Lane Academy 1761-2

The Royal Academy appointed a Professor of Anatomy to lecture artists on the human form. The first holder of the post was William Hunter, who assumed widespread familiarity with boxers when describing motion and musculature as:

essential to painters and sculptors … Everything that we have seen acted in reality at Broughton’s Amphitheatre at Saddlers Wells, and such places and every thing that we see done on the Stage, in the way of imitation by the Comedian or the Tragedian, is nothing but a skilful exercise of muscular motion.[10]

Johan Zoffany’s painting shows Hunter alongside his lecture props: a skeleton, the Hunter écorché (aplaster standing-figure, flayed to display musculature) and a life model (most likely a pugilist) echoing its pose.[11] Hunter is even said to have stolen the hanged body of a famous Irish pugilist sentenced to death for murder, and made a cast of his corpse; which he used to teach anatomy at the Royal Academy.[12]

It is worth reiterating that these elite men were looking at labourers’ bodies not just to acquire knowledge about function and form; but because these plebeian men were considered aesthetic and gender ideals.[13] Classical bodies shaped ideas of the ‘beauty of proportion’ for men as well as women. Although we tend to think of Hogarth as an artist of satirical types – the faces and forms of his protagonists often distorted and designed to convey character, behaviour, and morals, he also saw beauty of form as crucial to understanding the world. In his Analysis of Beauty (1753) he theorised abut the aesthetic basis of art and experience, setting out the characteristics of beauty both in art and nature.[14] This was no elite discourse, his observations had their roots in metropolitan life. Thus, he used boxers as an example of people’s instinctive understanding of beauty and proportion.

As he says:

almost every one is farther advanced in the knowledge of this speculative part of the proportion than he imagines; especially he who has been used to observe naked figures doing bodily exercise, and more especially if he be any way interested in the success of them; and the better he is acquainted with the nature of the exercise itself, still the better judge he becomes of the figure that is to perform it. For this reason, no sooner are two boxers stripped to fight, but even a butcher, thus skilled, shows himself a considerable critic in proportion; and, on this sort of judgment, often gives, or takes the odds, at bare sight only of the combatants. I have heard a blacksmith harangue like an anatomist, or sculptor, on the beauty of a boxer’s figure, though not, perhaps in the same terms; and I firmly believe, that one of our common proficients in the athletic art, would be able to instruct and direct the best sculptor living, who has not seen, or is wholly ignorant of this exercise, in what would give the statue of an English boxer a much better proportion, as to character, than is to be seen, even in the famous group of antique boxers, or, as some call them, Roman wresters, so much admired to this day.[15]

Here Hogarth considers English boxers to be superior to the Wrestlers, a classical sculpture that was reproduced in antique cast rooms in large form for students to draw from, and in small form as a decorative ornament.[16] This is significant for notions of Georgian manliness more generally, since men’s bodies were a crucial factor in the construction and evaluation of masculinity with classical forms as the standard against which all ideals were compared.

Hogarth discusses, for example, the statue of Antinous, as ‘the most perfect… of any of the antique statues’, showing ‘a manly strength in its proportion’ from its head to its foot.[17] This is illustrated in his plate I, a statuary yard, where he depicts well-known classical statues.

Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753, Plate 1, Statuary Yard at Hyde Park Corner (Royal Academy). Antinous is on the left, next to the dance-master. The Apollo Belvedere is found on the right on a pedestal.

This demonstrates that the huge muscular form of Atlas or Hercules was less appealing in the Georgian era than the more youthful graceful forms of the Antinous and Apollo Belvedere. The ideal manly body of a dexterous carriage and poise and clean-shaven face was influenced by historically-specific factors as diverse as polite sociability, the culture of sensibility, Georgian military techniques, and ideas about physical exercise, diet, and health. The mature Herculean body-type only came to symbolise muscular Christianity in the later nineteenth century, shaped by ideas of empire and warfare, namely new weaponry that required skirmish and light infantry battle techniques (I talk more about this in my article).

