Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Widow Hogarth and her lodger


On the 26th day of October, 1764, died William Hogarth. Very ailing and feeble in body, but still with his heart up and his mind, as ever, quick and vigorous and full of life, he had moved on the day before from his pleasant snug cottage at Chiswick to his town house in Leicester Fields. He turned now and then in his bed uneasily, as he felt the venomous slanders of Wilkes and Churchill still wounding and stinging him like mosquito bites: else was the good little man at peace. “I have invariably endeavoured to make those about me tolerably happy.” “My greatest enemy cannot say I ever did an intentional injury.” So he wrote at the close of his life; and there was much love for him in the world, culminating in his own household. His servants all had been years and years in his service, he had painted their portraits and hung them up in his house; there is homage to both master and servants in the fact. After all, a man may, if he chooses, be a hero even to his valet de chambre. None could have dreamt the end was so near; it is not known that any doctor was attending him. He had read and answered a letter in the morning; fatigued with the effort, he had retired to bed. He was alone when the fatal attack came on, the “suffusion of blood among the arteries of the heart.” Starting up, he rang the bell with a violence that broke it in pieces; they had not thought so much strength remained to him. He fell back fainting in the arms of Mary Lewis, his wife’s niece; she had lived in his house all her life, and was his confidential assistant in publishing and selling his prints. She supported the poor creature for two hours, and he drew his last breath in her arms.

Widow Hogarth wore her deep crape, be sure, with an aching void in her heart, and an acute sense of the painful wrench to her life caused by this bereavement. A fine stately woman still, though she was now fifty-five. She had sat for Sigismunda but six years back (the dreadful mistake in historical art which poor William had vainly perpetrated in emulation of Correggio). Something of the beauty of the Jane Thornhill, who thirty years before had stolen away with her lover to be married at the little village church of Paddington, must have yet remained. The interment, as all the world knows, took place in Chiswick Churchyard; a quiet funeral, with more tears than ostrich-plumes, more sorrow than black silk. It was not for some six or seven years after, that the sculptured tomb was erected, and Garrick and Johnson calmly discussed the wording of the epitaph. It is “no easy thing,” wrote the doctor. Time had something numbed their sense of loss when they sat down to exchange poetical criticism, though habit is overpowering; and it would have taken a good deal, at any time, to have disturbed Johnson from his wonted pose of reviewer; just as the dying sculptor in the story, receiving extreme unction from his priest, found time to complain of the mal-execution of the crucifix held to his lips. “Pictured morals,” he wrote, “is a beautiful expression, but learn and mourn cannot stand for rhymes. Art and Nature have been seen together too often. In the first stanza is feeling, in the second feel. If thou hast neither is quite prose, and prose of the familiar kind,” &c., &c.

William dead and buried, the window shutters reopened, and heaven’s glad light once more permitted to stream into the house, the red eyes of the household a little cooled and staunched, came the widow’s dreadful task of examining the property of the deceased, of picking up the fragment’s that remained. How to live? Survivors have often to make that painful inquiry. There was little money in the house. The painter’s life had been hard-working enough; the labourer was willing, but the harvest was very scanty. Such a little art public! such low prices! The six “Marriage à la Mode” pictures were sold for one hundred and twenty guineas, including Carlo Maratti frames, that had cost the painter four guineas each. The eight “Rake’s Progress” pictures fetched twenty-two guineas each. The six “Harlot’s Progress,” fourteen guineas each. The “Strolling Players " went for twenty-six guineas! O purblind connoisseurs! Dullard dillettanti! Still there was something for the widow; not her wedding portion—that seems to have been long ago melted away. Sir James Thornhill had been forgiving, kind, and generous after a time—two years—and opened to the runaway lovers his heart and his purse. But there was little to show for all that now. There hung on the walls various works of the dead hand. Portraits of the Miss Hogarths, the painter’s sisters; they kept a ready-made clothes shop at Little Britain gate. Portraits of the daughter of Mr. Rich, the comedian; of Sir James and Lady Thornhill; of the six servants; and his own likeness, with his bull-dog and palette; besides these there was the great effort, “Bill Hogarth’s ‘Sigismunda,’ not to be sold under £500;” so he had enjoined. Alas! who would give it? (At the sale after the widow’s death it was knocked down to Alderman Boydell, for fifty guineas!) Indeed, it would be very hard to sell all these; and she did not. She clung to the precious relics till death relaxed her grasp, when the auctioneer’s hammer made short work of the painter’s remains, even to his maul-stick. But to live? There were seventy-two plates, with the copyrights, secured to her for twenty years by Act of Parliament. These were hers absolutely under her husband’s will. Here at least was subsistence; indeed, the sale of prints from the plates produced, for a time, a respectable income. And then, too, there was the gold ticket of admission to Vauxhall Gardens (for the admission of six persons, or “one coach”), presented by the proprietor in his gratitude for the designs of the “Four Parts of the Day” (copied by Hayman), and the two scenes of “Evening,” and “Night,” with representations of Henry the Eighth and Anne Boleyn.

