William Hogarth (1697–1764) and book illustration I: Hudibras, Quixote and the Littlecote House murals

Katritzky, M. A. (2021). William Hogarth (1697–1764) and book illustration I: Hudibras, Quixote and the Littlecote House murals. Theatralia, 24(1) pp. 313–356.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5817/TY2021-1-28

Abstract

This article progresses long-term researches on Hogarth and book history, the iconography of the skimmington and transnational receptions of Don Quixote, by introducing a substantial new group of images potentially illuminating Hogarth's lost activities as a young painter, before he turned 30 in 1727. Astoundingly, no previous research-based study of them exists. Unknown to Hogarth specialists and dismissed by art historians, they are in the painted room at Littlecote House. Within a complex decorative scheme broadly referencing themes of human folly and the cabinet of curiosities, two walls feature floor to ceiling composite murals uniting numerous episodes from the publications most significant for Hogarth's early career as a book illustrator: Cervantes' Don Quixote and its most successful English derivation, Samuel Butler's Hudibras. Butler's book-length poem is exceptionally significant: Book-historically for its key role in copyright legislation and eighteenth-century British book illustration; arthistorically for its central role in the early career of Hogarth, who published two sets of engravings illustrating Hudibras in 1726. Local historians attribute the Littlecote murals to unidentified amateur Dutch painters, working in the 1660s (when Hudibras was first published). Archive-based evidence first presented here confirms their dating not to the 1660s but the 1720s and supports Hogarth's presence at Littlecote House around 1724. This work is heavily indebted to the exemplary scholarship of two landmark publications of 2016, Elizabeth Einberg's authoritative catalogue of Hogarth's paintings (all post-1726) and Peter Black's ground- -breaking exploration of Hogarth and house decoration. I here re-visit Hogarth's early practice of book illustration and house decoration with reference to a canon of pre-1800 Hudibras images, newly enlarged by situating the substantial Littlecote Hudibras mural within this context and its associated visual, literary and book historical traditions. With reference to the new images and evidence first presented here, I ask: Is Littlecote's painted room a rightly neglected pastiche? Or does it deserve closer scholarly attention? Perhaps even as an exceptional unrecognized British art treasure? Should Hogarth specialists now evaluate an entirely new possibility: whether the challenging pre-1727 gap in Hogarth's early career as a painter can be addressed by identifying his earliest paintings at Littlecote House? I must confess, I have but little hopes of having a favourable attention given to my design in general, by those who have already had a more fashionable introduction into the mysteries of the arts of painting, and sculpture. Much less do I expect, or in truth desire, the countenance of that set of people, who have an interest in exploding any kind of doctrine, that may teach us to see with our own eyes.

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