As you will see from his art, Hogarth was a proponent of physiognomy, the practice of reading outward appearance, faces and bodies, to reveal inner character.[18] Thus, for Hogarth the body and its capacities and actions shaped function and character – but also, it should be noted – gender. He argues that ‘a fat, bloated person, does not call to mind the character of a Silenus, till we have joined the idea of voluptuousness with it’.[19] In Greek mythology, Silenus was an older satyr associated with wine-making and drunkenness. Here – and in his pictorial series – Hogarth was pre-empting one of the principal ways in which unmanliness would be represented in the Georgian period – as the inability to master one’s appetites. As I will explore at length in my book, vice and lack of self-control were understood to produce a corrupt, unhealthy, unappealing body which was deployed in representations throughout the later Georgian and Victorian periods to stimulate disgust and thus encourage men to avoid the behaviours that would undermine their masculinity – and, therefore, society (For more on the male body in the 19th century, see Joanne Parsons and Ruth Heholt (eds), The Victorian Male Body).

His manly bodies were not simply emulations of classical standards of male beauty. The inferior version of manliness that he contrasted with the ideal in his illustrative plate and details was the dance-master. He uses this less favourable type of masculinity, that I have discussed in part I of this series of posts, as the foil for both Antinous and Hercules. Check out the plate above, to see how Hogarth contrasts the fop’s ‘stiff and straight’ pose with the ‘easy sway’ of Antinous.[20]

Hogarth was an artist of urban humanity, not simply classical aesthetics, and thus he thought it essential to identify the role of function in creating form. As such, it was often the plebeian male body in motion that was the subject of his examination of male proportion, evident where he discusses the ways in which men’s labour shaped their bodies: ‘so likewise strength to support, and clumsiness of figure, are united, as well in the character of an Atlas as in a porter’. Don’t forget that one of the life-models at St Martin’s Academy was a porter.

Hogarth is fascinated by the working-man’ real body:

When we consider the great weight chairmen often have to carry, do we not readily consent that there is a propriety and fitness in the Tuscan order of their legs, by which they properly become characters as to figure?

Watermen too, are of a distinct cast, or character, whose legs are no less remarkable for their smallness; for as there is naturally the greatest call for nutriment to the parts that are most exercised, so of course these that lie so much stretched out, are apt to dwindle, or not grow to their full size. There is scarcely a waterman that rows upon the Thames, whose figure does not confirm this observation. Therefore, were I to paint the character of a Charon [Greek mythology: Ferryman of the Dead], I would thus distinguish his make from that of a common man’s; and, in spite of the word low, venture to give him a broad pair of shoulders, and spindle shanks, whether I had the authority an antique statue, or basso-relievo, for it or not’. [21]

The common man was important, he was not to be dismissed as low, and was the model for authenticity. It has been argued that Hogarth’s ‘language of aesthetics is an unashamedly predatory and erotized one, in which visual pleasure is related most closely to the perspectives of the wandering masculine eye, pursuing the alluring forms and outlines of the ever-elusive female body’. This is true perhaps, but it is not an entirely ‘chauvinist erotics’, since he viewed and described the male body as beautiful, typically the plebeian muscular body.[22]

Here again we see the roots of what developed even more strongly in the long nineteenth century, as I’ll show in my new book – the aestheticization, even eroticisation of working men’s bodies in textual, visual, and material culture. You can see that with Ford Madox Brown’s Work as an example (significantly, Mark Hallett notes how Brown was influenced by Hogarth’s art). Idealised working men’s bodies were offered as exemplars of manliness for middle-class men. Increasingly, working men were imagined, consumed, and deployed in constructions of manliness and by the second half of the nineteenth century idealised men’s physicality was not only associated with national identity and strength, they also symbolised economic prosperity.

Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-63

Boxers were an early progenitor. As we see in Hogarth’s art, from the early eighteenth century, they were offering entertainment and sport in fairs and prize-fights and selling training in various forms of combat in specialised locations to paying male customers. Their fans’ and followers’ emotions were stirred by their bodies, their actions, and their cultural representations. Hogarth shows the passion of the spectators – one man mirroring the fighters’ stance. Again, we hear Hogarth – the shouting, the sounds of blows on flesh.

This became more explicit over time with celebrity boxers of the later Georgian period, and the sale of their images in material culture, visual culture, and eventually photographs. Their diets and regimes would become fashionable for young men, most famously, perhaps, Lord Byron, who like other men followed such training as assiduously as possible to achieve health and physical fitness.


The March of the Guards to Finchley tells us more than we might expect about Georgian masculinity. It enlarges our understanding of what constituted manliness – beyond the polite genteel man, or the many forms of masculinity to avoid – by offering insights into the allure and ambivalences of the plebeian model of masculinity.

Hogarth has a reputation for making ‘popular heroes’ – as we see in Beer Street where the ‘stout and jovial’ men’s bodies represent ‘the body politic in a state of health and comfort’.[23] The Beer Street men, however, are somewhat too comfortable and prosperous to defend a nation.

So, in Hogarth’s robust soldiers and boxers we see virility and violence, both considered essential components of a forceful masculinity fit for a modern commercial colonising nation.[24] Like the guardsmen, boxers conveyed national as well as gender identity through their pugnacious and patriotic bodies. As Matthew Craske observes, Hogarth celebrated English people’s riotous tendencies as a feature of their national character: ‘a physical manifestation of the national proclivity towards liberty’.[25] This contrasted with the perceived authoritarianism of continental states, but also indicated the capacity of Englishmen to stay on the right side of libertinism.[26]

The men at the heart of The March of the Guards to Finchley embody the notion of the ‘plain’ man that the English have cultivated and admired from the eighteenth century onwards. It is a model of masculinity that prizes authenticity over artificial manners, demonstrated by a plain, bluff appearance and rough behaviours, supposedly indicating honesty and usefulness. It is a type of manliness that has its roots in a plebeian culture, and while potentially dangerous to society, can at times be seen to be the saviour of the nation and is often deployed even by elite men to gain approbation.

[1] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.

[2] David Day, ‘”An Art and a Science”: Eighteenth-Century Sports Training’ in Rebekka von Mallinkrodt and Angela Schattner, Sports and Physical Exercise in Early Modern Cultures: New Perspectives on the History of Sports and Motion.

[3] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.

[4] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 26, 29.

[5] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 32-3.

[6] Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer: Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number 3, April 2010, 343

[7] Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer: Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number 3, April 2010, 334.

[8] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 73.

[9] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 79.

[10] Martin Postle (ed) Johan Zoffany RA Society Observed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 223. Joseph Turner drew the écorchéin 1791 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-full-length-corche-figure-r1140308

[11] Martin Postle (ed) Johan Zoffany RA Society Observed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 223.

[12] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 82.

[13] Boddy sees Hogarth’s early interest in pugilists as life-models as related to his interest in proportion relating to function in the Analysis of Beauty rather than academicians later who she suggests saw them as approximations of pre-determined ideals of beauty. I think he saw them as beautiful. Even in the Taylor images he uses the linear curve that he associate with beauty above him. 66-7.

[14] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, 240

[15] William, Hogarth, The analysis of beauty (1753), Paulson, Ronald Publication date 1997 Topics Aesthetics Publisher New Haven, Conn. : Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art by Yale University Press Archive.com pp. 144-5.

[16] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, 69

[17] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 146.

[18] http://exhibits.library.northwestern.edu/spec/hogarth/physiognomics.html

[19] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 150

[20] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 9

[21] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 150-1

[22] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, 253-4.

[23] Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, London, Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, 2000, p. 66-7.

[24] Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, London, Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, 2000, p. 22,

[25] Craske, William Hogarth, p. 48

[26] Craske, William Hogarth, p. 49-50.