And the house at Chiswick was a possession of Hogarth’s. It was not then choked up with buildings, but stood cosy and secluded in its well-stored garden of walnut, mulberry, and apple trees, with the head-stones to the poor fellow’s pets—the bullfinch and dog Dick, who died the same year as his master; and a very old mulberry tree, stricken by lightning, and only held together by the iron braces made by his directions, perhaps applied with his own hands. How full of memorials of the dead painter! Pen-and-ink sketches on the panels of the wainscoted room on the ground floor; and the painting-room over the stables, with its large window, probably one of his improvements on first taking the house, looking on to the pleasant garden below. Doubtless the widow locked up the painting-room, and kept the key on the ring at her girdle. Years after, Sir Richard Phillips jotted down his memories of Chiswick—how he, a schoolboy then with his eyes just above the pew door, the bells in the old tower chiming for church, watched “Widow Hogarth and her maiden relative, Richardson, walking up the aisle, draped in their silken sacks, their raised head-dresses, their black calashes, their lace ruffles, and their high crooked canes, preceded by their aged servant Samuel: who after he had wheeled his mistress to church in her Bath-chair, carried the prayer-books up the aisle, and opened and shut the pew.” State and dignity still remained to the widow; and there, up in the organ loft, was the quaint group of choristers whom Hogarth had so admirably sketched, led by the Sexton Mortefee, grimacing dreadfully as he leads on his terrible band to discord. A square, ugly church enough, with the great Devonshire pew—a small parlour with the roof off—half blocking up the chancel, a thing to be forgiven then, for the lovely Duchess sat there, and the sight of her angel head was surely enough to give new zest to the congregation’s prayers and praises. A church such as Hogarth often drew, with its “three-decker” arrangement of pulpits, the clerk, the reader, and the preacher, rising one above the other, and, top of all, one of those old regulation massive, carved sounding-boards, which gave so queer a Jack-in-the-box notion to the pulpit, that dreamers in dreary sermons, heedless of George Herbert’s counsel that if nothing else the sermon “preacheth patience,” could not but speculate on cutting off the bar that supported the board, letting it fall, and so, as it were, by one process bottling up both preacher and preaching.

The house in Leicester Fields also remained: the house on the east side of the square, called the “Golden Head,” with its sign cut by Hogarth himself from pieces of cork glued together, and gilded over. He often took his evening walk in the enclosure in his scarlet roquelaire and cocked hat, now and then, no doubt, casting admiring glances at his gaudy emblem. The Fields were only just merging into the Square. We learn that in 1745, the streets were so thinly built in the neighbourhood, that “when the heads of the Scottish rebels were placed on Temple Bar, a man stood in Leicester Fields, with a telescope, to give persons a sight of them for a halfpenny a-piece.” Just as we are offered a view of Saturn’s rings from Charing Cross! Hogarth’s house now forms part of a French hotel. The lean French cook, staggering under the roast beef in the “Gates of Calais” picture has been amply revenged. The fumes of French ragouts incessantly rise, on the site where the cruel caricature was drawn.

