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

[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 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.


[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.

There be dragons: research outside my expertise

I’m doing some reading on St George, a (probably mythical) Roman martyred for his Christianity in the third or early fourth century, eventually patron saint of England, as well as lots of other countries. This is not my usual field of research. But new projects take you in surprising directions. I’m working on what it meant to be a man in England from 1750 to 1918 and without actively looking I have been noticing images of St George appearing in my sources. This might be because I am a great fan of a man in armour.

St George c 1500 German engraving

Wikimedia Commons German Engraving c 1500

Yet, more pertinently, I’ve arrived at that stage of analysing lots of data where I’ve begun to see some wood for the trees. I’m detecting what values made up the concept of ‘manliness’. And guess what? St George seems to embody lots of the features I’m identifying. This might not surprise anyone who is familiar with the late Victorian and Edwardian period who thinks of a chivalric style of muscular Christianity as shaping masculinity. Although my impression was that no-one had really unpicked the association. Furthermore, it is important for my overarching research in the long run, because I’m coming to think that manliness was the way people thought about being a man much earlier than the later nineteenth century.

In the short term, however, I’m preparing a symposium paper. You see, when I was asked to speak I happened to be thinking about St George and the Dragon and so I suggested this theme for the paper. Thus, now I have to pin down some nebulous thoughts, provide the historiography, gather some evidence, construct an argument and write the paper! I’m writing about the process of doing this for a couple of reasons. It is partly to force myself to write about a topic which is scaring me off because it leads in several directions away from my comfort zones. It is also in order to share what I do as an academic with others. I have already written a post on the theoretical framework which I need to address – that is always the most difficult bit for me, so I did it first here.

Now I am turning to the patron saint himself. Like most of us I imagine, my initial stage of research is to Google – so I googled St George. Then I did some searching on Historical Abstracts, and Bibliography of British and Irish History to see what historians have published on him. This showed a fairly limited set of works devoted (ha, ‘cult’ joke there) to St George. On reading this secondary literature, I felt reasonably confident that my first instinct was correct and that not much has been published on St George and masculine identities, although there is fascinating analysis of the medieval cult and St George’s role in national identity formation.

Jonathan Good’s book The Cult of St George in Medieval England (2009) for example traces St George’s meaning and popularity from his origins and arrival in England to the late medieval period, with a particularly useful last chapter (for me) on his history after the Reformation. I’ve learned that the saint’s military qualities appealed to English medieval monarchs (Edward I to Henry VII) who used him to cement their authority, justify war with parts of the British Isles, and support crusades. In fact, with striking (and unexpected) resonance for me given my focus on the ‘intimate public sphere,’ Jonathan Bengston’s article ‘St George and the Formation of English nationalism’ argues that by making George ‘a divine national hero’ the monarchy deployed his cult to establish ‘an intimacy with the people which it could not otherwise have easily achieved’ (p. 317). Indeed, as Good demonstrates, guilds dedicated to the saint suggest that his cult was popular with a much wider section of society until the eighteenth century.


Wikimedia Commons, The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon, artist unknown.

In many respects it is St George’s famous association with chivalry that interests me with regards to manliness. This was in place from early in his history as national patron, encompassed in his image as warrior and knight, but cemented – of course – by his association with the dragon (date of this is debated) enabling him to become the rescuer. It was perhaps George’s chivalric associations that help explain his decline in popularity in the long eighteenth century and rise in the nineteenth, alongside a more general enthusiasm for an imagined chivalric past, as described in Mark Girouard’s book The Return to Camelot (1985)

Okay, so far so good. Last week I was still congratulating myself on the novelty of linking St George more explicitly with masculinity; a connection that seems only to have been identified in passing in the scholarship I’d come across, including Joseph Kestner’s Masculinities in Victorian Painting (1995). My Googling had even paid off by alerting me that Sam Riches, a historian of art has written about St George, via her electronic review of Good’s book.

Next day: bump. Down to earth; for my final stage in considering St George as a marker of masculine identity came along. This one which always strikes me at some point when entering the uncharted lands of another era/topic/approach. I found a publication whose title suggests someone else has been there and got the t-shirt. Scanning Good’s bibliography I saw: ‘The Pre-Raphaelites, St George and the construction of masculinity’ by Joseph Kestner in Collecting the Pre-Raphaelites: the Anglo-American Enchantment edited by Margaretta Watson (1997).

Why hadn’t I seen this on the bibliographic databases? Don’t know. I don’t think I missed it, and I wonder if it is because Kestner is categorised as art history. Anyway – crappity crap-crap.


Wikimedia Commons, Edward Burne Jones, The fight: St George kills the dragon VI 1866 (gorgeous isn’t it?)

Okay, so I have confirmed again that I have no new ideas. But I steeled myself and while waiting for my son while he had his hair cut on Saturday, I read the chapter. Thankfully, it is short and it is focused. Kestner states that St George was ‘a central tenet of the construction of masculinity (with all the attendant allied virtues of courage, valour, loyalty, comradeship)’ (p. 150), thereby summing up much of what I was delighted at noticing – except nearly twenty years earlier. And yet, yet; I realise I can still go somewhere with this.

I want to explore these manly values far more explicitly. They are too often taken for granted by historians, perceived to be ‘obvious’ later Victorian and Edwardian symbols of masculine identity. The longevity of St George helps me think more about this chronology, which is something I’m already doing more generally with manliness. Kestner is interested in what painting the subject of St George did to reinforce the masculinity and status of the Pre-Raphaelite artists themselves. Rightly or wrongly I want to look at the way the imagining of the appearance of the Saint evoked changing styles of manliness. Also, Kestner frames his consideration of St George in the theoretical framework of a curious (for me) focus on the phallus as representing hegemonic patriarchy. This has little appeal for me as a historian. Instead, I want to think about the imagery as a way to gain insights into a wider cultural understanding of masculine identities in the context of a more nuanced approach to hegemonic masculinity. Thanks to the theme of the symposium at which I’m first airing this, I am using a theoretical framework of intimacy, power and authority.

The next tasks in writing this paper (and ones I’d better get on with ASAP) are (1) figure out a bit about how St George fits with ideas about manliness and (2) put that together with the theme of intimacy, power, and authority. That’s all.