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 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/haywood/effeminacy_in_the_army/&gt;. 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.

[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

Grunting and groaning: descriptions of pregnancy

I’ve nearly finished writing about perceptions of pregnancy and will be heading off to the conference tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a short post about one of the accounts of the late stages of pregnancy, which particularly caught my attention.

In writing my paper about people’s descriptions of pregnancy, I have been fascinated by the mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’ terms used in the later Georgian period in Britain. This was a time when childbirth had shifted thanks to men midwives and the professionalization of paediatrics. New information was being circulated in printed manuals and cultural fashions like sensibility dictated how one should talk about women’s bodies. Nonetheless, a ‘traditional’ and rather earthier language of ‘breeding’ survived alongside more refined terms like ‘expecting’.

For example, the clergyman Edward Leathes of Norfolk wrote to his wife’s parents in 1775 to report on her progress:

I now think Betsey’s prodigious size is the strangest phenomena that ever was. Had it been her lot to have been born a male, she would have been an excellent Dutch Tailor as they are generally reputed the worst because they are more frequently out in their reckoning than any others, however, to be serious, we are not without our forebodings that the little Master or Miss which ever it may be will not tarry much longer as Betsey is arrived at certain period called a Grunter which as the Old Women term is the certain forerunner of a Groaning.

This charming update makes a humorous play on both Betsey’s inaccuracy of dating her pregnancy (a fairly common experience before pregnancy tests!) and the cruder terms for physical size and the pains of childbirth. I’m delighted by this image of the rather huge Betsey grunting when she rose from her chair, levered herself into or out of bed, or moved around, which Edward sees as the ‘forerunner of a Groaning’.

Groaning-CakeThis ‘Old Woman’ term as he puts it was the profoundly descriptive term for the pains of labour. Indeed, ‘groaning’ was so associated with childbirth in the early modern period that it lent its name to groaning-beer, groaning-cheese and groaning-cakes (recipes still circulated today!): beverage and food served during labour if not for the mother then at least for the women who attended her. The groaning was also an evocative metaphor for the lying-in period after birth, and the groaning-chair, a chair in which women received visitors after the birth. Here one imagines the groaning shifted slightly to its other meaning of complaining.

As well as the archaic and the new mixing in this narrative of pregnancy, I’m also struck by the combination of foreboding and humour. One of the things I’ve been pursuing in the paper in its fuller form is how ‘emotion words’ used about pregnancy could alleviate the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of pregnancy – such as the inaccuracy of timing with Edward Leathes discusses here. I’ll talk more about what a history of emotions approach can tell us about pregnancy in future posts.


Many thanks to Dr Michael James for sharing the Leathes correspondence with me. For more on this fascinating family, see Michael’s PhD thesis: ‘The effect on family life during the late Georgian period of indisposition, medication, treatments and the resultant outcomes’ (2010) available here: https://radar.brookes.ac.uk/radar/items/c8713003-2c2c-4b3c-e197-314e6e8b25cd/1/

Manliness in the form of sailors who shed a tear 1760-1860

I had the honour of presenting a paper at the ‘Gendering the Maritime World’ at the National Maritime Museum on Thursday 24 April.

The symposium was tremendously thought-provoking and had a fantastic range of papers and observations from attendees. More will emerge from the day, I believe, in the shape of blog posts and journal publications. For now, here is the link to my Prezi presentation if anyone would like to have a look at my contribution!


For more on tears check out Thomas Dixon’s work here and here.

Having done a little work on images of sailors for this paper, I have found my new historical desire and ambition, which is to do some research on all the wonderful images of the sailor’s ‘farewell’ and ‘return’ held in this collection, such as this one –

sailor's return

This is Thomas Stothard’s The Sailor’s Return in Peace (1798) held in the NMM’s collection http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/12617.html.

I can highly recommend a browse of the NMM’s online collection for any kind of historian!