It is hard to say when the widow’s income first began to droop—when the demand for William Hogarth’s prints slackened. They circulated largely, but their price was never high. The eight prints of the “Rake’s Progress” could be purchased at Mrs. Hogarth’s house, in Leicester Fields, for one guinea; “Lord Lovat,” “Beer Street,” and “Gin Lane” for a shilling each only, and all the others could be obtained upon like easy terms. It cannot be told when the bill first appeared in Widow Hogarth’s window—“Lodgings to Let.” But eight years after William’s death there was certainly a lodger in the house in Leicester Fields—a lodger who could exclaim, “I also am a painter!”

Alexander Runciman was born in Edinburgh, in 1736. His father an architect, of course the baby soon began to play with the parental pencils. That is not remarkable—but he evidenced rather more ability than the average baby artist. At twelve he was out in the fields with paints and brushes, filling a sketch-book with unripe counterfeits of rocks, clouds, trees and water; at fourteen he was a student under John Norris, whom it pleased the period to regard as an eminent landscape painter. He was the wildest enthusiast in the studio—and there are generally a good many wild enthusiasts in a studio. “Other artists,” said one of his comrades, “talked meat and drink, but Runciman talked landscape!” At nineteen he renounced further tutelage, and started on his own account as a landscape painter. He commenced to exhibit his works. Every one praised, but unfortunately no one purchased. The market seemed to be only for the show, not the sale of goods. The notion of the many seemed to be that Art was an absurd luxury, which only the very few could indulge in. A middle-class man would have been considered very eccentric and extravagant who in those days bought a picture, unless it happened to be his own portrait. There was some demand for portrait painting—that paid—if you, the painter, were nearly at the head of your profession. Poor Wilson had given up portraiture, and soon found himself painting landscapes, and starving the while. It was like keeping a shop full of nothing but boots too big to fit any one. So Runciman found quickly enough—and with characteristic un-reason abandoned landscapes and took to historical art, which, being in much less request even than landscape painting, rather enhanced and quickened his chances of starvation. Somehow he struggled on. At thirty it occurred to him that he had never been to Rome, and that fact had probably confined his powers and limited his prosperity. He packed up his things—an easy task—and, with a very small purse—that he should have had one at all was the marvel—set out for the south. He was soon, of course, on his knees, in the regular way, doing homage to Raphael and M. Angelo. There are always professional conventions; it was as necessary then for the artist to be rapt and deliriously enthusiastic about his calling as for the lawyer to wear a wig and gown.

At Rome he swore friendship with Fuseli. The Scot was the elder, but the Swiss the more learned. They had probably both quite made up their minds about art before they met, and what drew them together was very much the similarity of their opinions. Neither was liable to change of view, let who would be the teacher. Runciman no more took his style from Fuseli, than Fuseli from Runciman, and the unquestionable resemblance between their works was only the natural result of an identity of idiosyncrasy. They both worked hard together, making painstaking copies of the great masters. “Runciman, I am sure you will like,” Fuseli wrote home, “he is one of the best of us here.” No doubt Fuseli found him quite a kindred spirit—mad as himself about heroic art—possessed with like insane extacies—like pell-mell execution—like whirling, extravagant drawing—like wild ideas interpreted by a like wild hand, and a like execrable nankeen and slate tone of colour. Runciman returned in 1771, and proceeding to Edinburgh, arrived just in time to receive the vacant situation of professor of painting to the academy established in Edinburgh College, in the year 1760. The salary was £120 a-year. The artist accepted the appointment gleefully, and, had his knowledge and his taste been equal to his enthusiasm, few could have better fulfilled the duties of his office. Soon he began to dream of a series of colossal pictures that should make his name live for ever in the annals of art. The dream took form. There were but two or three men in Scotland who would even hear out the project. Fortunately he lighted on one of these: Sir James Clerk consented to the embellishment of his hall at Pennyciuck with a series of pictures from Ossian, by the hand of Runciman.

Ossian was the rage—quotations from the blind bard of Morven were in every one’s mouth. True, Dr. Samuel Johnson, who loved to thrust his brave fist through a sham (though he was tricked in the Cock Lane business), had denounced the whole thing as an imposition “as gross as ever the world was troubled with.” Dr. Blair wrote in defence, “Could any man, of modern age, have written such poems?” “Why yes, sir,” was the answer—“Many men, many women, and many children.” Macpherson wrote offensively and violently to Dr. Samuel, who replied heartily enough—“I received your foolish and impudent letter . . . . I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian . . . I thought your book an imposture. I think so still. Your rage I defy,” &c., &c. What was all this to Runciman? He had no learning—he cared nothing for antiquarianism. He took for granted that Ossian was authentic. Many North of the Tweed looked upon it merely as a national question. Macpherson was a Scotchman, therefore it was the duty of Scotchmen to side with him. His condemners were English, and were jealous, of course, and wrong no doubt. Runciman was hard at work at Pennyciuck, painting as for his life, while all this discussion was going on, and Macpherson and his friends were striving might and main to produce an ancient manuscript anything like the published poem, and so confute and silence Johnson Goldsmith, Burke, Garrick and lastly Boswell, who did not even pair with the doctor on the occasion, though the question did affect Scotland. Runciman had sketched out and commenced his twelve great pictures. 1. Ossian singing to Malvina. 2. The Valour of Oscar. 3. The Death of Oscar, &c., &c. Who reads Ossian now? Who cares about Agandecca, “with red eyes of tears”—“with loose and raven locks.” “Starno pierced her side with steel. She fell like a wreath of snow which slides from the rocks of Ronan.” Who knows anything now about Catholda, and Corban Cargloss, and Golchossa and Cairbar of the gloomy brow? For some time the poems held their own, retained their popularity; their partizans fought with their opponents for every inch of ground, even though discovery was mining them. And some fragments found their way in a fashion to the stage. Is there not a living ballet master, not very young now, who owes his baptismal name to parental success in the grand ballet of “Oscar and Malvina, or the Cave of Fingal?” But this must have been years after Runciman. The poems had merit, and that floated them for a long time, but the leak of falsehood made its way—they sunk at last. And Macpherson? Well, if a poet will be a forger, he must prepare to be remembered by posterity rather for his fraud than his poetry.

He found time to paint some other subjects as well. An “Ascension” on the ceiling over the altar of the Episcopal chapel in the Cowgate of Edinburgh—a wild and ungraceful work according to Cunningham, speaking of it from recollection, though Runciman thought very highly of it. But he had patrons and critics very loud in their applause. In his picture of “The Princess Nausicaa and her Nymphs surprised at the riverside by Ulysses,” one connoisseur detected “the fine drawing of Julio Romano,” another, “the deep juicy lustre of Tintoret,” and a third “a feeling and air altogether the painter’s own,” which last is probable. In 1772 he exhibited some pictures in London. At all events, there was no bill in Widow Hogarth’s window then, for the lodgings were let, and Alexander Runciman was the lodger.

“She let lodgings for subsistence,” so runs the story. The demand for William Hogarth’s prints had nearly died out. Still they must have brought in some little income. But twenty years after his death the copyrights had expired—the poor woman’s hope from this source was clean gone. She was then absolutely living by her lodgings, and it was not until three years more “that the King interposed with the Royal Academy, and obtained for her an annuity of forty pounds.” Poor Widow Hogarth! Yet she would not sell her William’s pictures left in his house!

Much of the untamed, unmanageable, heterodox nature of Runciman’s art pertained to his life generally. Gay, free-thinking, prankish—with a tendency to late-houred habits that must have often scandalised his landlady—and a talent for conversation rare amongst artists, who, as a rule, express their thoughts better by their brushes than their speech; kind-hearted, sociable, never behind in passing the bottle, no wonder he gathered round him a group of eminent men of his day, most of them with attributes much like his own, who did not flinch from strong outspeaking, who were not shocked by many things. Kames, Monboddo, Hume, and Robertson knocked at the late William Hogarth’s door, and paid their respects to Widow Hogarth’s lodger. Did she ever stand before his easel and contemplate his works? Doubtless often enough when the painter was out firing off his smart cracker sayings, and making away with his port wine. And what did she think of his art? How different to William’s! She could understand him always. There was always nature on his canvass, and meaning and common sense—there was always a story plainly, forcibly told. But Mr. Runciman’s meanings were not so clear. What was all the smoke about, and the waving arms, and the distorted features, and the Bedlamite faces, and, oh! the long legs and the flying draperies? Surely draperies never did fly like that—at least, William never painted them so. And then—really this was too much—he, Alexander Runciman, in that house had presumed to paint a “Sigismunda weeping over the heart of Tancred,” with William’s treatment of the same great subject actually in the house! To bed, Widow Hogarth, in a rage.

Of course Runciman had his opinion about Hogarth and his art, despising both, no doubt, and agreeing with Fuseli in deeming him a caricaturist merely, and his works “the chronicle of scandal and the history book of the vulgar.” It was so much nobler to pourtray wild contortions from Ossian, demoniac nightmares and lower region revelations, than to paint simply the life around they had only to stretch out a hand to grasp. Yet with all their talk, in the humbler merits of colour, expression, and handling, they were miles behind Hogarth. He has been so praised as a satirist, there is a chance of his technical merits as a painter being overlooked. One only of the “Marriage a la Mode” pictures, for all that is really valuable in art, might be safely backed against all that was ever done by both Fuseli and Runciman put together. Yet they looked upon him as rather a bygone sort of creature—a barbarian blind to poetic art. Well, even a greater William, the playwriter, born at Stratford-on-Avon, was considerably underrated a century ago. Could William Hogarth have seen Fuseli’s works, I warrant he would have had something to say about them!

After a time, Runciman was back again at Pennyciuck. Perhaps his fervour about his subject had a little cooled, or the incessant discussions in regard to it undermined his faith; in fact, the Ossian swindle was getting to be in common phrase a little blown upon. His health was failing him; his mode of life had never been very careful; he fell ill; he neglected himself; he worked on steadily, but with a palpable failure of heart in the business. He achieved his task. Yet the painting of the great ceiling, to effect which he had to lie on his back in an almost painful position, brought on an illness from which he never fairly recovered. Some time he lingered, growing very pale and wan, and his strength giving way until he could barely crawl along. On the 21st of October, 1785, he fell down dead at the door of his lodgings in West Nicholson Street.

Four years more of life to Widow Hogarth—still, as ever, true to William and herself. Horace Walpole sought to buy forgiveness for his attack on the “Sigismunda,”—he called it a “maudlin fallen virago,”—by sending to the widow a copy of his “Anecdotes,” but she took no heed of him or his gift. Four years more, and then another interment in the Chiswick sepulchre. The widow’s earthly sorrows are at an end, and beneath the name of “William Hogarth, Esq.,” they now engrave on the stone, “Mistress Jane Hogarth, wife of William Hogarth, Esq. Obit. 13th of November, 1789. Ætat. 80 years.” In 1856, on the restoration of the monument which from the sinking of the earth threatened to fall in pieces, the grave was opened, and there were seen the “little” coffin of the painter and the larger coffin of his widow. There too was seen, literally, “the hand” Johnson wrote of in his projected epitaph:—

The hand of him here torpid lies,
That drew the essential forms of grace;
Here closed in death the attentive eyes,
That saw the manners in the face.

Dutton Cook.